You are a caveman just back from your very first buffalo hunt. You noticed that the one whose spear hit the buffalo got a high five (or whatever a caveman high five was). You want the next caveman high five and decide you will be the one whose spear gets the buffalo next time.
But the next hunt is more difficult. You get close to your target and the herd senses you and stampede away. You have to circle a long way around to approach them from downwind. After a day of walking with barely any food or water you are tired. Your head sags, your feet are bleeding and your body is telling you to lie down and sleep. The only thing that keeps you going is the older, more experienced cavemen who urge you forward. After what seems like many hours of walking suddenly you look up to see the buffalo within striking distance. You forget you are tired, dash towards the buffalo and launch your spear. It hits a buffalo in the neck. The buffalo tries to run but stumbles, falls, and dies. Triumphant, your cave-friends give you the cave man high five you were waiting for. You get another energy boost, smile, and beat your chest.
The energy boosts you got that made you forget you were tired, and beat your chest comes from a drug that your body makes itself: dopamine. Dopamine is evolution’s reward for doing something that helps us survive like get food, earn money, or reproduce. Dopamine feels so good that once you’ve felt it your body craves it. The next time you hunt, you don’t just want to satisfy your hunger, you want a dopamine rush. Just getting ready for the hunt is enough to get you excited.
If dopamine craving sounds like an addiction that’s because it sort of is. You can get addicted to dopamine the same way you can get addicted to illegal recreational drugs. In fact drugs of abuse often target the body’s pleasure center. Cocaine, for example, turbo boosts the amount of dopamine in your body. Dopamine is the reason we can become addicted to things like food, sex, and money. While these things are good for our survival up to a point, they are detrimental beyond that point. And if we are honest most of us are addicted to them in some way. Most of us keep eating past the point we are full and happy, and the same goes for money and sex. Too much food and sex is detrimental to our survival, and after a certain amount more money doesn’t make us happier.
The good news is that it is possible – and preferable – to enjoy a natural dopamine high without becoming an obsessive addict. Do this by being mindful, relaxed, and not taking yourself too seriously. Keep that in mind when you do the exercises.
Seven ways to get a drug free dopamine hit
- Choose a goal – something that you know will make you feel good if you do it — and write it down. For now avoid lofty things, and choose something simple and achievable. For example if you are aiming to get fitter, and currently don’t do any exercise, write down that you will do 10 pushups every day rather than writing that you will wake up at 4:30am and go to the gym for 3 hours. The very act of writing it down will make you feel better.
- Do it.
- Surround yourself with positive people. Positive people will give you high fives when you do something good, and will stop you from getting down when something bad happens. This doesn’t mean that you avoid your best friend when they are going through a rough time. It means you avoid people who are negative even when the sun is shining.
- Stop worrying. If you aren’t getting exactly what you want, let go and forget about it or do something about it. But don’t worry.
- Stop comparing yourself. You are better off than some people and worse off than others. That is life and you will never escape it so you might as well accept it. Comparison will make you feel good sometimes and bad other times. It will take you on an emotional rollercoaster that does not provide lasting bliss. Be your own hero.
- Tell someone else how great they are. Be sincere. It doesn’t have to be something big. It could be the great service you had at a restaurant, a bus driver who you safely to your destination, or someone you know might have a beautiful smile. If nobody is around, call or text someone you know and pay them a compliment. This will make you feel good because humans are empathetic (more on this in the next newsletter), and because it is an achievement to get out of our shells and pay random compliments.
- Smile. Laugh. If you can’t really do it, fake it.
Disclaimers: Jeremy Howick’s hopes you become happier and healthier as a result of what he writes and says, so please don’t do anything silly. This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor and is intended for enjoyment purposes only. Jeremy Howick disclaims any liability, including any implied warranties or other obligations at law, for the decisions you make based on this information. The views he expresses in this newsletter and elsewhere are the personal views of Dr. Jeremy Howick and are not in any way related to the views of the University of Oxford. To the extent you wish to reproduce any of the information set out above in a product, publication or other service offering, you may not do so without the express written permission of Jeremy Howick. All material in this newsletter is subject to copyright © laws.