“Dopamine is released when you accomplish something you set out to accomplish, when you cross something off your to do list, when you hit the goal. Dopamine makes us achievement machines, but we have to know we are making progress.” – Simon Sinek
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released in the brain that is responsible for a number of functions that makes human life worth living. Some of its more important functions are movement, behavior, cognition, attention, mood, and learning. Its most well-known, and probably most appreciated function, is its motivation, reward, and pleasure creating abilities. To put it quite simply, no dopamine, no fun.
Dopamine is produced in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain. It is produced there, but it’s production does not happen independently without our cooperation. Dopamine mediates the pleasure centers of our brain. It is released during pleasurable activities and compels us to seek out more of that activity. It determines what we find satisfying, stimulating, and rewarding. It determines what we seek out, pursue, and how we feel when we ultimately find it. It compels humans to engage in some of life’s basic functions such as the pursuit of food and sex, creates motivation to strive, is the chemical basis for competition, reward, and that feeling of pleasure we get from the attainment of a goal. It’s what Mick Jagger was looking for in 1965 when he couldn’t get no satisfaction. It is the chemical basis for our fascination with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.
All animals, including humans, have some control over this chemical compulsion that dopamine creates. Left unbridled, dopamine can create a lot of problems for humans that other animals don’t have to worry about. Dopamine is the chemical incentive for a lot of human vices. It is the chemical behind love, which is good, but too much of it can lead to lust, adultery, and rape. It can lead one to seek out a satisfying and nutritious meal, but an excess may lead to food addiction, binge eating, and poor health. It can lead us to engage in physical activity that gives us a feeling of well-being, such as hiking or moderate exercise, but too much can lead to a desire to use addictive substances such as cocaine and heroin in order to get the same feeling faster and more intensely. Proper regulation of dopamine creates a life of achievement, satisfaction, reward and fulfillment. Misuse dopamine and you could find yourself in jail or a slave to addiction.
Dopamine also plays a role in cognition and memory. It is often activated by vision, as we often desire that which we see. It can determine what we focus on and can be a factor in compulsions such as gambling, pornography, Internet addiction, and even that compulsive need to check our iPhones hundreds of times during the day. Those little iPhone checks that many of us find difficult to stop are actually little hits of dopamine that we get multiple times during the day. The reward center of our brain is stimulated and compulsion is the result.
How can we learn to control and harness the benefits of this neurochemical to improve quality of our life? Since dopamine is associated with seeking and receiving kinds of behaviors, there is a lot a person can do to get the rewards that dopamine can offer. Unfortunately, it is far easier to improve dopamine levels with destructive behaviors than it is with healthy behaviors. You don’t have to resort to sex, drugs, or even rock ‘n roll in order to increase your levels of dopamine.
Get your diet and nutrition in order. Of all the chemicals that make up dopamine, none is more important than the tyrosine.Tyrosine, one of the building blocks of dopamine, is found in almonds, avocados, beef, bananas, chicken, chocolate, coffee, eggs, green tea, watermelon, and yogurt.
Engage in some dopamine building behaviors. Here are some simple tweaks to your lifestyle that can increase your dopamine levels:
⦁ Write things down and check them off as you accomplish them. Remember, dopamine is associated with seeking and receiving. By writing down a daily to do list, writing out your workout plan, writing out long and short-term goals, and checking these off as you attain them, you are working with your brain chemistry to not only increase motivation, but also to increase the intensity of your reward.
⦁ Be creative. Art, writing, cooking, home improvement projects etc. are all good examples of ways to increase your dopamine. Start with things you know you can do well and gradually increase the difficulty. As you do so you will build confidence, motivation, and self-satisfaction.
⦁ Engage in a daily routine of exercise. Don’t do the same exercise every day, change things up. Occasionally test yourself. Go for a new max dead lift, try to increase your personal best for push-ups, walk a little farther, run a little faster. Start small with these exercise goals and seek out goals that you are reasonably sure, but not certain, that you can achieve.
⦁ Listen to inspiring music. Whatever kind of music motivates you to get up and do something is what you should listen to. Many people find that different genres of music are useful for different reasons. Music is uplifting and inspiring and can be used as a way to regulate dopamine. In the ancient world armies frequently marched into battle to the sounds of trumpets. NFL games are punctuated with uplifting music at opening kickoff and after touchdowns. There is a reason that this is both inspiring and rewarding. Find ways to use different kinds of music for different purposes.
⦁ Avoid behaviors that are addictive. Avoid alcohol to excess and refrain from stimulant abuse from drugs such as cocaine. “Recreational” drug use can be the beginning of a dopamine depleted brain that will engage in high risk and often self-destructive behavior in order to feel some type of reward. Keep in mind that almost anything done to excess can be addictive. Be careful of how much “screen time” you engage in. Too much time pursuing stupid things on the Internet, online viewing of pornography, or mindless video gaming can ruin a person’s desire for real knowledge, real intimacy, or real life. Better to engage in real reality than virtual reality.
⦁ Get a streak going. Counting off the number of days that you do something, crossing it off a list or a calendar, can build dopamine levels. Just be sure to start with something small and attainable, something that you are reasonably sure you can stick with. Crossing it off is a visual reminder that reinforces goal attainment. That satisfaction you receive in doing so is that dopamine hit that you crave.
⦁ Meditate. Meditation quiets the mind and eliminates the natural human tendency to over think things. While it may seem counterintuitive to seek a state of stillness in order to increase dopamine, it’s really not. When one can find satisfaction and reward from merely being, increased dopamine is easily attainable. Meditation can fit and well with getting a streak going. Don’t set yourself up by failure by thinking you’re going to do it for hours every day, set aside 5 to 10 minutes for starters. It’s more important to meditate a little every day, even if it’s for a few minutes, than to do with hourly once or twice a week.
“If you’re bored with life, if you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things, you don’t have enough goals.” – Lou Holtz
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