Our drive for pleasure and reward - the dopamine effect
Updated: Mar 23
We may not always realise but it is part of our make up to thrive on reward and pleasure, it helps get us up in the morning, motivates us to achieve and helps keep us focused.
Dopamine, a so called ‘happy hormone” is largely responsible for reward and pleasure.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical signal within our body) that helps control reward and pleasure and can be responsible for our focus and motivation, it also helps regulate movement and emotional response, and stimulates the metabolism.
Dopamine is like rock n roll is to music - the craving you have when you smell coffee, the elation you feel throughout your body when you fall in love, the thrill of shopping, the desire for another, and maybe another glass of wine. That will be dopamine - giving you that little rush of pleasure and energy, keeping us motivated us.
We need to keep our dopamine injection ticking over to thrive and enjoy life
Poor dopamine function
When you are functioning on insufficient or a dysfunctional flow of Dopamine you become likely to suffer from a range of health & wellbeing problems, such as
inability to feel pleasure,
lack of zest for life,
lacking in motivation,
inability to concentrate,
memory recall difficulties,
Where as adequate functioning dopamine release can keep us motivated, driven, focused. Maintaining adequate levels of dopamine is crucial to health and well-being.
When the drive takes a wrong turn
However, this human instinct / craving for pleasure and reward can sometimes lead us to seek alternative ways to stimulate the dopamine pathways.
Dopamine stimulation was predominantly linked with human connection / relationships. We received pleasure and reward from our interactions with other humans. However, in todays society we are said to have become less disconnected from each other and our surroundings and seek dopamine stimulation from external sources, such as alcohol, drugs, computer games, porn, sugar.
Addiction is often linked to dopamine and our reward and pleasure system, especially with low or dysfunctional dopamine receptors.
When we are have low dopamine release we seek quick highs to get that rush of feeling - dopamine release. This feeling is often short lived, which makes us seek more. Over time, this can have a negative effect on our receptors, leading to less stimulation and reduced reward and pleasure from every day life and stimulants.
Natural dopamine stimulants
We all need that little rush of excitement, pleasure, energy that comes from dopamine stimulation to keep us going. We need to experience the feeling throughout the day, not in kick hits / fixes
Sometimes its the simple things that give the most pleasure when we connect with them. There are endless ways to boost natural dopamine stimulation
Your diet can play a part in your dopamine levels. Food does not contain dopamine, it is our body that creates dopamine, with the aid of amino acids from proteins, antioxidants from fruit and vegetables, and good fats for brain function.
Try a high protein breakfast to boost your amino acid intake, or add some fish to your weekly plan - boosting amino acids and omega 3 fatty acids to help increase dopamine release.
On the negative side, food like sugar and stimulants can trigger dopamine spikes, which can lead you to wanting more and never being satisfied. Dopamine is better drip fed than spikes, to keep you motivated, rewarded and maintain general pleasure.
Dopamine is released with the reward of achievement so by setting goals and achieving them triggers a dopamine boost. We are wired to seek more reward for the pleasure experienced from the dopamine boost. If you struggle with motivation, it is best to set lots of smaller goals rather than one big one, each small goal releasing dopamine making you want to achieve the next goal. Try breaking down your goal into smaller chunks, or even start off with some really simple goals to release a dopamine boost to spur you on and get you going.
Focus on the achievements
it is very easy to beat ourselves up with what we could / should have done... the time wasted, but it may be time to change tact.
Achieving triggers dopamine, so by focusing on what you have achieved will help motivate and drive you to achieve more. Where as focusing on what you didn't is likely to de-motivate you.
Make an effort at the end of the day to look at what you have achieved, it doe not need to be big - the small things matter, they soon add up and will help boost motivation to achieve the bigger things. Sometimes if you are really struggling the achievements may be getting up, getting dressed, laughing with your best friend....
Checklists are a great way to keep dopamine levels up. Making a list and checking tasks off works in the same way as achieving goals, you feel rewarded for the accomplishment, which in turns makes you seek more, thus motivating you forward.
However, the problem is often getting started. You need some ticks to get you motivated to do more, but you are not motivated to get started. If this sounds familiar - start with the basics, make a list of things you usually do in the morning, ie brush teeth, have breakfast, wash pots, prep kids dinners, take kids school, phone your mum, then add one small goal in the afternoon that you do not usually do. You will be surprised how much easier it is when you already have some ticks.
So we all have those days when we just do not want to exercise, but when we do we feel so much better - that is likely to be the dopamine effect. Exercise not only boosts dopamine it also boosts other “feel good” hormones and transmitters such as endorphins and serotonin. Try a session at the gym or a brisk walk to pick you up when having difficulty motivating yourself or feel like giving in.
the more you do something that boosts dopamine, the more you will want to feel that reward and pleasure you got from it, pushing and motivating you to find more / do more.
Studies have shown meditation can increase the release of dopamine. Meditation is a practise where an individual uses a technique such as mindfulness, or focuses the mind on a particular object, thought, activity to train attention nd awareness. Helping to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state.
Meditation isn't for everyone and may take a bit of practise to master, but there is evidence to suggest that it increases dopamine so worth a try if its your thing.
If the sitting crossed legs, humming isn't your thing, try mindful walking - getting outside, no phones, focusing on the smells, sounds, visuals around you.
Massage therapy as been shown to increase dopamine and serotonin by 30% as well as reducing cortisol (the stress hormone) by 30%. Having regular massage can help to keep your dopamine levels up - It may be something that is a little difficult at the moment with constant lockdowns but a great excuse to get a massage off your partner!
If the gentle hints of a massage do not seem to be working you can always turn to self massage. Some areas of the body are easy to do yourself and there are also tools you can use for self massage - foam roller, massage guns, spiky balls.
Taking a shower
Ever wondered why some of your best ideas come when you are in the shower? This may be partly to do with space away from everyone, time to hear yourself think.... however, it will be partly down to dopamine. Studies have shown an increase in dopamine release through showering. Some may say it needs to be cold, but whatever, clears your mind and focuses you is what matters.
So when you are next sitting staring at your laptop, not getting anything done, Why not take a quick shower to reset and focus.
Listening to Music
Ever wondered why listening to your favourite music and bring you out of a mood or make you feel happy? Listening to music has been proven to have an effect on dopamine levels so if you are struggling to keep motivated listen to music. Try building a feel good playlist of your favourite tunes to turn to on when you are having a tough day or as a daily dopamine boost. Another great way to start your day is to set one of your feel good tunes as your alarm clock in the morning - what better way to wake up in the morning.
We all know the great effect laughter has on our mood, but did you know that some of that mood boost may be the dopamine effect. Some say laughter is addictive, well it kind of is, it serves as a reward - creating better mood, and motivating to do more.
laughter has also been said to boost our immune system, increase intolerance to pain, lower glucose levels, reduce stress. A total all rounder health boost - what are you waiting for!
There are lots of ways to increase laughter throughout the day - call your funny friend, watch a comedy show, follow some funny social media sites and get laughter straight into your feed...
Creative hobbies have said to increase dopamine but only if you are truly inspired in a creative flow. So if you are a creative person and are inspired by creating, then make sure you make time for your creative flow. Try a few creative hobbies and see if they get your dopamine flowing.
How creative you go is totally up to you, even building a living room quilt den could be getting creative.
Build proper relationships
Although difficult at the moment, (but coming soon) go back to the traditional connection / relationship approach for dopamine stimulation. Spend time with family and friends rather than communicating through phones / social media.
Go for a walk with a friend and stay off the phone, chat over the fence with your neighbour, chat to fellow dog walkers....
Try to avoid quick ‘hits” from coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, sugars and try to manage stress levels. Dopamine is said to be detrimentally effected by long term stress.