Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “When a man can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.”
When I’m not doing the activities that fulfill me – writing, hanging out with friends, being active and social – I have a tendency to fall into bad habits. I go into avoidance mode; I scroll on my phone for hours, eat junk food, and sleep in. I procrastinate and distract myself with cheap momentary comfort.
Dopamine is a molecule of motivation, pursuit, and desire. It plays a role as the brain and body’s “reward center.” Dopamine can be triggered by a number of different things, however, if you have too big of a dopamine release in a short period of time, the period immediately afterward will involve a mirror symmetric decrease of dopamine.
That means after you do some pleasureful activity (i.e. consume junk food, pornography, or recreational drugs) you don’t go back to baseline, you actually go below your baseline feeling of normal, meaning you experience a mirror depressive episode immediately after the joyous high. This is what makes most people reach for more. You want to limit the depressive episode by consuming more, but the pain (i.e. hangover) is unavoidable. And that is the slippery slope of dopamine.
This is the basis of addiction.
The very thing that gives you pleasure today will give you pain tomorrow. – Michael Singer
As Frankl explains, the antidote to this endless cycle of pleasure and pain is to find something that gives you a deep sense of meaning. Cheap dopamine is a drug. The best dopamine comes as a result of the work you’ve put in. You don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to give yourself the chance at feeling good.
Jordan Peterson has an exercise in which you ask yourself, “What’s one thing I’m doing wrong, that I KNOW I’m doing wrong, that I COULD fix, that I WOULD fix.”
You meditate on that, you’ll get an answer.
The only way I have been able to consistently get myself out of these negative behaviors is through journaling. After several weeks of gloomy moods, low energy, and overall apathy, I start to take notice of the cheap forms of dopamine I’ve been distracting myself with.
I recently abstained from alcohol, recreational drugs, and junk food for 30 days. I deleted addictive apps like TikTok and Twitter from my phone, and put limits on my Instagram usage.
Like forming any new habit, the first four or five days sucked. But I took notice of every time I instinctively yearned for my phone or a bag of chips. The more I resisted the temptation and sat in that momentary discomfort, the more I noticed my brain begin to rewire. While I still struggled with the cravings for those things after the first week, I felt a switch in my pleasure circuits away from the cheap pleasure and more toward contentedness.
Maybe it’s maturity, or maybe I’ve just been blind to this fact my whole life but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize how fleeting the high of getting drunk or gambling is, and it only brings you more pain. Maybe not right away, but eventually, any behavior pattern based upon the avoidance of pain becomes a doorway to the pain itself.
In his book Disciple is Destiny, Ryan Holiday writes “The pleasure of excess is always fleeting. Which is why self-discipline is not a rejection of [pleasure but a way to embrace it. Treating our body well, moderating our desires, working hard, exercising, hustling – this is not a punishment. This is simply the work for which pleasure is the reward.”
Serotonin, on the other hand, is joy for joy’s sake. Serotonin is a chemical that plays a key role in body functions like mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting, and sexual desire. It’s known for those “warm feelings” like seeing a smiling child, hugging a loved one, or having a great conversation with friends around a campfire.
After 30 days of abstaining from cheap hits of dopamine, I’m beginning to truly understand that life’s “normal” or seemingly mundane moments are a lot more exciting than they used to be. The joy of seeing a mother picking up her child and putting her in the car seat. The beauty of the leaves falling as the wind blows. When you’re busy looking at your phone, reading about how climate change is going to ruin our lives, you forget to notice these things and enjoy the beauty in them. Life is full of distractions, and everything is vying for your attention.
But cliches are cliches for a reason. While the occasional cheap dopamine is all fine and good, there is nothing better than the medicine of laughter, sunlight, exercise, and community.
Dopamine does many things but its most overt effect is to place us in a mode of exteroception: focused on and seeking things beyond the confines of our own skin. Serotonin tends to do the opposite.
Seek and enjoy.