Anyone who has made a large purchase, fallen in love, or overeaten at a party knows that humans face a perpetual pull between what we want and how we feel once we have it. While this is rich fodder for philosophical pondering, this dilemma has a simple cause: the competing interests of two types of neurotransmitters—chemicals in your brain that transmit messages between neurons. Neurotransmitters have a wide variety of mundane roles, such as affecting movement, heart rate, and sleep, but they also play a key role in how we feel about the present and the future.
Battling Brain Chemicals
Your feelings about the present are controlled by serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids (your brain’s version of marijuana). When they’re working correctly, these “here-and-now” chemicals tell your brain to be happy and satisfied with what you have.
And then there is dopamine. Not interested in the present, dopamine is focused on maximizing the resources that will be available in the future. It can be a powerful positive force, motivating you to work hard, to learn, to earn money, and to grow. When it was first discovered, scientists thought it was a pleasure-inducing chemical, but when they dug deeper, they learned that it’s not so simple. Dopamine induces pleasure when you are pursuing things, but it offers no such benefits once you have them. In fact, part of its role is to make you dissatisfied with the present so you’ll be motivated to work harder to improve the future.
Let’s take a closer look at this lesser-understood chemical.
Dopamine Wants More
The dopamine desire circuit is a system in your brain that constantly scans the environment for new resources that will improve your chances of surviving and keeping your DNA replicating. As such, its primary focus is food, sex, and the ability to win competitions.
When the circuit finds something potentially valuable, dopamine floods the brain and creates feelings of pleasure, desire, and excitement to convey the message, “You desperately need this!” Whether you actually need something in the moment is irrelevant because dopamine is entirely focused on stockpiling resources for the future.
It’s like a person at the beginning of the pandemic who stockpiled toilet paper. No one needed or enjoyed having 200 rolls of TP, but dopamine insisted that it was important to have just in case. Dopamine does the same thing with all sorts of resources. It can make your perfectly good house seem inadequate. It can make a new acquaintance seem more interesting and desirable than a current partner. It can make space for a third piece of cake even though you feel uncomfortably full.
The cruelty of the dopamine desire circuit is that as soon as you get what it told you that you wanted, its job is done and dopamine levels plummet—along with those feelings of desire and excitement. Buyer’s remorse, the sinking feeling of regret that occurs after making a big purchase, is a perfect example of a dopamine drop.
Wanting and liking are produced by two different systems in the brain, so enjoying things once we have them requires finding balance between dopamine and the here-and-now chemicals. (More on that shortly.)
Overactive Dopamine Circuits
Some people have more active dopaminergic circuits than others, which can make finding that balance more difficult. People with elevated activity in the dopamine desire circuit can become trapped in an endless cycle of chasing the buzz and fall prey to compulsive spending, hypersexuality, gambling, or even becoming addicted to drugs, which provide an intense dopamine rush. (One in six people who take levodopa [L-Dopa], a Parkinson’s disease drug that replaces missing dopamine, has a similar response.)
Others have too much activity in the dopamine control circuit. The dopamine desire circuit gives us urges, while the dopamine control circuit, when working properly, gives us the ability to manage those urges and guide them toward profitable ends. The latter lets us imagine the future to see the potential consequences of decisions we might make right now, and it gives us the ability to plan how to make that imaginary future a reality.
But when people have an overactive dopamine control circuit, they can become addicted to achievement. For them, life is about the future, improvement, and innovation—at the expense of being able to experience the joys of the present. This can cause people to neglect their emotions, abandon empathy, and miss out on enjoying the present. If you ignore your emotions, they become less sophisticated over time and may devolve into anger, greed, and resentment. If you neglect empathy, you lose the ability to make others feel happy. Living for the future can also rob you of the pleasure of the sensory world around you. Instead of enjoying the beauty of a flower, you can imagine only how it would look in a vase.
Dopamine naturally decreases as we age, so part of successful aging is transitioning to the here-and-now chemicals. Just as too much dopamine is detrimental, too little is problematic as well. Without adequate dopamine, you lose motivation and drive, and no longer experience excitement at the prospect of a brighter future. There are many ways to balance dopamine with the here-and-now neurotransmitters.
- Master a skill. Mastery is the ability to extract the maximum reward from a particular set of circumstances. That satisfies dopamine and causes it to pause for a little bit and let the here-and-now neurotransmitters shine. You can gain mastery over a game, a sport, an art, a musical instrument, or anything else that you enjoy.
- Pay attention to what you are doing in the moment. By spending time in the present, we take in sensory information about the reality we live in, which allows the dopamine system to use that information to develop plans that maximize rewards. That’s dopamine and the here-and-now neurotransmitters working together. Further, when something interesting activates the dopamine system, if you shift your focus outward, the increased level of attention makes the sensory experience more intense. Being in nature is particularly beneficial because it’s complex, has unexpected patterns, and there is a virtually limitless amount of detail to explore.
- Download a meditation app. You can strengthen your ability to be in the present with practice. It’s like lifting weights. In fact, brain scans show that parts of the brain are thicker in people who meditate.
- Create. Because it is always new, creation is one of the best dopaminergic pleasures. Satisfy both your dopamine and you’re here-and-now chemicals with activities like woodworking, knitting, painting, decorating, sewing, and using adult coloring books.
- Fix things. Solving problems by fixing things is a dopaminergic activity, but it also leads to a satisfying solution in the present. Plus, learning to fix your own broken appliances or other objects boosts your sense of self-efficacy and saves money.