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“Dopamine is a chemical that makes us crave rewards and fixate on the future. When we’re on a dopamine high, we’re in a video game-like mindset of goal chasing, ambition, and planning. We bypass the ‘here and now’…Dopamine increase makes the here and now seem boring.” - Tara Kimes
Maybe it’s just me, but lately logging onto social media feels different. Something changed ever since TikTok and reels… the online world has become a stream of people performing for an audience, hyping themselves up, and singing for their supper—in an eerily eager, fast way.
Lately, I’ve been fascinated with this change in human behavior and began investigating it more deeply. I recently finished a book, The Molecule of More, by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long. It's all about a molecule that drives us to want more: Dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical that makes us crave rewards and fixate on the future. When we’re on a dopamine high, we’re in a video game-like mindset of goal chasing, ambition, and planning. We bypass the ‘here and now’ chemicals of emotional bonding and happiness (oxytocin, serotonin, etc.). We literally can’t feel them because a spike in dopamine suppresses them. Dopamine increase makes the here and now seem boring.
Social media activates dopamine circuits. It instantly rewards us with highs from likes and followers, numbers, and comments/messages. It exposes us to ‘influencer culture’ and leads us into the trap of comparison. In the same way that many men habituate to pornography, social media users habituate to novelty and become restless and unsatisfied, craving to find new novelty. One of the biggest takeaways from The Molecule of More was what the authors called the ‘Here and Now’ molecules—oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. These ‘happiness’ chemicals provide the counterbalance to dopamine. They are associated with emotional bonding, presence, and enjoyment of the things we have. Whereas dopamine is linked to anticipation and constantly seeking more, the H&Ns are linked to bliss and being happy where we’re at.
Dopamine instigates relationships and dating. It’s what sparks that passionate love that lasts only about 12-18 months. If we want the connection to last beyond that, we need to bring in the H&N molecules. They mediate what the authors call ‘companionate love,’ a type of love that involves being happy right here, right now… essentially ‘loving the one you’re with.’
Whereas dopamine creates the conditions in our mind to want change and motivates us toward that change, H&N molecules create the conditions in our mind to stay where we’re at and to be satisfied with what we have.
Another example is sex. Dopamine is associated with the initial stages—attraction and arousal. When we feel ‘turned on’ by someone, imagining future encounters with them, that’s dopamine. Then, when we’re actually with them and the intimate sex act takes place, dopamine shuts off and the H&Ns come on board—the pleasurable ‘here and now’ chemicals help us relax and feel those happy, orgasmic states in our body.
This is why it can be hard for ambitious, dopamine-driven people to turn off their overactive mind and just feel into their body during sex. Or why some studies have shown 92% of people daydream of another person during intercourse. Essentially, the same chemical that gets us into bed with someone can prevent us from enjoying the actual experience!
On the other hand, those happiness chemicals that keep us grounded in the present moment and bonded to the person
we’re with are the same ones that take away the excitement and thrill, because they suppress our dopamine.
So…is it a matter of having to choose one side or the other? Thankfully, no! It’s an issue of finding harmony between the two. So how do we find the right balance? One of the best ways to mix dopamine and H&N is through creativity. Not the intense creativity we've seen throughout history of great artists having obsessions, breakthroughs, and extraordinary vision—this has been linked to a dopamine imbalance. Rather, the more old-fashioned and simple types of creativity such as woodworking, decorating your living space, knitting, cooking a new meal, sewing, or painting.
These types of creativity are great because they get the hands involved, they ground us in the present moment, and are tangible yet still give us a reward.
Speaking of ‘hands on,’ here's something really remarkable—a consulting firm called TINYpulse surveyed over 30,000 employees in over 500 companies to find out what kind of work brought the most happiness. Turns out the happiest people are construction workers! Construction workers have this perfect balance of dopamine and H&N and the two reasons they gave show why. First, they said they love their co-workers and going out for beers at the end of the day, which is an H&N state. Second, they said they get excited about planning their building projects, which is a dopamine state.
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