Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – the technical term for a chemical that gets released in the brain. You’ve no doubt heard of others like oxytocin (the cuddle chemical), serotonin (the one associated with contentment), and endorphins (which give you pain relief when you undertake activities like exercise or dancing). Dopamine is the most important neurochemical, however, as it is involved in everything from desire and reward to learning, habit formation, and goal-setting.
In some ways, dopamine gets a bad rap. It’s like “calories”: just as you can’t live without food, you can’t live without dopamine. That’s why the idea of a dopamine fast is foolish, but the idea that we should be more intentional about what we allow to trigger a dopamine response in us is on point. I call this Dopamine Mindfulness.
Another misconception is that dopamine is commonly referred to as the “pleasure chemical.” The reality is more nuanced. While it operates as the central part of the brain’s reward system, it’s more useful to think of it as a *reinforcement* mechanism. Dopamine motivates you to take action toward your goals, desires, and needs by giving you a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them.
The adverse effects of dopamine happen when the levels in your brain get out of balance. Too little dopamine in our system is an indication of depression and listlessness. Too much risks addiction and restlessness. We need just the right amount.
In the Stone Age, activities that produced dopamine release were rare and short-lived. Today, they are ubiquitous and endless because our smartphones are dopamine slot machines. From TikTok to Tinder, Roblox to Robinhood, To-Do Lists, and Fitness Trackers – they are all designed to deliver frequent and easy dopa bursts. Just as our bodies are not used to the copious amounts of sugar, salt, and fat in ultra-processed foods on offer today, our brains can’t handle the junk dopamine that these apps provide.
What’s worse, dopamine doesn’t just change our short-term emotional state; it actually rewires our brains. Not only does increased exposure to high levels of dopamine build up your tolerance to it – meaning that you need more of it to feel the same in the future – the brain changes shape through neuroplasticity. As the old neuroscience adage goes, “neurons that fire together wire together.” So that Candy Crush binge isn’t just killing your productivity: it’s also reshaping the way your brain operates.
This has profound consequences for your levels of happiness as well. While these dopaminergic activities might provide pleasant short-term distractions (much like junk food calories provide a brief energy spike), the longer-term price is high.
The brain and body strive to maintain balance through a process called “homeostasis.” This means that the brain will flood your body with pleasure chemicals after you experience pain (this is why hot food and cold showers feel “good”). But the reverse is also true: it will not allow an imbalance indefinitely, so too much pleasure will eventually lead to feelings of pain.
I’ll be writing more about dopamine in the weeks to come, but if you take away just one idea from this infographic, it should be this: the modern world is set up to hijack our dopamine response, so we need to become aware of what we allow to hook our brains and overwhelm our biology.