Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in our brain’s reward processing systems. When you do something that feels good, it’s usually because of an anticipatory or consummatory reward mediated by dopamine. (Passive feelings of good mood are more so regulated by another neurotransmitter, serotonin; good feelings involving others, such as love, are more strongly regulated by yet another neurotransmitter, oxytocin).
Anticipatory reward is the good feeling you get when moving towards a goal. Have you ever noticed that sometimes, the feeling of being about to achieve a milestone is more exciting than the feeling you get when you actually achieve it? Or perhaps the feeling of accomplishment is short-lived, and you quickly move on to your next goal?
You may wonder if you simply chose the wrong goal in the pursuit of happiness. But perhaps not. From an evolutionary perspective, your brain has every incentive to motivate you with good feelings as you progress towards your goal, but little incentive to keep rewarding you with happy chemicals once you achieve it. The anticipatory reward for another new goal is more exciting, from dopamine’s perspective.
That is not to say that achieving something never feels good. Rather, our brain rewards us with dopamine for consumption, too. That is why things taste good, for example. But the reward is short-lived. As soon as you swallow and deliver your brain the energy it desires, what more incentive does it have to keep you happy?
Anna Lembke, the author of Dopamine Nation and a professor of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University, describes how this consummatory reward is precisely what can lead to “couch potato syndrome.” If you are just laying down on the couch, you likely feel more or less neutral. But for the few seconds you chew on that potato chip, you receive a dopamine spike of consummatory reward.
It’s not just about the spike. Future dopamine reward is dependent on previous dopamine reward, where our nervous system wants more of that previous stimulus. This leads to both diminishing returns in our feeling of pleasure from the same repeated stimulus, and a dopamine dip if you suddenly lose access to that reward stimulus.
This is why couch potato syndrome can sustain itself even when you are no longer hungry. The first few bites elevate your mood slightly above neutral, and once your brain gets used to its mini-high, the dopamine dip of returning to neutral manifests as a craving for more.
Things get more pernicious when talking about forms of consummatory reward that hijack our brain’s pleasure system: drugs. Opioids, for example, form extremely strong bonds with inhibitory neurons, blocking the firing that normally tells our brains to stop producing dopamine. We become flooded with much more positive emotion than would ever be natural—remember, dopamine is meant to be fine-tuned, so as to reward you just the right amount to keep you in pursuit of your goal.
Drugs aren’t a problem because they make people feel good. Drugs are a problem when they cause addiction, narrowing our dopamine sources to one destructure behavior, drug use, and disrupting our incentive to enjoy the normal pleasures of life.
Behavioral Dopamine Rewards
Just as our brains were not evolved to keep up with the massive dopamine spikes caused by opioids, evolution has not prepared us for the abundance of pleasure that exists in the world today.
We evolved to receive spikes in pleasure when eating naturally sugary foods, such as fruit, because of their high energy content. Fruit cannot compete with the amount of sugar (and thus, dopamine reward) of modern processed foods, such as candy and ice cream. Of course unhealthy treats make us feel better (in the short term). Our brains were designed to maximize our incentive for calorically-rich foods.
Similarly, it is much more gratifying to sit down and play a game on your phone or browse social media than it is to pour a large amount of effort into a long-term goal. We feel as if we are achieving something meaningful when we watch the points go up on the game. We feel as if we are receiving in-person validation when we receive a like on a post. Why would we toil away for some dopamine later when we can have a lot more now?
It is not a bad thing that we have evolved to chase the greatest sources of dopamine in our lives. We evolved this way because it is adaptive. What is unadaptive is when we receive artificially high hits of dopamine from things that are genuinely not good for us.
Lembke advocates for practicing dopamine resets in our lives, to get back to our natural baseline of incentive. For example, if you cut out all sugar for a month, eating a piece of fruit would suddenly give you a large spike of consummatory reward. But conversely, if all you ate was candy, fruit would hardly taste sweet at all. And the simple joys of life may be a little dull, as well.
Dopamine keeps us craving short-term pleasures, but it doesn’t have to. Eliminating, or even taking periodic breaks, from short-term pleasures in our lives, can allow us to feel more reward from the pursuit of long-term goals.
This is, essentially, the neurological basis for how practicing delayed gratification can be the key to happiness.