My hope would be that during the reading and by the end of this blog, you will be able to understand the real power of dopamine and how to leverage it correctly when it comes to key aspects around self-improvement such as developing greater motivation, hard work, discipline, and consistency.
When trying to put your mind to something that is hard, such as a training block for an upcoming competition, a big project to complete, studying for an exam, learning a piece of music, learning a language, coding, business negotiations, sales, essay or blog writing, whatever takes effort and strain, releasing dopamine correctly and at the right time can be the difference between failure and success over the long-term.
The facts about dopamine
Dopamine is this amazing molecule that gets released in our brain and plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward processing. Studies show that it contributes more to the motivation for rewards than to the pleasure of receiving them.
Dopamine may play a bigger role in the motivation to get a reward than the pleasure of the reward itself.
In other words, wanting more than liking.
Genetically engineered mice unable to make dopamine will not seek out food and will starve to death even when food is placed just inches from their mouth.
Yet if food is put directly into their mouth, they will chew and eat the food, and seem to enjoy it.
It’s in our genetics to reproduce and sustain the existence of humanity.
Dopamine is a fundamental driver when it comes to the survival and development of the human species.
Dopamine helps us to seek things that supply sustenance and pleasure in the short term and will also extend the species in the long term.
It’s important to understand that dopamine is a driver for us to seek things and is part and parcel of who we are.
It’s also important to understand that dopamine helps us to avoid harmful and hurtful things.
Dopamine has these incredible properties that increase the amount of energy in our body and our mind and our ability to focus by way of dopamine’s conversation into epinephrine.
Dopamine drives you to go out and look for things. This helped our early ancestors leave the cave and forage and seek food, water, and sustenance to survive.
There is a release and surge in dopamine when the reward has been achieved from the seeking process. For example, finding those berries to eat, killing that animal to feed your tribe, or coming across a new source of water in a barren land.
In a modern setting, this could be achieving a personal best, getting a promotion, completing a large project, running a marathon, finishing writing an article, winning an event, or even the likes and validation you get on social media.
The modern world has arguably an over-abundance of dopamine right at our fingertips whenever we want. Our brain is a slowly evolving organism and it has not caught up with the speed of progress. In our modern world, we can pretty much access anything we want at any time of the day or night. More on this later when it comes to instant gratification.
This dopamine spike associated with the reward gets us to keep going and keep pursuing which is great.
But, there is a dark side…
Dopamine then drops below the baseline level a day or two after the big win, the achievement of the large goal, the thing you have been working so hard to achieve.
The drop below the baseline is linked and proportionate to the high and joy you felt by the achievement. If you have an overwhelming high for the reward you just received, then a day or two later your dopamine levels will be well below its baseline. You can end up feeling rather blue and even a little depressed.
If your joy for the achievement is moderate, then the drop below the baseline is less severe.
It varies from individual to individual, but it often takes a little time to get back to our stable baseline level.
We all have a dopamine set point within us.
Science now teaches us that every pleasure exacts a price, and the pain that follows is longer lasting and more intense than the pleasure that gave rise to it.
This explains the behaviour we mostly feel when we repeat the same behaviour or seek out the same reward that made us feel so great in the first place and it loses its edge. It starts to feel less and less exciting.
“We all feel good when we are achieving things. But oftentimes we are feeling good because we are layering in different aspects of life. Consuming things and doing things that increase our dopamine.” – Prof. Andrew Huberman
If we continue to indulge in the same behaviours that spike our dopamine over and over again, we won’t experience joy from those behaviours, or anything at all for that matter.
It has a significant effect on whether we are going to pursue other things.
It is directly tethered to drive and motivation.
“By raising our neural set point with repeated pleasures, we become endless strivers, never satisfied with what we have, always looking for more.” – Dr. Anna Lembke
According to Dr. Lembke’s quote above, we set ourselves running on the never-ending hedonic treadmill of success. Always chasing and striving for the rewards and never satisfied, never finding a balance in our lives.
This can begin to easily fall into the territory of addiction if left unchecked and can become extremely unhealthy.
The stinger is that in most things in life that immediately make us feel great are often not that great for us in the long term. The slice of pizza, the doughnut, the impulse purchase online, the dose of endorphins from social media. This is known as instant gratification.
And the world is wired up this way to give us this all the time. Only a few years ago we were not able to access any song, movie, TV show, data, news, funny cat videos, food delivery, gadgets, etc, on a piece of shiny manufactured glass within a few seconds by simply tapping our fingers on it. Pretty incredible when you think of it like that.
But this world of instant gratification, being able to get anything you want at any time is rewiring our brain. It is overwhelming! We are losing the skills of deep work, of focus, of discipline, or needing to wait for a reward and therefore generating a dopamine spike at will.
No one is bored anymore.
And ultimately, what all this stimulation, this instant gratification, what these dopamine hits do to us is to encourage a huge lack of drive and motivation over time.
Who needs to wait for anything anymore?
What is the point of struggle?
There is a debate and argument that obesity is a bigger global crisis than hunger now!
According to one study, abusing dopamine levels alters our ability to delay gratification. By living a life of instant gratification is the abuse of your own dopamine levels.
I urge you to flip this on its head. Let’s turn instant gratification into delayed gratification. This is where deep and truly lasting value lies.
Keep reading on to find out how to get the best out of yourself and feel great along the way.
To work on and practice neutralising the highs and lows, the peaks and troughs of an extreme dopamine curve.
To ultimately be happier.
And to foster motivation, hard work, discipline, and consistency in all you do.
What’s the solution?
There is a way to work with and leverage dopamine in the correct way, so we constantly stay motivated but also keep that baseline dopamine at a healthy level. To have a better relationship with your activities and your dopamine system.
Let’s get this on the table…hard work IS hard!
Generally, most people don’t like working hard and most people work hard to achieve some end goal.
Rewards and end goals are terrific. However, there is a pitfall. When hard work is done to get the reward and the outcome, the hard work can feel and become a lot more difficult to perform, especially over time. The driving force here is the extrinsic reward.
There was a classic experiment done at Stanford to highlight the increase in negative behaviours related to rewards. The researchers took children of kindergarten age who innately loved to draw, and they started giving them an appropriate reward for drawing. They then stopped giving the reward for drawing and they found the children had a much lower tendency to draw on their own. No reward.
I write in detail about the intrinsic and extrinsic forces at play in this blog and how to become aware of and how to reframe your mindset.
“This highlights that when we receive rewards, we tend to associate less pleasure with the actual activity itself that evoked the reward.” – Prof. Andrew Huberman
That may seem counter-intuitive but that is the way the dopaminergic system works and understanding this is key to continued motivation, hard work, discipline, and consistency.
This does not mean that all rewards of all kinds are bad. But it is important to understand that achieving the reward at the end of the activity can disassociate our neural circuits from the activity we are actually performing.
The dopamine that would be released during the activity now is now no longer there. It is like you are just getting through this phase, this hard work, this thing you need to do to then achieve the reward, and therefore receiving the dopamine spike all at the end.
It is also possible to raise your dopamine prior to the activity by telling yourself of the reward at the end. Again, this is spiking the dopamine at the wrong phase as it is NOT during the effort and strain part. The dopamine is attached once again to a reward and outcome and therefore performing the hard work, the activity, offers very little reward in and of itself.
Because it arrives at the beginning or the end, over time we get less and less pleasure from performing that activity while we are doing it.
This is the antithesis of the Growth Mindset we should all be looking to cultivate more within ourselves. In a growth mindset, striving is the pleasure, it’s the reward. We are on a journey, and we are not there YET.
I investigate the chemicals that get released in the brain in the “Reach And Fail” state when you are in deliberate practice and how this encourages neuroplasticity.
We can all cultivate a growth mindset. It’s all about learning to access the rewards from effort and doing. This is hard to do, but you must tell yourself this effort is great, this effort is pleasurable, this strain is where I want to be, I was made for figuring out this challenge!
What you will find over time is you can force a dopamine release from the friction of the challenge you happen to be in. You can rewire your brain. But it takes practice, a heightened awareness of yourself and your inner voice, and deliberate intentions along the journey.
This state is impossible to achieve if the dopamine comes at the start or the end due to the reward you see or imagine yourself getting.
In summary, you will hopefully have gained a greater understanding of the awesome power of dopamine? When leveraging dopamine in the correct way as outlined above, this will have a positive Spill Over effect into other areas of your life.
It becomes reflexive for ALL types of effort!
The dopamine you get from loving the effort and drilling into the difficult task in front of you can now be utilised the same way with the difficulty of another task you need to change to, such as moving home, or completing that DIY project, or writing an essay, or studying for an exam, or training for your sport, or submitting a funding proposal.
You will need to use your inner voice, your pre-frontal cortex, your mind, telling yourself again and again that…
The effort and the strain is the reward!
This is a mantra to attempt to live by.
And over time, you will need to speak to yourself in this way less and less as you will begin to find the rewards more naturally in the effort.
And eventually, your system and habits take over with repeated practice and you achieve motivation, hard work, discipline, and consistency.
You rewire your brain and your belief systems for the better.
You stave off the pitfalls of instant gratification.
You live a life filled more with meaning, purpose, and clarity.
Dr. Anna Lemke, who wrote the incredible book The Dopamine Nation – Finding Balance In The Age Of Indulgence sums it up beautifully below.
“The rewards of finding and maintaining balance are neither immediate nor permanent. They require patience and maintenance. We must be willing to move forward despite being uncertain of what lies ahead. We must have faith that actions today that seem to have no impact in the present moment are in fact accumulating in a positive direction, which will be revealed to us only at some unknown time in the future. Healthy practices happen day by day.” – Dr. Anna Lembke
- Now that you are more aware of how and when to leverage dopamine correctly, work at telling yourself the mantra that “the effort and the strain is the reward”. This way you will be able to keep motivated, enjoy the hard work, lean into the discipline, and create more consistency. You need to remember and be accountable to do this in those moments when it feels tough!
- Become aware of your actions and behaviours that may be closely aligned with falling into the trap of instant gratification and spiking your dopamine at incorrect times that are damaging to you in the long term. Lean away from these behaviours as much as possible. They are NOT worth it!
- Start small, work on discipline training that you know you can achieve and build this up over time. For example, remove a bad habit you may have such as sugary snacks after every meal, or scrolling through your phone in bed during your wind-down period before sleep, or the moment you feel distracted to change the activity to something easier and more fulfilling. You will have to put effort and strain in but the rewards way outweigh the instant gratification.
- Once you have begun to get more used to loving the process, loving the effort and strain, transport this new way of thinking and doing to larger tasks. For example, setting yourself 90-minute blocks to study and write, having 24-hours without your phone turned on, writing down training blocks for the month and sticking to them. You will find your motivation higher to be able to achieve these larger stretch goals.
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