Note: This is the first of many posts on the elements of an Ideal Life. In essence these are the building blocks to design the perfect life for any human. Your specifics might vary. But these elements apply to everyone, everywhere. They are consequences of our evolution and are irrespective of present situation. How you put them into practice will be individual and does depend on your present situation. However I strive to provide universal directions to apply each element.
Dopamine makes your life Heaven and dopamine makes it Hell.
Dopamine is not a drug. Dopamine is not pleasure.
Dopamine is the molecule of motivation.
Without dopamine, you will lack the drive to do anything. You will literally lack the will to eat or even go to the bathroom to relieve yourself. You will die of starvation surrounded by food. This has been done with mice and they died before reaching 3 weeks of age.
Without dopamine you die.
Your brain secretes dopamine every time you do anything.
When you get out of bed, it’s dopamine. When you check e-mail, it’s dopamine. When you look out the window, it’s dopamine. When you scratch an itch, it’s dopamine. When you run, it’s dopamine. When you eat a doughnut, it’s dopamine. When you read this, it’s dopamine.
Dopamine amount varies
Everything we do is dopamine-fueled. But the amount of dopamine varies a lot.
Walking releases less dopamine than sex. Scientists have measured the latter, and it increased dopamine 100% over baseline. Cocaine raises it 250%. Metamphetamine raises it about 1000%. That’s 10 times more than sex.
This is obviously bad because methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol and other substances that surge dopamine also have harmful health effects. But it’s even worse.
Behaviours that spike dopamine are harmful because of the surgeitself separate from any other effects.
Dopamine spikes create Dopamine Resistance
Why is it bad to have high dopamine spikes ? Because you will have less baseline dopamine. This translates into lower motivation and happiness.
High dopamine spikes = dopamine resistance = low baseline dopamine = low happiness = low motivation = failure at everything
When talking about dopamine, we need to distinguish between dopamine baseline and dopamine spikes.
Baseline is the amount of dopamine you have in general.
People with a high dopamine baseline are driven, they do a lot of things, are enthusiastic and full of energy. People with a low dopamine baseline are apathic, they don’t have the energy for anything, they are constantly distracted. Some of the difference is genetic, but most of it comes down to behaviour.
Dopamine spikes are the increases in dopamine for activities. Sex doubles the dopamine level versus baseline for example (on average).
It would appear that more and higher spikes are good. But the opposite is true.
Your body is a dynamic adaptive system with limited resources.
The body adapts to conditions, but it only produces a fixed amount of dopamine for each day. After each spike of dopamine, there is a subsequent drop in dopamine. After each high, there is a low.
I remember when I ran my first ultramarathon. It was an enormous achievement for me at the time and a massive dopamine spike. After it, I was depressed for almost a week. This is the price for the dopamine increase during the event itself.
But it does not take ultramarathons to create reductions in dopamine.
Experiencing frequent, very high dopamine spikes produces not only temporary low points, it reduces the baseline level of dopamine.
Let me repeat: high dopamine spikes reduce your baseline dopamine. You have developed dopamine resistance.
To be clear, dopamine resistance is an expression. It is not a comprehensive and precise description of the cellular modifications, but a way to understand the whole process.
Low baseline dopamine reduces your motivation to do anything. Anything, except seek other dopamine highs to compensate for your low.
This is the core mechanism of addiction. Create unnaturally high dopamine spikes, which then depress baseline dopamine levels which gets the addict to seek more of the drug to feel ‘normal’.
It applies to any dopamine-spiking activity. And they stack together because they all influence the same pathway.
A cocaine addict will have severely depressed baseline dopamine. He wants nothing except more cocaine because no other activity can provide enough dopamine for his dysfunctional system.
Someone who spends a lot of time gaming, scrolling social media, chatting, responding to notifications, reading news, browsing with 20 tabs open, eating candy, eating junk food, is similar. He will also have a severely depressed dopamine baseline which will not provide enough motivation to pursue healthy activities. He will seek out the addictive ones repeatedly because his brain cannot provide the motivation for anything else.
This dopamine cycle is vicious. It creates a feedback loop that feeds on itself.
Like diabetics who become more insulin-resistant, if you have dopamine spikes, you become dopamine-resistance. This makes you seek out more dopamine spikes which create more dopamine-resistance
The present world is full of unnaturally high dopamine triggers
We are at a unique point in history. Never before have there been so many dopamine-spiking moments for so many people.
Why? Because we have created them.
Most profit in the modern world comes from dopamine-spiking.
Almost all packaged food and restaurant chains create dopamine spikes. Eating anything increases dopamine. Junk food overloads it. Any candy is a dopamine spike because sugar is so powerful in this regard. And so are ultra-processed food, combining simple carbs with fat. And so is the extraordinary convenience of food nowadays.
The tech unicorns we praise are all build on dopamine spiking. Social media. Browsing itself. News. Convenience to do anything. Gaming. Porn. Easy shopping. Infinite potential sexual partners. The smartphone itself with its magical touchscreen.
Shopping is a dopamine spike. We buy stuff for the dopamine-mediated pleasure we get when we swipe the card. You might never wear that dress, but you felt good in the moment when you bought it.
Why do we have unnaturally high dopamine spikes now?
Dopamine is a survival and reproduction selection-mechanism. It has evolved to respond to stimuli in the natural world. For example this is why we have a dopamine spike when we eat sugar. It was super advantageous for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to gorge on it. It’s the same with getting social validation, finding new information, getting new objects, learning new patterns.
Recently we have become extremely good at manipulating the dopamine mechanisms with supernormal stimuli. These are artificial stimuli which provide a greater dopamine spike than anything in the natural world.
Supernormal stimuli create unnatural dopamine spikes which lead to dopamine-resistance.
For example getting a thousand likes on Facebook is a supernormal stimulus. It is supercharged social validation. As is being good at a game on your mobile - supercharged pattern learning. As is eating a doughnut - supercharged feeding. As is opening a browser and reading news - supercharged information.
They are so powerful, they turn us into addicts.
There is no qualitative difference between overloading dopamine with cocaine or with gaming and social media.
Sure, cocaine has other health effects and is more expensive. But in terms of how it destroys your baseline dopamine and thus your motivation to live life, they are the same.
What to do
Avoid unnaturally high dopamine spikes (duh).
The Ideal Life is this boring chart.
No high dopamine spikes means you have high dopamine baseline.
his in turn gives you motivation to do what you decide to do, instead of being the salve of your addictions.
How do you identify dopamine spikes? In essence it’s anything that you feel compelled to do, and feel unpleasant if you don’t do. The most common nowadays are: gaming, social media scrolling and posting, chat, browsing news and the Internet in general without a specific purpose, porn, food, alcohol, cigarettes (including vaping), prescription drugs (big example: opioids), illegal drugs, checking email, shopping.
How to untangle these addictions will be a separate post because there is a lot to dig into. The short version is:
make the behaviour more difficult (e.g. put a long password on the Facebook app on your phone or uninstall it, don’t buy the cookies in the store),
remove the trigger for that activity (e.g. no phone in the bathroom)
find better replacements (e.g. when you feel the urge to scroll Instagram, read from a novel).
Dopamine detox is a false but useful practice. It’s false because you can never avoid any dopamine spikes. That being said, it’s useful to avoid anything that provides high spikes (even naturally high) for a period of time to give your brain the opportunity to reset its dopamine baseline and tolerance. It’s basically enduring what you think is boredom for days or weeks (at least two weeks). It can work wonders (e.g. Dr. Huberman talks about how a two week no smartphone period cured a nephew’s gaming addiction).
Afterwards you still have to control your lifestyle. You can easily fall back into dopamine resistance.
This has been the first word in the answer to the questions ‘How to build the Ideal Life?’. Share with your friends who could benefit from knowing this.
Hint: there is a 99.99% probability all your friends do at least one activity which provokes unnaturally large dopamine spikes, and thus leads them towards dopamine resistance. You are doing them a favor by sharing this. And you are doing yourself a favor because your friends are better dopamine-resistance.