From our coffee in the morning to that first text that we read to our Netflix binge at night, we’re all living in a chronic dopamine deficit state, according to Stanford psychiatry professor Anna Lembke. Individuals today, she argues, are exposed to so many high-reward substances that they are unable to enjoy the modest rewards of life and increasingly are dealing with anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
So what’s going on? In her book “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” Anna explains how pleasure and pain are co-located in the brain, meaning that the same parts of the brain that process pleasure also process pain. These two work like opposite sides of a balance, and this balance wants to remain level. With any deviation from neutrality, our brains will work very hard to restore a level of balance. So if you continue the behavior that releases dopamine (without giving your brain the ability to restore the level of balance), that initial spike of dopamine gets weaker and shorter, but that after-effect, which causes pain, gets stronger and longer. Eventually, we can end up in a chronic dopamine deficit state that is addiction.
Whereas previously, our ancestors often had to work harder and wait longer to get a shot of dopamine (think about how much time and effort it cost them to get something to eat), today, you can get whatever provides you pleasure straight away. From gaming, watching a movie, listening to music, reading romantic novels, having sex, food etc. And although this might give us a good feeling at the moment, if we overdo it, our brains cannot restore the balance: the initial spike of dopamine gets weaker and shorter and the after-effect, which causes pain, gets stronger and longer.
Anna refers to this as the “Plenty Paradox”: Overabundance itself is one of the most important modern-day stressors caused by the mismatch between our primitive wiring and our modern dopamine-rich ecosystem. We were not physiologically wired for this world of overwhelming overabundance that we have created.
Living in this dopamine-rich society, people need to be disciplined to prevent themselves from not overdoing it on pleasure. To restore balance we need to push on that “pain” part by engaging in activities that don’t immediately give us a pleasant feeling, but instead deliver us a positive feeling afterwards. Think about practising meditation, engaging in sports or finishing little tasks. All of these things are not immediately pleasurable while engaging in it, but will support you to keep your dopamine in check and experience contentment and connectedness in life.