survival

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.