How to Hack Your Dopamine and Enjoy Life
The dopamine war has one loser — you. Learn to fight back.
I was born in 1999. I am young enough to remember the time before smartphones.
Technology had already enabled global connectivity. We had TVs, phones (for calls and messages only), computers and the Internet to some extent.
But everything still felt under control. I was in control. I could check the Facebook notifications when I wanted to switch on the PC. Not when Facebook wanted to inform me.
But the control did not last for long. On my 15th birthday, my parents gifted me a tablet. I installed Facebook on the device and before I knew it, I saw the first mobile notification ever.
It seemed great. I did not have to wait until my next login to know who liked my photo. The device did that for me.
But little did I realize that my time was not in my control.
And most people still don’t.
After the advent of smartphones, a whole new array of applications came into being. The world started fighting for our attention.
Every company aims to provide the greatest dopamine hit to its users.
That is what gets us hooked.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not here to criticize Facebook or any other platform. It is a capitalistic economy.
Every person and every company will do what is best for them. They cannot avoid it.
Facebook has to do everything to get me hooked to the platform. For without it, they won’t exist. Gaming companies talk openly about creating compulsion loops to keep users coming back.
But it is also in my interest to preserve my own time and attention.
After realizing how all this was harmful, I decided to step back from them.
I uninstalled social media apps from my phone and disabled notifications.
I thought it would do the trick. But it didn’t.
There is never a time when new distractions will not show up; we sow them, and so several will grow from the same seed — Seneca
Turns out Seneca was right. While blocking apps did help, it did not cure my desire for distraction. Now and then the urges to check email, messages, and social media are present.
There was always a distraction. No matter where I worked.
And so the damage was deeper than I could imagine.
It was around this time when I started meditating.
I did not start meditation because I wanted to avoid distractions. I did it out of interest.
Over time I made significant progress with meditation. Because not only was I better at avoiding distractions, but I was also better at enjoying life.
I wondered why this was happening. Was there a scientific reason behind it?
I wanted to explore this in detail.
Turns out, there’s plenty of research on the topic. And all things had one thing in common — dopamine.
Study after study revealed the key role of dopamine in every aspect of life. Addictions, distractions, happiness, productivity, and focus were all somehow linked to it.
It’s called the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters by Vaughn Bell. He says,
The Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, it gives instant appeal to listless reporting and gives editors an excuse to drop some booty on the science pages.
So, What’s Dopamine?
Time for some neuroscience!
Your brain consists of special cells called neurons. The neurons have a small gap between them called the synapse. They communicate through chemical neurotransmitters and action potentials. Through action potentials, a neuron releases a chemical neurotransmitter. This gets attached to the receptors on another neuron.
In the above example, dopamine is a kind of chemical neurotransmitter. The receptors on other neurons that dopamine attaches to are called, well, dopamine receptors!
The main purpose of dopamine is to enable us to move, speak, and feel pleasure.
Let’s understand that in more detail.
The brain produces dopamine in 2 regions. The Substantia Nigra and the Ventral Tegmental Area.
The dopamine released by substantia nigra helps us to move and speak. The lack of it causes Parkinson’s disease (a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement).
Whereas, the ventral tegmental area only releases dopamine when you’re expecting a reward.
This leads to the reinforcement of behavior i.e. formation of habits. These habits, can be bad (addictions) or good (going to the gym).
Monkeys and Dopamine
In the video below, Robert Sapolsky explains dopamine spikes in monkeys. The researchers trained the monkeys to expect a reward after pressing a lever or seeing a visual cue.
The dopamine of the monkey goes up every time he expects the food to come out. The expectation of a favorable outcome causes him to repeat the action. This is key in producing goal-directed behavior.
But when the probability of getting the reward drops to 50%, the dopamine goes through the roof. Because there’s now an element of uncertainty. Or as Sapolsky says, “It introduces the word ‘maybe’ in the equation. And ‘maybe’ is addictive like nothing else out there.”
This makes sense about why gambling can be addictive.
What’s unique about humans is that we can keep dopamine levels high for a long time until we receive a reward. When you work on a long project, you don’t get the reward soon. But still, you toil away at the possibility of reward somewhere down the line.
How we’ve damaged our dopamine system — a distracted mind is an unhappy mind
With the help of technology, everything has become instantaneous.
Technology has its advantages. But most people cannot handle the distractions that come along with it.
This makes boredom impossible. You can catch up with a friend, watch a video, scroll through Instagram and send a tweet out. All under 1 minute.
When we have access to such a wide range of activities to do, how can we get bored?
Thus, we fill every moment with something.
We all know that it makes us restless and burnout in the long run. But there is an even subtle aspect to it.
Every distraction gives you a quick dopamine hit. When you get enough hits, you get addicted to the behavior. Like the monkey who’s addicted to pressing the lever to get the juice.
But all that is fine if you return to your work after 15 minutes of Facebook, right?
No. Due to excessive indulgence in distractions, you need more dopamine to make you happy. And you need it fast.
This is why drug addicts need more of the substance over time to get high.
Your life or work most likely isn’t going to give you that instant dopamine spike. Yes, you get it when you achieve a goal. But anything worth doing is tough and requires willpower to get through.
But since you destroyed your capacity to derive pleasure from it, you cannot focus on it anymore. Life is not enough. It becomes dull.
This is not limited to drug addicts. Whether you’re addicted to drugs, porn, social media, or the internet in general — they all have the same effect
Compound interest is the 8th wonder of the world — Einstein
All your habits compound over time. If you have habits of distraction, you’ll keep getting even more distracted over time.
If you have habits of productivity and getting things done, you’ll get more things done over time. That is why the rich keep getting richer — it is the law of compounding.
Imagine how you have distracted yourself over so many years. You wasted time during that moment. But you also damaged your ability to work on challenging tasks in the future.
Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work writes a complete chapter titled, “Embrace Boredom”. He says,
In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing — something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies that you can transform your working life from distracted to focus if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your ‘mental muscle’
This is my favorite insight,
Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously ween your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom
Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to sit and stare at the wall. But it makes a strong case to develop a capacity for boredom.
If your brain is habituated to receiving dopamine kicks every second of the day, you cannot focus on work. It becomes difficult to sustain tasks that do not give instant-gratification.
An experiment shows how people would rather shock themselves than be alone. Researchers put people in a room for 15 minutes without any stimuli. No devices, books, pens or notepads. They only had their minds to entertain themselves. All the room had was a red button that would give an electric shock when pressed. 67% of men and 25% of women chose to press the button.
Excessive indulgence in distractions damages the dendrites in the prefrontal cortex. These dendrites contain dopamine receptors. Without the receptors, you cannot experience the feel-good effects of dopamine.
So, you increased your chances of getting distracted. But you also decreased your chances of focusing again.
Okay, so what should I do
I’m glad you asked ;)
A quick google search can reveal ways to boost dopamine in the brain. These include getting enough sleep, exercising, getting sunlight, eating protein and supplements.
But I want to talk about the one that has been most effective for me. (I haven’t tried supplements)
Meditation and Dopamine
I am surprised about how many people have the wrong idea of meditation. They think of it as clearing the mind.
Some even say that it is about relaxation. While prevalent ideas may be true in some respects, they present a very narrow view of meditation.
The aim of meditation is Self-Realization. To realize the presence of God or your Higher Self.
Thus, meditation can be ecstatic and pleasurable more than it is relaxing. First, you practice it enough to still your mind in the whirlwind of thoughts. Then you can transcend to experience these ecstatic states.
These states are often called “Altered State of Consciousness (ASC)”
This research reports that regular meditators have a 65% increase in endogenous dopamine. The joy experienced by participants was so high that they did not feel a need to take any action whatsoever. This means they were content enough that they felt no need for performing any task to get a reward.
The study highlights how the subjects can generate dopamine without taking any action.
Taking this further, another study analyzed the brain of a Buddhist meditator. He learned Jhana meditation from Sri Lanka. He had amassed 6000 hours of meditation for over 17 years. The researchers used fMRIs and EEGs to report their findings. Quoting the researchers,
“Jhana meditations consist of a set of 8 sequential practices that were first codified by Buddhists over 2000 years ago. All are reported to be ecstatic, in that they generate great joy while in an ASC (Altered State of Conciousness) that is** dissociated from** external cues or stimuli.” (emphasis mine)
In the first stage, J1, the subject described the joy greater than a sexual orgasm. You can see the other stages in the diagram below.
The graph relates our awareness of external stimuli and our happiness levels.
As the subject progresses in states of Jhana, the vigilance reduces. Joy is greatest during the first three stages.
It shows how the subject was able to increase dopamine in the brain without any external cues.
Let’s also explore how meditators can also downregulate their negative emotion. This manages their reactions to unexpected situations.
Studies refer to this as feedback-related negativity (FRN). It occurs when external feedback indicates that our performance was worse than expected. Researchers have measured FRN in various contexts like monetary loss and loss in simple games.
Everyone has a baseline of dopamine in our system. The higher the baseline, the happier we are. And, the better we can handle stress.
Paul Knytl and Bertram Opitz helped to figure this out. They studied 35 people as a part of their experiment. (12 non-meditators, 12 novice meditators, and 11 expert meditators.)
The subjects were to choose from pairs of Japanese hiragama letters. They gave positive/negative feedback after each choice. But the feedback was probabilistic. For example from a pair of AB, if you choose A then you get positive feedback 80% of the time. Choosing B gives you positive feedback for 20% of the time. Similar pairs included CD, EF, etc.
This was the training phase.
The aim here is to see how the subjects are learning:
Are they learning to avoid “B”
Or, are they learning to choose “A”
Note that both lead to the desired answer but the approach differs. It depends on whether a person learns from positive or negative reinforcement.
To test this, researchers presented the subject with novel pairs like AC or BD. In this phase, they were not given any feedback. The accuracy of their choice determined their feedback response in the previous step.
After gathering behavioral data, the researchers measured the feedback-learning bias (FLB). A positive score indicates that subjects learned from positive reinforcement. Negative FLB indicates otherwise.
Results showed that meditators had a higher score than non-meditators. The more a person has meditated, the higher their FLB was.
Further, studying the EEG data revealed lower FRNs for meditators as compared to non-meditators. And it reduces with an increase in the meditation experience of the participant.
In conclusion, the study posits a correlation between meditation and dopamine levels. It also theorizes an increase in dopamine receptors (D2) that lead to better moods and a lower FRN.
I mention meditation as the best cure for this because that is what has worked for me. I would suggest starting with 5–10 minutes twice a day. If you feel comfortable, you can extend this during short idle moments throughout the day.
For example, if a file that you need is being downloaded, sit still and focus on your breath. Avoid the urge to fill it with web surfing and email checking. You can do this in similar situations like waiting in a queue, commuting, driving, and so on.
I understand that meditation and mindfulness may not be a magic bullet. Along with meditation, there has to be a strong effort to discipline yourself. The aim should be to restrict impulsive behaviors as much as possible.
Concentrating attention for 15 minutes a day during meditation is not going to solve your attention problems. You have to focus throughout the day and be intentional about where you spend your attention.
Here are some tips and tactics
Avoid multitasking and work on one thing at a time.
Ritualize — Make rituals to aid your work. Like going to a nearby coffee shop at a specific time, taking a walk before you sit to work, drinking a cup of coffee. It could be anything. Once you decide on a ritual, it will trick you into working even when you don’t have enough willpower. All famous artists have routines, as summarised by Mason Curry. Here’s an example — Beethoven used to get up at dawn, waste some time having his coffee, work until 2 or 3 pm and then go for a vigorous walk. He spent evenings away from work either reading or at the theatre. He retired to bed latest by 10.
Flow Triggers — There are 17 triggers that you can use to induce a flow state. These include clear goals, immediate feedback, novelty, high consequences, etc. For example, you can use a friend to provide feedback on stuff that you write. You can experience a touch of novelty by going to a different coffee shop. Or you can put high social/emotional/physical risks to complete the work — like giving 100 bucks to a friend if you don’t meet your deadline. All these triggers drive focus in the present moment and push you to the finish line.
Accountability — Have an accountability buddy. For example, I use basecamp along with my co-founder. We have automatic check-ins to post what we worked on today. Every Sunday we post our objectives for the coming week. It creates social pressure to aid productivity.
Deliberate, Quality Rest — Instead of scrolling through Netflix, aim for activities that you enjoy. Rejuvenate yourself with a spa or a swim. Get outside for a walk. Play some sports. Do anything to rest actively and recharge your battery regularly.
Pareto and Parkinson’s Law — Pareto says, “20% of the effort contributes to 80% of the result.” This means you should prioritize your tasks to finish your work faster. Parkinson says, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This means challenging yourself to finish in a short time increases your productivity. Try both of them next time and see the results yourself.
The Most Important Part
Recognize that constant distraction is a problem.
Everything may be good in your life right now. You may be satisfied with your work. And you may not feel to make radical changes to your work habits to improve your focus.
But things don’t stay easy forever. One day you’ll need your focus to work on something challenging. And when that moment comes you’ll find yourself unable to work.
If you realize and fix it now, it will serve you forever.
Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels In an age of instant gratification and limited attention spans, why would anyone take up meditation? Perhaps for its…plasticbrainblog.com Meditation and Yoga can Modulate Brain Mechanisms that affect Behavior and Anxiety-A Modern… Meditation and Yoga techniques are receiving increased attention throughout the world, due to the accumulation of…www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: neurotransmitter and neurochemical… Med Hypotheses. 2003 Aug;61(2):282–91. Reviewwww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2002 Apr;13(2):255–9. Clinical Trial; Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov’twww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov Meditation adapts the brain to respond better to feedback Participants in the study, a mixture of experienced, novice and non-meditators, were trained to select images…www.surrey.ac.uk
Are you serious about becoming the best version of yourself? Get your free 5-day email course to Master The Art Of Personal Transformation