The levels of satisfaction people report across many wealthy countries is now lower than ever. This is despite the fact that we have comforts even kings of yore wouldn’t dream of. I see it everywhere around me - people who are a few years into their careers and seem to have ‘given up’, complain about always being tired, busy, unmotivated and overall feeling pretty crap and then feeling bad about feeling bad. Sounds familiar?
Though of course reasons for such feelings highly depend on the individual’s circumstances, I do think there are also underlying biological mechanisms at play that help accentuate the self-perceived lack of wellbeing. I recently spent about a month in the Himalayas, off the grid, and returned much happier than I have been for a long time. Over the past month, I dug into what could be behind such a profound shift my deep dive is clearly pointing to the shift having a lot to do with my dopamine system.
In an effort to learn more myself and keep myself accountable (and perhaps help some of you), I decided to write a series focusing on dopamine and its effects on our wellbeing followed by deep dives into tools and approaches available to balance your dopamine, so you feel better – experience greater energy, drive, motivation and so on.
This is part I of the series, where I look into foundational stuff about dopamine and its effects on your wellbeing.
Dopamine is a molecule in the brain that has a major role in determining how we feel - ranging from feeling motivated and engaged (higher dopamine) to sluggish and unmotivated (lower dopamine). Dopamine is related to striving and seeking behaviour, and is closely associated with how energetic you feel, as it is apart of the chemical pathway to adrenaline, which is responsible for the feeling of energy.
The effect of dopamine is profound, as demonstrated by studies where mice are genetically engineered to be unable to produce dopamine. Such mice will not even bother to move a few centimetres to obtain food that they ordinarily highly desire (chocolate). Without dopamine they have no ability to motivate themselves and initiate action—even for something so crucial as getting food.
Similarly, when people are experiencing low levels of dopamine, they report feeling sluggish, "low" and unmotivated to do anything. People who are experiencing higher levels of dopamine are more likely to take action, feel motivated, and have more energy.
Note that this is a very simplified explanation and dopamine has a wide variety of effects and functions in the body. I highly recommend that you check out the references page and listen/read more about the topic.
You can think of dopamine as a molecule that always plays a role in determining what you do - if you read or watch YouTube, whether you have a piece of cake, if you apply for that job, go for a run and so on. Therefore, dopamine is involved in most of your day. In a very simplified way you can think of your the brain having some base level of dopamine and the behaviour you engage in (or could engage in) and substances you ingest will lead to a change in dopamine levels.
The impact of behaviours/events on your dopamine level is context-dependent.For instance, if you receive an unexpected prize for your report, your dopamine level will spike significantly more than if you anticipated the prize.
There are activities that lead to very high releases in dopamine (as long as you subjectively perceive those as pleasurable) such as video games, porn and sugary or very flavourful foods but even physical exercise.
Other activities and substances have an outsized effect on the dopamine level. These are substances like alcohol, cocaine or amphetamine that interact with the dopamine pathway more directly and have an especially profound effect.
See here^ for a few examples and approximate % above baseline that dopamine levels increase by as a result of ingesting the substance/engaging in that behaviour. All figures are taken from Dr Lembke’s excellent book Dopamine Nation: How to Find Balance in the Age of Indulgence.
Processing of pleasure and pain occurs in overlapping brain regions, creating a delicate balance. Imagine a scale with a fulcrum in the middle. The scale is level with the ground when nothing is happening - this represents your dopamine baseline, the level of dopamine you have in your system at ‘rest’ sort of speak.
When you experience something desirable, something you perceive as pleasurable, the scale is tipped towards the side of pleasure. The more pleasure, the more the scale tips.
The scale strives to stay in balance. When you tip it towards pleasure, say by eating a delicious cake you’ve been looking forward to having, you experience a sense of profound satisfaction fora moment and then the self-regulating mechanisms of your brain will push the scale in the opposite direction, but slightly further - so the scale drops below the baseline and tips into the ‘pain’ side. For every enjoyable activity that tips the scale towards pleasure, you will pay a slightly larger price in ‘pain’ afterwards.
This mechanism is behind the feeling of ‘come-down’ people experience after ingesting drugs like alcohol, cocaine and the like but also after situational achievements like graduating, getting a promotion, finishing a marathon and soon. You experience a ‘high’ upon the achievement and afterwards feel underwhelmed and a bit flat. That’s dopamine at work.
And now comes the bad part - if you do something you perceive as pleasurable, you get used to it and the ‘high’ gets smaller. Let’s say you eat ice-cream every evening, the initial feeling of pleasure you experience gets progressively smaller. You get used to the ‘pleasure’ and after a while it no longer elicits the ‘high’ you used to experience.
When repeating a pleasurable activity, such as eating ice-cream, the ‘high’ you experience diminishes and the ‘pain’ response that follows becomes more intense and lasts longer. This is known as neuroadaptation – your brain becomes accustomed to the pleasant sensation, and the pain afterwards is greater than before, so you need more of the activity to get the same effect. This is the basis of ‘tolerance’, where you need to increase the amount of something to experience the same level of pleasure over time and is also a key factor in development of addiction.
And now we get to the truly bad part - when you engage in prolonged and heavy use of something that evokes a high dopamine release, the pleasure-pain balance gets skewed to the side of pain. So your baseline or set point is no longer ‘level’, but skewed towards pain.This happens in the extreme when you take drugs like opioids or amphetamines, but it can occur even with more ‘everyday’ behaviours like watching TV, using social media, and the like.
When you repeat a pleasurable activity, your capacity to tolerate pain decreases and the threshold for experiencing pleasure increases. You need more reward to feel any kind of pleasure and less injury to feel pain and your set level becomes skewed towards pain, so your overall sense of wellbeing decreases.
At this point, you may wonder: ‘Why? Why does our system seem to be calibrated to prevent us from ever being fully content with what we have?
The answer lies in our evolutionary past. If you are always happy with what you have, you don't move anywhere, you don't strive, you don't try harder, and you don't succeed. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that selective pressure would favour individuals who are not content with the here and now and strive to get more - more food, more reproductive opportunities, and so on- thus increasing the probability that their genes are represented in the generations to come.
Unfortunately, our brains and bodies are still evolved for a world with a lack of resources and 'rewards’. Yet, at least the lucky among us live in a world of plenty from a pure survival standpoint - starvation is not a real problem we wrestle with, we have comfort, heat, and lots of 'rewards' at our fingertips with a myriad of entertainment options online and offline. Still, because of our underlying biological systems, we never quite feel happy enough and always want more.
I see this frequently among my peers - what they describe as feeling less motivated or energetic compared to a few years ago and a certain acceptance of always being tired and a bit unhappy. Though it’s highly context-dependent, it can be can be partly caused by the dopamine system being out of whack. You may look at some of the behaviours above and think - no, I don’t think I have any real issues, I do engage on social media, watch some YouTube and have a couple of drinks on Friday and Saturday night - nothing extreme.
Well, even something that can appear as s a fairly ‘balanced’ professional lifestyle can after some years lead to a decrease in the dopamine baseline –so you progressively feel worse, less motivated and tired and can even reach a point when you can’t continue and experience acute burn out or worse.
In one episode of the Huberman Lab podcast (episode #39), which I highly recommend, Dr. Huberman gives a concrete example of this. He describes a person who is a fairly classic professional and one you might think even tries to have a healthy lifestyle. They only eat the kind of food that evokes a large release in dopamine once around the middle of the week (think your standard junk food),they drink on Friday and Saturday and on one of those nights maybe go out dancing too. They are physically active and do a couple of kms of swimming around midweek. This doesn’t sound like an extreme kind of lifestyle - drinking twice a week, one ‘bad’ meal a week and they evendo exercise. No extreme drug taking here or anythinglike that.
Yet even this kind of lifestyle, is one that throughout the week incorporates a lot of activities that spike dopamine levels. After a few years of this lifestyle, you’d expect the dopamine baseline to lower progressively and the person would experience a general feeling of having less energy than they used to. The progression can be very subtle and take several years.
That’s it for part I. In the next instalment I will look at what we can do to fix the dopamine imbalance and improve our sense of wellbeing.
Thanks for reading and see you next time.
Feedback or questions: This is not an empty invite – I genuinely want feedback. You can reach out with any thoughts or questions either on email@example.com, on LinkedIn or you can even book a 1:1 chat on Calendly. If you’d like to join the mailing list where I will occasionally share more content, you can sign up ^.
See here for the key resources I relied on in writing this doc. I want to stress that I am not a medical professional, so do seek medical advice for anything to do with your health. It’s amazing to live in an age where there is so much knowledge so easily available and I am profoundly grateful to all those who’ve worked on the resources below and everyone who pursues new knowledge and shares it with the rest of the world. Thank you!
*Forgive the inconsistent referencing style. I am including references mainly so you can locate useful resources, not to make this compliant with any referencing style as such…