Dopamine Nation

This Unending Pursuit of Being Happy

A very dear friend of mine recommended “Dopamine Nation” to me not so long ago, almost as if he knew the internal dialogue I was having with myself. It was like fate had a hand in it. I found myself wrestling with a prevalent message that’s been echoed from all directions, saying “You should always be happy”; if you’re not, it’s a problem that must be fixed. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed, and “we” have the solution, take this new pill we made, go on this fancy-looking vacation we’re showing you, buy a house, get married, read this book, take my course, change your beliefs, sacrifice to the old Gods.

You know, it’s not that these things are harmful on their own. But, the relentless chase of happiness that they’re touted as a pathway to - now that’s what I have a problem with.

I was wondering, what’s so bad about feeling sad occasionally, or a bit upset? Is there something inherently wrong with experiencing disappointment or frustration now and then? Aren’t these all natural human emotions?

Why is it considered bad if one’s sad or angry all the time, yet everyone seems to aim for constant happiness? Aren’t sadness and anger valid feelings too?

Isn’t the idea behind illegal drugs the same? To keep us in a state of constant euphoria, making us forget our worries, whisking us off to some imaginary “happy place”? So why are we being constantly bombarded with this narrative that we should be perpetually basking in happiness as if anything less means something’s off?

I’ve got this hunch, and hear me out, that apart from the apparent economic gains at play, a major reason for this is that we tend to mix up feeling bad with actually being in a bad place.

Think about it - our feelings are basically our body’s clever little system for guiding our actions. Take this scenario: you snack on something sweet, you feel pretty awesome, and your body’s like, “Hey, we should do that more often!”
Contrast that with touching a hot stove. It hurts like crazy, feels awful, and your body’s immediate response is, “Whoa there, let’s not do that again.”

When you mull it over, these two simple principles pretty much sketch out the fundamentals of every social structure and the basics of how we humans interact.

If we feel good, we do more of it.
If we feel bad, we do less of it.

There’s a pseudo-exception that I didn’t mention.

There are times when one chooses pain deliberately, going through strict diets or workouts, living way below their means to save, although it might look like an exception, in reality, it’s not. We intentionally choose pain only if we expect a reward or pleasure for the pain we’re enduring.

The Book

With these thoughts churning in my head, I dove into the book “Dopamine Nation”. Let me tell you, things began to click into place.

Anna Lembke, the author, has this engaging way with words. Her writing brims with insight and surprising turns but never comes across as heavy-handed or patronizing.

Lembke kicks off her book with this revelation: we’re all addicts in some form or fashion. She dives into how and why we’re constantly fleeing from discomfort, seeking refuge in everything from drugs, video games, and retail therapy, to adult content and food. But then she transitions into discussing this intriguing concept of the Pain-Pleasure balance, which, honestly, had me hooked.

The Pleasure-Pain balance is our brain’s mechanism for keeping an equilibrium, whenever we experience joy, the pleasure side of the scale dips down, and it needs to be balanced by, you guessed, pain.

In the 1970s social scientists Richard Solomon and John Corbit called this reciprocal relationship between pleasure and pain the *opponent-process* theory: "Any prolonged or repeated departures from hedonic or affective neutrality... have a cost" That cost is an "after-reaction" that is opposite in value to stimulus. Or as the old saying goes What goes up must come down
Anna Lemble
Dopamine Nation

She then explains that, interestingly enough, the more we expose ourselves to pleasurable stimuli, the smaller the initial pleasure reaction becomes. At the same time, the subsequent swing towards the pain side intensifies and stretches out. Essentially, we’re building up a sort of resistance - a phenomenon called Neuroadaptation in the scientific lingo.

One important concept to note here is that this balancing act isn’t achieved by equal weights of pleasure and pain. The pain that swings the scale back to balance is heavier than the pleasure. Picture it like this: when pleasure tips the scale all the way down on the left side, a bigger load of pain slams the scale down on the right, causing a rapid shift before things level out and the balance is achieved.

The author spends some pages demonstrating the above with a few stories, studies and experiments which are very fun to read and then moves to part two of the book called Self-Binding.

In this section, Lembke equips the reader with a pair of incredibly handy tools.

The first one is a framework named DOPAMINE.
D = Data
O = Objectives
P = Problems
A = Abstinence
M = Mindfulness
I = Insight
N = Next Steps
E = Experiment

I’m not going to dive deep into each letter, you should read the book to learn more about it, but you can probably take a pretty good guess based on the keywords above ;).

The second one (Chapter Five) is called Space, Time and Meaning which, if I’m not mistaken, seems to draw from teachings found in Alcoholics Anonymous. In this chapter, she introduces three types of self-binding, Physical self-binding (Space), Chronological Self-Binding (Time) and Categorical Self-Binding (Meaning).

The last part of the book is called The Pursuit of Pain.

Now, remember when I mentioned that Pleasure-Pain balance earlier? How every dip into pleasure is counterbalanced by a subsequent swing into pain? Well, the fascinating thing is, it works the other way around too - if you intentionally tip the scale into the pain side, your brain will balance it out with a load of pleasure.

Exercise, cold showers and ice baths, or the so-called “runner’s high” are physical examples of this phenomenon.

Reading “Dopamine Nation” truly made me reassess everything I consume, from the articles I read and my social media habits, right through to the food I eat and the exercises I do.

Based on what I’ve learned, I’ve made a few changes in my life:

  1. I activated the screen time feature on my phone for all social media apps, capping it at a tight 20 minutes per day. The twist here is I got my wife to set up the pin so it’s out of my hands. Interestingly enough, my phone usage initially dipped for a couple of days but then skyrocketed higher than before. The game changer though? What I was actually doing on the phone. According to my screen time report, I’ve been spending most of my phone time reading articles or watching online courses - a stark improvement from aimlessly scrolling through social media.
  2. I’ve started introducing a sort of artificial scarcity into my life.
    Like many of you, I’ve dabbled in a variety of sports and gym memberships over the years. Boxing, TRX, OT, regular gyms - you name it, I’ve probably given it a shot.
    But here’s an interesting question: which ones saw you sticking to a regular schedule? Was it the open-format ones where you could pop in anytime, or those with specified timeslots on certain days, where it was a clear case of show up or miss out?
    In my case, the show-up-or-miss-out options were the clear winners, and by a long shot, too.
    So, I’ve started applying this concept to other areas of my life. Instead of having the whole week to squeeze in a piano practice session “whenever”, I now give myself a 30-minute slot on specific days - and if I miss it, tough luck, it’s gone. This same approach applies to blogging, coding, reading, meditation, and gym sessions. Show up, or miss out.

Both these changes have been magnificent so far and I intend on keeping them

Should you read it?

Overall, Dopamine Nation is definitely a must-read for anyone who has a social media account, is hooked on any type of activity whether socially acceptable or not, or has ever asked him/herself “Where did my time go?”.

Give it a read, you’ll come out a better person

10 out of 10 - will read it again (actually partially re-read it yesterday!)