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The Dopamine Chase

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Understanding yourself more is a concept I see as highly important to our growth, development and pleasure. However, there are so many ways you could do it.

Lately, I’ve been taking a slightly more scientific approach by reading up on dopamine. It came to my attention off the back of someone very close to me going through a neurodiversity diagnosis and their curiosity about what drives them. This also got me curious - what are we chasing? Why do we chase it? Why do we chase things that are bad for us? Or engage in things that don’t do anything for us but we do them anyway?

Dopamine has a lot of answers to these questions. And knowing how our dopamine receptors function can help us start to design a lifestyle that works for us. I.e. create our game plan.

Book cover of Dopamine Nation
An enjoyable read for the uninitiated: Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke, MD

Dopamine chasing for me tends to come about when I’m procrastinating, sad or bored. That’s three of the most common that I’m aware of. I’m working on challenging myself in these moments, what am I trying to distract myself from and how can I take it on rather than hide from it in a dopamine covered distraction?

I’ve learned that our dopamine levels adapt and if we’ve had too much dopamine, our brain resets itself so we actually need more of that dopamine thing each time. Working to reset this balance is super important and it goes without saying, it’s not easy.

For example, scrolling, it’s mini shots of dopamine from travel pictures, scintillating headlines and memes of hilarity. Each enjoyable tile delivers a tiny shot of dopamine and so we search for more, like Lemmings on their one way mission to destruction and entrapment. And soon 10 minutes have passed and then, 10 minutes isn’t enough, we need half an hour of scrolling to scratch that itch. And so, my thinking is, just like in Lemmings, we need to start building some bridges and support to guide our dopamine hunters to go where they really need to go.

A scene from Lemmings, the game, building a bridge to get home
A scene from Lemmings, the game

When I say bridge and support, in this case, I mean things that limit our habits (self-binding) maybe through an app, a timer or hiding/moving the device. These could in turn develop into a change in habit for example, picking up my book instead of picking up my phone. Even just noticing what we are doing is a really important first step to not feeding our hungry dopamine urges. And maybe even recognising and challenging ourselves as to why it's there.

It’s made me wonder about game play and my love for it. Can I gamify something that is hard to do in the name of rebalancing my dopamine levels? It seems a bit ironic doesn’t it; having a playful activity for something that’s supposed to challenge my dopamine urge. But I think where the real dopamine would start to come from is not the gamification of changing habits but in the long term benefits I know I’m laying down for myself.

If this is something that you relate to, perhaps you can join me in joining the game to challenge our dopamine urges. I actually think something like AA does a good job at subtly using useful gaming techniques to motivate people to not act on their addictive urges things they use include:

  • Tokens to count how long its been since you started

  • Being part of it with others (collaboration, we all have to buy into a game to play it)

  • Honesty/Positive shaming - this is an interesting one as it’s more unspoken in games but it’s taken that you wouldn’t cheat in a game, it breaks the code. Therefore you enter into the agreement and you honour it and you don’t even eat a liquor chocolate and if you do, you own up to it. And that’s OK because then, like in a game, you start again but now with more wisdom and experience.

So on that note:

  1. Decide on the one thing that you want to limit, reduce or change.

  2. Tell me anonymously here (this will be shared anonymously in future newsletters)

  3. Create your code of honour - be very clear on what the rules of the game are and have it somewhere you can easily see it/remember it/

  4. Have a feedback system - this could be tokens, a tally on a piece of paper, a check-in with friends, data on your activity - anything that logs and acknowledges your progress.

I’m going to be working on getting my morning dopamine from exercise and not from caffeine or lying-in! Both caffeine and lying-in don’t make me feel that good but after three days of exercise (I’ve downloaded a Pilates app) and I’m already feeling so much better. The app comes with its own in-built points and rewards and that’s enough for now.

What will you be doing to reset your dopamine levels? You can download my one pager here.

Want to work on this with someone? Get in touch with me to find out more about how we could work together to build your game plan.

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