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The Double Edged Sword of Dopamine

If someone were to ask you, "what makes you happy?", there are any number of viable responses you might give: Being with your family, winning a basketball game, getting a promotion at work, solving a rubik's cube, and countless other possible responses. However, the unifying variable in many of these responses is the neurotransmitter that gets released in your brain when you experience these (and other) types of experiences: dopamine. Dopamine makes you feel happy. Dopamine makes you feel good. This little neurotransmitter has become an essential fixture in our brains to help ensure our growth and survival.

Ok, great, so dopamine makes you feel good. What's with the "double edged sword?" To understand the the role dopamine has, we must first understand what dopamine does in the brain. Andrew Huberman, the Stanford University neuroscientist, notes that dopamine is "like a propeller", driving our sense of motivation, desire, and pursuit. Anything that reinforces that movement, anything that makes you feel you are moving in the direction of your desired goals, that results in the release of dopamine. That positive feeling you get from dopamine helps maintain the pursuit of whatever desired outcomes one is moving towards. However, since dopamine feels good, we may find ourselves perpetually seeking the next "hit" of dopamine. This relentless pursuit of pleasure, our desire to be saturated with dopamine, can ultimately drive maladaptive behaviors.

Despite living in an age where our wellness metrics are significantly improved compared to several decades ago, we are nonetheless more depressed, more anxious, and more addicted than we were in the past. Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist and Stanford Medical School professor, notes that the elements that make a substance addictive, also drive our dopamine responses, notably, the attribues of access, quantity, potency, and novelty. She notes this specifically in the domains of social media where scrolling pictures or videos, which are catered by algorothms to target specific emotional and neurological responses, promotes a dopamine response that resembles that of the addicted brain. Similar processes result in maladaptive consumption of pornography, binge eating, gambling, and many other behaviors. All because of this little neurotransmitter that makes us feel good when we feel we are moving in the direction of our goals.

But there is a point of saturation with dopamine. There is an interesting phenomenon called hedonic adaptation, in which, after exposure to a partoicular stimulus, positive or negative, we gradually adjust to this new reality and return to a baseline of affect. Put simply, you get used to something and it becomes normal. There was a fascinating study done in 1978 by Philip Brickman who wanted to study this very question. He looked at recent lottery winners and individuals who sustained serious injury to examine what happened to their life satisfaction. In an expected finding, those who won the lottery experienced a sharp increase in their life satisfaction and those who suffered a serious injury experienced a sharp decrease in their life satisfaction. However, in the months that followed, the lottery winners and survivors of serious injury gradually returned to their baseline life satisfaction. Those who had higher baseline levels of life satisfaction before these life events continued to experience higher life satisfaction, and those who had lower baseline levels of life satisfaction continued to experience lower levels of life satisfaction, regardless of whether they were the lottery winners or survivors of serious injury.

This principle of hedonnic adaptation continues to drive many of our lived experiences. Have you ever thought, "if only I made more money", or "if only my house was a bigger", or "if only my spouse was better looking", then I'd be heppy. The truth is, yes, you'd be happier, for a bit. Then you'd adjust to that new normal and it would stop eliciting a dopamine response. Then you'd need a new experience that moves you in the "right" direction to get a new dopamine surge, and the dance continues.

What now? What do I do with this information. For one thing, nothing. The dopamine reward system is a hardwired system in the brain that has allowed the humas species (and other vertebrates) to survive for eons. That's not going anywhere. You're not going to "out think" your dopaminergic pathways. However, by being aware of what we are pursuing and the reactions our brain and body have, we can become more intentional with the choices we make and the directions and movements we want to go in. By tuning into our values, a central fixture in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we are not simply a stimulus-response reaction that drives our choices, but a mindful and intentional actor (or "ACT"er) in the pursuit of meaning and fulfillment.


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