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  • Kevin Joubert, R.Ac

The Dopamine Fix & How It Can Rob You Of Happiness

Happiness. Who wouldn’t want a little more of it? The trouble with the search for happiness is exactly that…we are searching for it. Or rather, desperately trying to consume it. What if we are confusing happiness with pleasure? And our constant seeking and consuming things for pleasure under the guise of happiness may be leading us down a road to misery and addiction.

Let’s consider our smartphone use. It feels like a lot of time is wasted looking at my phone, in a very unconscious way. Scrolling through social media posts, advertisements and sensationalistic “click bait” articles. I finally put my phone away, feeling not so great. My phone use often leaves me feeling a bit anxious & way more insecure. Last year at this time, I thought it was the content of social media that was leaving me feel “blah”. So I did an overhaul of topics, friend postings & people I was following to try and curate a better experience. But that lead to minimal success. I still felt stressed. Over the holidays, I read an interesting book “The Hacking of the American Mind” by Robert H. Lustig. In it, the author points to the possibility that our feeling low & anxious is a result from an overstimulation of our dopamine system. Dopamine is our desire and reward system that keeps us coming back for more. Seeking things for pleasure is one thing. Mistaking it for happiness is another. Pleasurable things feel good, but for the short term. They are dopamine driven and rewarded by our endogenous opioid peptides (which act like internal morphine or heroin…hello bliss!) Every notification, likes on our photo and need for more information engages this desire and reward system. Our phones offer a small dopamine spike and by doing so, we reach for our phones again and again. This chronic dopamine stimulation comes at a price. Feeling anxious, lately?

Smartphone use or for that matter Internet use, shopping, alcohol, drugs, food, gambling etc are all behaviors that dip into this reward system for a little dopamine buzz. When we are chronically seeking the dopamine fix, it takes more and more to feel anything good. Overexposure to dopamine results in down regulation. This means that there will be fewer receptors in the brain for dopamine to hook up to, requiring a larger amount to get an effect. And what happens when we don’t get the dopamine fix? Withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, low mood and even depression.

How did we get here? One reason, the author suggests, is that we don’t understand the difference between pleasure and happiness. Basically, pleasure feels good and we want more. Happiness feels good and we’ve had enough. Let’s take a look at the differences between these two feelings.

Products and services are sold to us under the guise of happiness but they are truly just short-term pleasures that incur a dose of dopamine. By selling products that stimulate the feel good neurotransmitter and calling it happiness is brilliant. We all want more happiness and now we can supposedly buy and consume it. That all adds up to big bucks for companies.

We all want to be happy or at least happier. And more often than not we seek happiness in delicious food, cocktail hour, a quick trip to the casino. But happiness is not derived from a substance but rather an experience. And it’s the shared experience with others that taps into another hormonal system: serotonin – which leads us to feelings of contentment.

I’m starting to take a look at how I use my smartphone (maybe for you it’s gambling, shopping, sex or food) in unconscious ways. Am I choosing to keep looking at my phone because I need to or am I unconsciously seeking a dopamine fix? I’ve decided to limit my social media use. Instead of constantly checking my phone, I’ve dedicated time to enjoy it then that’s it. About 20 minutes a day then no more checking in. I’m excited to see how I will feel using my phone less. And I’m guessing with all that free time, I will become much more productive & hopefully a bit happier.

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