Dopamine: Friend or Foe? – Part 1

Are you a drug addict?  I’m not just talking about the illegal or illicit kinds but also drugs like tobacco, sugar, alcohol and prescription painkillers?  Do you like how they make you feel?  Our society frowns on drug use – especially the illegal kind – so we don't like to admit to being addicted to drugs – even the legal ones.

That said, I have bad news for you: even if you really don't enjoy drugs – legal or not – you are a serious drug addict.  I would even argue that every human (and lots of animals too) is a drug addict.  In fact, we are so addicted to one drug in particular that we would rather have it than eat.  That drug is, interestingly, one we create ourselves.  It’s a drug called dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical the brain releases when we gain information or do something that promotes our growth, survival and reproduction.  When it is released, we get excited or euphoric.  It's the feeling we get when we win a game, make a successful investment, find something new and interesting, get a great deal at a store, eat chocolate cake, drink alcohol, experience sex or fall in love.  It’s one of the best feelings we can have and nearly everything we do is so that we can experience that feeling.  It is so powerful that rats will starve if given the choice between taking straight dopamine and eating food.

This is what I mean when I say that we are drug addicts. 

And, just like addicts, we are slaves to dopamine because our desire for the feeling it gives dictates nearly everything we do and resisting that urge is incredibly difficult.  What do you reach for first when you are sad: chocolate cake or salad?  How often have you chosen the wrong mate just because of how you “feel” about him or her?  Have you ever made a bad investment because it sounded “incredible” – only to find that it really was too good to be true?  Ever yell at your staff or partner rather than try to understand them?  Of course these may not be true for you but you can see where I’m going with this: we make decisions based on how we feel rather than how it will serve us in the long run.  One big reason we make these decisions is because of the dopamine rush we get out of them.  

This is why most people would rather eat “bad” food over “healthy,” watch action flicks over documentaries, elect candidates that get them excited instead of those who have sound policies, command employees over leading them, and risk everything on questionable investments over making a reasonable financial plan that will grow money slowly over time.  The reason we make these choices is because we enjoy the dopamine rush we get from them.  

So, now that I have shown that you are drug addict, let me assure you that you can use this knowledge to make dopamine work for you instead of the other way around.  First, remember that you love dopamine and that you make decisions to get that dopamine hit.  Admit that you are addicted to this drug and relax – everyone else is, too.

With this in mind, you can make more beneficial life choices.  You can choose life options that you are relatively sure will give you both the dopamine and improve your life.  For example: have you ever chosen an unenjoyable job because it paid well?  I know I have.  Even though I had a better income, I hated getting up in the mornings and didn't do my best.  I had to drag myself to work every day and either quit unhappy or messed up enough to get fired.  If I, like so many, had “stuck it out” at those jobs, I’m sure I would be miserable now. 

I had made a bad life choice based on the money and not on the enjoyment I would have gotten from the work I did.  In other words, I had chosen a job that didn't give me experiences that caused my brain to produce dopamine.  I wasn't getting my fix at work and my results showed this lack.

That’s why, when faced with choosing between a job that gives you a high salary but isn’t so interesting, and one that will be enjoyable but may not be so lucrative take the enjoyable one because you will get more dopamine working there.  Doing an enjoyable job makes you feel good, will cause you to jump out of bed in the mornings, improve your performance, and might get you promoted faster – thereby getting a higher salary.  All the while, your brain will reward you with dopamine because you are doing something exciting.

Sounds pretty good, right?

So, remember that you love dopamine and, like an addict, you sometimes make bad decisions based on getting that good feeling.  Remember also, though, that you can use this addiction to your advantage by choosing things that you know will make you feel good and will also be beneficial to your life.

Next time I will explain how you can make dopamine your servant to achieve your dreams and have fun in the process.

What I Do

Have you ever told a friend or family member about something you wanted to achieve?  How did it go?  Did they give you encouragement or advice?  I hope they didn't say: “That’s impossible!  You can’t do that.”

Whether they are supportive or discouraging, others often share advice.  Sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it isn’t; but in the end, whether we listen to it or not is up to us.  This is the way most of us work to improve our lives: gather information, evaluate effectiveness and implement the best plan. 

The problem is that it doesn't usually go so smoothly.

Let’s say you decide to lose weight and read an article where an expert tells you to give up your morning donut and vanilla latte.  Sounds reasonable, right?  There are lots of calories in that combo and taking that off your plate will really help.  The problem is that you LOVE your vanilla latte and donut.  It makes your mornings bearable.

Do you think you are going to follow this expert’s advice?  My guess is that most of us would valiantly try only to abandon it as soon as we had “bad” morning and “needed” our treat again.  I know I would.

This is also the way most therapists, coaches and consultants work.  They use suggestions as a way to induce change.  It goes something like this: you have a goal and doing X, Y and Z will get you there.  They provide you with reasonable and rational suggestions to move you forward and it is your job to implement them. 

The problem is that very little of our decision-making is rational. Most of our decisions are irrational and subconscious.  You might be getting great suggestions, but most of them will be difficult to implement unless your irrational mind agrees.  Rationally, it’s a no-brainer that giving up so many calories will help you lose weight, but your irrational mind – which is like a child – doesn't care: it wants what it wants and it wants it now.  It takes a LOT of mental discipline to make the irrational mind do something it doesn’t want.

Think of it like an iceberg.  What is the best way to move one?  Considering that 90% of an iceberg is underwater, pushing the above-water part might get some movement, but mostly it will just rotate the iceberg around in the same spot.  Pushing the underwater part, however, moves the top as well.

We are like that iceberg.  Our rational mind is the small part above the water and the rest is our subconscious.  It’s easy to rationally decide something, but it takes a lot of work get anywhere with it.  Move your subconscious, however, and your conscious experience effortlessly goes with it.

This is where I do my work: on the level of the irrational, or subconscious mind.  To achieve their goals, I do my best not to tell clients what to do or how to do it.  Instead, I help them work with their subconscious mind to propel them in the direction they desire. 

Working with me, clients come up with their own ideas, perspectives and excitement of how and what to do to get where they want to go.  This really makes a difference because what they decide comes from that irrational mind and, like I said before, when the irrational mind wants something, it’s hard to stop. 

Would you be able to do that thing you’ve always dreamed about if it felt fun instead of scary?  How would your company function if your staff loved coming to work?  Could you lose weight if a salad sounded more satisfying than the vanilla latte and donut?  You can push to make these things happen, but it’s much easier if your subconscious helps.

This is what I do: I provide an experience that allows clients to coordinate their conscious and subconscious goals.  Whether it is losing weight, getting fit, finding that dream job or reorganizing a company; getting the subconscious mind on board makes it much easier to achieve your dreams.

So, how do I accomplish this?  What do I do to get the subconscious working with you?  Next time I will explain it using sumo, roller derby and curling.