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Earn your dopamine release

It’s too easy. I just stop looking at my work for a second to check my phone. A notification pops up. I click on it. After viewing my notifications, I want to put off work just a little longer. So eventually, I think to myself: why not check on some Celtics or Patriots news? Then, a minute break suddenly turns to 20 minutes of completely wasted time. I look up from my phone and realize what I’ve done. I feel disappointed and try to get back to work. Now, a question I’ve had a tough time addressing is why I continue this vicious cycle when I know exactly where it will lead me. Thanks to a podcast hosted by Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, with guest Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Stanford, I finally have discovered a scientific explanation of why we are inclined to waste time and ways to address it.

Think about the moments leading up to watching your favorite show or listening to the same playlist you love so much. The anticipation builds in your mind, and you probably feel a little excited. Then, you watch the show or listen to the music and it’s enjoyable as you’re doing it. However, the experience itself generally does not beat the anticipation. Once you stop watching, especially if you over-did it, you will probably feel a little down. This is all part of the dopamine cycle. The anticipation of an event raises your dopamine levels, then after it’s all said and done, your dopamine dips below baseline levels, causing a low feeling. This cycle is a leading cause of addiction in the form of drugs or even social media. In the podcast, cocaine was used as an example. When an individual uses cocaine, there is an immediate dopamine release followed by a harsh low below baseline. So, to get out of the low state and reach that high again, an addict will keep taking cocaine. A major problem with this form of dopamine release is that there is next to no sacrifice involved in attaining it. If a person wants to feel this high, he or she simply must pay for cocaine and use it. The dopamine release is too easily accessible, which causes a reliance on the drug.

Now, this issue leads into the question: What form of dopamine release should we strive for? While I wouldn’t say there is a set-in-stone ideal action we should take, Huberman and Peterson agreed that choosing activities that require some sort of sacrifice and lead toward a goal are best. It can range from higher-level goals to smaller ones. Say you want to be in great shape down the road. This means you will have to sacrifice time and effort exercising day in and day out. In that exercise, you will experience a healthy dopamine release and still have a goal to look forward to and chase as you slowly attain good health. You could also just want a clean room. So if you vacuum and do your laundry, you will enjoy a dopamine release for completing your task. In addition, you will receive the benefits of a clean room and continue enjoying releases of dopamine if you maintain its cleanliness over time. The combination of goal-setting and dopamine can also explain in part why healthier foods may taste better as you age. As a kid, eating vegetables serves no greater purpose to you and just tastes bad. However, when you are older, it is easier to view things from a deeper lens and see how vegetables lead to good health. Since your goal is no longer just good-tasting food, eating healthy is a sacrifice that leads to your larger purpose and allows you to feel the dopamine releases along the path. This creates a positive association between healthy food and how it makes you feel that did not exist as a child.

So, at this point, I’ve made a clear distinction between the positive releases of dopamine (those requiring sacrifice pointing towards a positive goal) and negative ones (easily achieved with virtually no sacrifice required at all). I think it’s great to shoot for as much of the positive side as you can, but there will have to be balance if you’re trying to shift your habits. Sticking to a long-term outlook sounds great on the surface, but it’s difficult to sustain a prolonged focus on the future without giving any attention to the desire for short-term dopamine release. To properly toe this line, you can regulate your quick releases of dopamine instead of eliminating them entirely. For example, if you have a sweet tooth and want a better diet, you could consider allowing some treats with your friends on the weekends. This could help you avoid burnout on your diet while mixing in a quick release of dopamine with a positive long-term goal of strengthening your relationships. Regardless of how you approach it, taking control of your addictions, big or small, and regulating them in a positive, repeatable manner can aid in controlling your releases of dopamine.

With that said, I urge you to take control of your dopamine cycles. Instead of allowing your dopamine spikes and lows to control you, set goals and plans that allow for healthier, sustained releases of dopamine.

Mikey Colgan is a sophomore from Boston majoring in finance and ACMS. He can be reached at mcolgan2@nd.edu.

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