Many people have heard that dopamine is responsible for feelings of reward, but that’s only part of a highly complex system. The dopamine system developed to motivate us to seek things that have a cost or risk to attain. Evolutionarily, this included hunting for food, getting water, or gathering information. Dopamine motivates us to do things that we wouldn’t do for fun but are essential to survival. Because it works to motivate us, it is responsible for feelings of agitation (e.g., craving) as well as reward.
Our dopamine system maintains a balance over time. When we are at a healthy base level of dopamine, we feel an agitation that makes us motivated and focused on pursuing goals. When we achieve a goal, we have a surge of dopamine. The bigger the achievement, the bigger the surge. But there is a downside. Whenever dopamine surges above baseline, it must balance by dropping below baseline. The bigger the surge, the bigger the drop. This dopamine balance is why people sometimes feel unmotivated and lost after achieving a big goal. Low levels of dopamine inhibit our ability to feel motivated and focused.
The dopamine balance is critical to understand now that we live in a world of excess. We no longer need a healthy base level of dopamine to get sufficient motivation to eat, get water, or gather information to survive. Plus, it’s easy to create a surge of dopamine from abundant, enjoyable things, like highly-palatable foods, caffeine, or social media. This reward without the cost or risk of pursuit is bad for our dopamine balance. When our dopamine balance gets out of sync, addiction can start. Dopamine addiction results from feeling unmotivated (i.e., being below baseline) but still getting surges of dopamine (i.e., that drive baseline even lower). People with dopamine addiction report feeling burnt out and unable to focus, to the point that it is sometimes confused with ADHD.
Luckily, our body is always trying to return to baseline. If we give it the tools and time it needs, we will maintain a healthy dopamine base level that helps us feel motivated and excited to pursue even highly challenging goals. Here are the tools I use to manage my dopamine.
Rule 1: I limit dopamine for 12 hours daily.
We have some control over our dopamine balance because dopamine is tied to our subjective experience. Whether we like something affects how much dopamine is released in response to it. For example, exercise can double dopamine release above baseline if you like it, or it can have no effect if you don’t. Full dopamine restriction is too intense for a daily routine for me, but for at least 12 hours a day (including overnight), I am mindful of how much I engage in rewarding activities. For me, it’s easiest to do this for the first 3 hours of the day and an hour before bedtime, approximately 9pm-9am. This means that I don’t check my phone (and get information without seeking it), eat or drink anything other than water, and use intermittent reward schedules for anything that stacks dopamine sources (like exercise and listening to music), which connects to the next rule.
Rule 2: I am mindful of stacking multiple sources of dopamine simultaneously.
Dopamine is shared among all pleasurable behaviors, so different activities can cumulatively contribute to dopamine surges. For example, eating while watching TV, scrolling social media while at a restaurant, or taking stimulants like caffeine before exercise are stacking multiple sources of dopamine, contributing to larger dips below baseline. If you still want to combine these activities, an interesting way to blunt this surge is to use an intermittent schedule for whether you’re allowed to stack activities. Because you release dopamine when you expect to enjoy something, if you don’t expect to do an activity, then you save yourself some dopamine. For instance, I flip a coin for whether I’m allowed to listen to music while I exercise because I know those are both things I enjoy.
Rule 3: I make it harder to access novel information.
Social media can be addicting because it provides us with novel information without requiring us to put in effort to get it. Both surprising information and new information that reinforces our beliefs trigger our reward pathway. To a lesser extent, email, newsfeeds, and text messages give us the same novel information reward without requiring effort to attain it. To balance the effortlessness of these sources of information, I make it harder to access the platforms that provide it. As a result, I log out of social media each time I use it, so I have to take multiple steps to access it again. For my email, I don’t keep it pulled up throughout the day, and I have it only on my computer, not my phone. I also keep my phone in a separate room and check it only periodically. These practices keep me from getting new information, and dopamine, when I’m not seeking it. I also take a similar approach with food because it’s easy to attain. I have to finish my morning writing before lunch and finish my work for the day before dinner. Because it’s all the same effort/reward system, it doesn’t really matter that writing has nothing to do with lunch. Writing is just a proxy for the effort required to get lunch.
For more information about dopamine, see this podcast between Tom Bilyeu and Andrew Huberman. Andrew Huberman provides a lot of great information and actionable tools about balancing dopamine across various podcasts and on the Huberman Lab Podcast.
This is the last post in the recovery section of the series. For other topics, return to the wellness series page.