There are so many ways people believe they can achieve happiness – some have struggled to find a satisfactory solution for much of their lives. But recent studies in neuroscience have explained a lot of the mystery. Over the centuries, humans have developed methods of raising baseline dopamine levels without even knowing the connection between their actions and the dopamine reward pathways. In this article, we will discuss the most effective ways to achieve happiness by altering the way your body obtains dopamine. And we will discuss how to do so in today’s world, where there are many common pitfalls that eventually lead to lower dopamine levels (unhappiness, or even dysphoria). Some of the concepts and methods San Francisco, California’s James Novello highlights may be obvious to you, but the science behind them will be explained so you can see that there is a real and tangible effect proven by the scientific method. Knowing that our actions have a real effect on our wellbeing can spur us to change.
How the Brain’s Reward Pathway Works
Imagine in your brain there is a scale – an antique scale which can be level if an equal amount is placed on both sides. And this scale can be tipped to one side or the other: one side represents pleasure and the other side represents pain. Note that pleasure and pain are located in the same area, so the same parts of our brain that process pleasure also process pain, and they work on opposite sides to balance this scale, always seeking for it to remain level. So, when we do something that is reinforcing, rewarding or pleasurable, our scales move slightly to the side of pleasure, and we get a small release of dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward pathway and is responsible for making us feel good. But the brain works very hard to keep these scales level, which is called homeostasis. The brain maintains homeostasis by tipping the scale an equal and opposite amount to the side of pain following pleasure. In other words, restoring homeostasis by applying weight to the opposite side.
In our society, people live in an environment where they have access to an ever-growing number of highly reinforcing activities that quickly and profoundly activate the pleasure side of our brain. Activities can include food, sex, smart phones, video games, drugs, alcohol, and so on. Simply being in an environment with more access to these drugs and behaviors cause people to continually return to these things in order to feel good. But the person repeating these activities does not realize how they are altering their body’s pleasure pain scale.
After experiencing something pleasurable (when the scale tips to the side of pleasure), there is a moment of wanting to do it again, which is the body’s response to that pleasure when the scale is tipped to the side of pain in order to restore homeostasis. If a person waits long enough then that feeling of wanting to do it again passes and balance is restored. However, if the person does not wait, and they continue to do that activity over and over again, they end up with a scale that is weighted to the side of pain. For example, a person who eats donuts all day long, or who continues to take opioids or benzodiazepines the moment they wear off, or the person who can’t stop staring at their phone. By repeating the activity that produces an unnaturally high dopamine response, the person begins to damage their dopamine reward pathway so that their scale is weighted to the side of pain (so they have chronically lower dopamine).
Neuroadaptations occur on the pain side of the scale weighing it down as a result. With repeated use the person gets enough neuroadaptations on the pain side of the balance that it’s like there are boulders on that pain side of the scale. At this point the person is experiencing a dopamine deficit state: they have decreased production of their own dopamine and they have decreased the ability for dopamine transmission – and these neuroadaptations are incredibly difficult to remove from the pain side of the scale. At this point, even if the person stops the activity that produces an unnatural dopamine response, or acute withdrawal is over, they can persist in this dopamine deficit state for weeks, months, or even years.
At this point we are describing a person who has become addicted to one (or many) of these activities and is no longer functioning with an even pleasure pain scale. They have a scale that is tipped to the side of pain and are likely experiencing the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive behavior or substance: anxiety, insomnia, dysphoria, irritability, and intrusive thoughts of wanting to do the behavior or drug again. Imagine this lasting for months or years. But, with enough time combined with abstinence, those neuroadaptations will begin to disappear and the person will regenerate their own dopamine (and their own dopamine receptors) and homeostasis will be restored – their scales will become even once again.
It is important to note that the behaviors or substances that produce an unnatural dopamine response are initially pleasurable, but when repeated over and over, any person will ultimately end up in a dopamine deficit state. And the person will want to continue that behavior not to feel good, but simply to stop feeling bad. While many will not suffer the textbook symptoms of addiction, millions of people will in fact suffer lower levels of dopamine as a result of changes that occur in the brain secondary to ongoing consumption of these activities or substances in this way. And it is those brain changes that cause the continued compulsive use of such behaviors despite the negative consequences. People who smoke or are overweight know what they’re doing is unhealthy and likely want to change, yet they continue – this pleasure pain scale explains their illogical behavior.
How Dopamine Levels Affect the Way People Feel
The pleasure pain scale, the way it balances, is an easy way to think about the neuroscience surrounding how a person feels: the scale gets tipped to one side or the other. Neuroadaptations get on one side of the scale or the other as the opponent process mechanism that tries to restore homeostasis. The natural reregulating mechanism to restore a level dopamine balance in the brain are these neuroadaptations. By doing an activity or ingesting a substance that causes an unnaturally large release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, a person’s brain will respond by decreasing their dopamine production and decreasing their dopamine transmission in order to achieve homeostasis. As a result, the person enters a state of dopamine deficit. In order words, the person goes below baseline dopamine levels as the brain attempts to restore homeostasis because the brain was exposed to such a high level of dopamine.
It is important to note that there is a baseline rate of dopamine release in the brain and dopamine levels go up or down depending on what a person is doing. This affects what a person wants to do and what a person tries to avoid. However, every time this person has a large release of dopamine there is a consequence for that, which is their dopamine levels going below baseline in order to compensate for that increase (if the increase was unnaturally high, so will be the decrease – but the decrease will be there for an inordinately long period of time if the levels were high and sustained). Eventually the person’s dopamine level is brought back to their baseline rate of dopamine release though. Many people unnecessarily take antidepressants in an attempt to treat the symptom of their behavior (low dopamine) rather than fixing the behavior that is causing their low dopamine. And of course, people struggle to find proper medications and dosages, oblivious to the real cause behind their need for something to make them feel good.
If a person repeats the behavior that causes high dopamine release again and again, the initial dopamine response to the behavior becomes shorter and weaker. Meanwhile, the after response (the dopamine deficit state), becomes longer and stronger. Eventually, the person will enter a chronic dopamine deficit state. As a result, when the person is not doing that behavior or ingesting that substance they are basically in a clinical depression. And because the person is in a dopamine deficit state, they feel awful and suffer from the same symptoms as someone who is clinically depressed.
How We Approach Pleasure and Pain
Humans evolved over millions of years to gravitate toward things that give us pleasure and avoid things that cause pain, and this has allowed us to survive in a world that is full of danger and often lacked what our ancestors needed to survive. Humans could not maintain a heightened level of dopamine simply because they found an oasis in the desert or food during a hunt. They would have additional threats to their wellbeing after the positive event such as exposure to the elements or predators. So, their brains had to return them back to homeostasis fairly quickly after receiving their pleasant reward, causing the urge to seek new and better rewards. This illustrates how the dopamine response in the pleasure and pain center of the brain has been critical for human survival. However, take this normal biological dopamine response and introduce it to modern society and we have a recipe for disaster. Humans no longer have such threats to survival because of the abundance and safety we have now.
Due to the human brain’s evolution in response to the need to survive during primitive times, the human brain is mismatched for our modern society. Today not only do people have an overabundance of what is needed to survive, but people have also developed novel drugs and activities that are incredibly potent – they exert a dopamine response like the human brain has never experienced (and would never experience in the wild). Many people are never satisfied with what they have and are constantly looking for the next best thing. The kind of physiology and temperament that humans have evolved to have can be detrimental in our modern ecosystem because we no longer need any of this evolution in order to survive. Unless we are conscious and aware of the potential for our evolutionary traits to steer us on an unhealthy path, we are at risk. There are however organizations, religions, and disciplines that have unwittingly created rules and manners of living that have kept our evolutionary traits in check.
How To Live Happy: Not Using Rewards as A Way to Shape Time
The midframe of the person who enters a dopamine deficit state is key to understanding how a person allows themselves to enter this state. The act of repeating behaviors or using substances that produce an unnaturally high dopamine response parallels the process of addiction. Like many of us today, the person entering this dopamine deficit state wants to control and change the way they feel in the moment rather than tolerating the feelings and uncertainties of the future and letting those emotions pass over them. What some call discipline is a person’s want to control what they are feeling and when they are feeling it.
Part of what causes this phenomenon of a dopamine deficit and addiction is the person’s want to control what they are feeling when they are feeling it. A common method people employ is allowing themselves a pleasurable reward once they complete a difficult or unpleasant task. TV after homework or ice cream after exercise. This midframe of control is a big part of our culture, and this aspect of control is a big part of addiction and the dopamine deficit state. A person controlling the way they feel when they feel it is a drastically different way of living compared to eliminating rewards as a way to shape their time.
Imagine if a person decided that they were not going to do anything to reward themselves today, and instead just got through the day. This manner of living drastically changes the arc of their experience in the moment. And not surprisingly, this exact outlook on life is taught to people suffering from today’s modern problems (including addiction) as one of many things that helps to achieve happiness and contentment.
It is however a good coping strategy to do something unpleasant or difficult before doing something pleasant or easy. But modern life seems to amplify this concept in a way that everything revolves around the process in which people reward themselves. This process has become the way that people shape time as well as the way in which people are not present in the moment. Being present in the moment is often unpleasant and unsatisfactory. So, the idea of using rewards to shape a person’s day can work for a long time, but eventually it stops working because the reward that people give themselves becomes less effective as they develop a tolerance to it – people need more of their reward and a more potent effect in order to continue to receive pleasure from it. And changing the reward will only work for a certain amount of time as tolerance and cross-tolerance occurs.
A better and healthier solution, yet more difficult, is to not use rewards in order to shape time. A person looking for sustained and slightly elevated levels of dopamine should be willing to let their experience in the moment unfold with uncertainty and learn to be able to embrace that uncertainty. Like mindfulness, the ability to do this takes practice.
Being in the moment means tolerating the mild distress that is inherent to just being in the moment. And tolerating the “distress” of the moment has become increasingly difficult because there are so many rewarding activities available to us in modern society – and most people would rather do those activities. Being in the moment is beneficial because once the person acknowledges that they are not going to feel good immediately, they can be present and become open to positive experiences that they do not make themselves. These experiences, similar to what some groups call “enlightenment” or “spiritual experiences” are infrequent, unexpected, and fleeting. Some people describe these experiences as accompanying some of the happiest moments of their life while doing something as simple as looking at a sunrise, mountain lake, or being with their new-born.
Unpleasant Tasks That Lead to Happiness: Endurance Sports Will Noticeably Increase Natural Dopamine
Regarding the pleasure pain balance, in addition to abstaining from substances and activities that artificially increase dopamine to abnormally high levels, it is beneficial to intentionally press on the pain side of the balance. By doing this, neuroadaptations are loaded onto the pleasure side of the brain’s pleasure pain scale, and eventually this will reset a person’s pleasure-pain pathways to the side of pleasure. Whereas artificially increasing dopamine with substances or negative behaviors as discussed above will result in a scale tipped significantly toward pain (and this imbalance will last an inordinate amount of time).
A person can intentionally weigh on the pain side by performing effortful daily practices that are difficult. Interestingly enough, cultures have learned to combine these techniques to achieve happiness long before they were ever discovered in neuroscience. Think of Buddhist or East Indian prayers and their daily practices in meditation that span for hours. In addition to an aspect of community and spirituality, they have included this aspect of achieving happiness by engaging in effortful daily practices. Today most of us will choose something like repetitive physical exercise because it has the added health benefit while also fulfilling the category of effortful engagement. It is important to note that these daily practices must be healthy activities, not video games or unpleasant activities that are physically or mentally harmful.
Endurance sports or training are some of the best ways to intentionally press on the pain side of the scale and are activities often prescribed by James Novello. Marathons, cycling, triathlons, ironman, rowing, etc all provide that difficult or unpleasant activity while also providing health benefits and a sense of community. If you’ve ever done these sports, you may notice that there is a sense of peacefulness in the repetition that exists alongside the difficulty of these activities. The peacefulness in this repetition is similar to what is experienced during meditation or religious practices.
Doing Things That Are Hard: The Hard Way Is Usually the Right Way
A person does not obtain their dopamine reward from effortful engagement immediately, but rather as the opponent process, or the aftereffect as the brain maintains homeostasis. By pressing on the pain side of the scale, the body responds by slightly increasing dopamine in order to achieve balance. This is as opposed to the decrease of dopamine that occurs as the body attempts to maintain homeostasis after an abnormally large and sustained increase of dopamine from unhealthy activities or substances. In the same way that a decrease of dopamine lasts for an inordinate amount of time after high doses of dopamine, the opponent process in response to lengthy difficult or unpleasant activities, such as marathon training, will result in longer periods of increased dopamine (slightly increased, not abnormally high as with the above-mentioned behaviors and substances). So, endurance sports (difficult activities causing a decrease of dopamine) lead to a sustained and slightly elevated level of dopamine whereas unhealthy behaviors and substances (easy activities causing a high release of dopamine) lead to sustained lower levels of dopamine.
Obtaining dopamine through the “difficult” sustained opponent process mechanism is clearly the most effective and best long-term choice. Rather than receiving dopamine through “easy” unhealthy activities or substances that immediately release high levels of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, dopamine should be obtained by intentionally pressing on the pain side of the scale. Doing so activates the body’s reregulating mechanism which naturally creates dopamine in response to that decrease of dopamine. This is a far more enduring dopamine source which does not lead to the same addiction and tolerance that accompanies consumption of unhealthy activities and substances. It is impossible to continue the consumption of unhealthy activities and substances because the body requires more and more simply to reach normal dopamine levels. Whereas the unpleasant or difficult sustained opponent process mechanism maintains a level of dopamine slightly above normal and requires no unhealthy activity.
“Difficult” may be a better word than “unpleasant” to describe the beneficial activities responsible for long-term elevation of dopamine. While discussing the “pain” and “pleasure” center of the brain, it is easy to think of things as “uncomfortable” or “comfortable.” Pain can include things that are effortful in any way or even things that are creative. In other words, pain is not just physical pain in this context, but anything requiring emotional effort, creativity, cognitive complexity, or things that take effort on a daily basis where the reward is delayed (meditation practices, solving complex algorithms). The “uncomfortable” or “difficult” activity is any mentally taxing activity performed in order to attain some positive result. Think about a software engineer architecting a new application or a student studying for a final. Once the unpleasant task is complete, the person completing it has a temporary increase of dopamine. It should be noted that the pleasure pain balance is an oversimplification in many ways because humans are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure simultaneously, such as when eating spicy food.
Give Your Pain Meaning
When a person gives meaning to their suffering, it can change how they experience their pain. The human brain’s prefrontal cortex, right behind the forehead, communicates with the lower brainstem (the lizard brain/reward pathway) and has the ability to drastically modify and control how a person experiences an event. For example, trauma patients can sometimes think they are actually injured and experience real pain when they have blood from another patient on them, yet be uninjured themselves. Their minds see the blood and create the sensation of real pain. The pain is not made up, but their brains elaborate that pain. The opposite can be true when people make themselves have a positive outlook on life. Even if the person is pretending to be positive and grateful before feeling it, the action of making themselves feel this way can eventually lead them to feeling positive and grateful. You may have heard the common phrase, “Fake it until you make it.”
Finally, as mentioned briefly above, community and family play an important role in happiness, and are additional components prescribed by James Novello. Looking back again to religions and support groups, community and helping one another are aspects of life that lead to feeling good. These are some of the many ways humans have learned to naturally increase their baseline dopamine firing long before studies in neuroscience have proven these methods to be true. Neuroscience research is ongoing that are studying the effect spirituality has on dopamine levels and happiness, but it is likely that a belief in some sort of god has a positive effect on dopamine levels and happiness.
You have a choice to raise your baseline dopamine the hard and healthy way, and to live with a slightly elevated level of dopamine. Or you can choose the easy and unhealthy way to increase dopamine to an abnormally high (and temporary level). Choosing the easy way results in weeks, months, or even years of a dopamine deficit caused by neuroadaptation in response to such abnormally high and sustained levels of dopamine. The hard and healthy choice is the right choice: put down your glass of wine, hop on the bike, and spend some time with your family or friends – just not the ones who are a bad influence!