If you have ever gambled (and who among us has not gambled in some fashion, whether with dice, chips, cards, or love) then you know that feeling that you get when you hit twenty one, you roll sevens, or she says yes. It is unmatched. It is intense, pleasurable beyond anything else you’ve ever felt, and a feeling that by its very fleeting nature begs you to chase it again and again. So you do, and what happens? Inevitably, you lose. The cards are not there, the house wins, she moves on to someone else, and you are left poorer in pocketbook and spirit, and one more very important thing. Dopamine. Yes, your poor brain, once so full of brightness and light and possibilities, is now devoid of that thing that was making it feel invincible before. The neurotransmitter dopamine.
If you haven’t figured out from reading my column, and dozens of others, we are (still) in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, a gripping medical drama so intense that it sucks the pleasure out of our lives, takes the mundane and makes it unbearable, and strips us of our hopes, dreams, and reasons to strive for more. It is literally making us bad, mad and sad. It is leveling the daily playing field so much that we have a hard time finding joy in anything anymore, even the things that used to make us so very happy. So what do we do? Lots of things, of course, but in this day and age the one thing that binds us together is our collective use of technology, and the one piece of technology that all of us above the age of five seem to have in our fingers or our purses or the pockets of our jeans is the cell phone. The video phone. The smart phone. The gaming device. What Steve Jobs called as he unveiled that first iPhone “a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator”. I would venture to call these shiny, expensive gadgets that we love so much dopamine generators. “Are you getting it?”
We wake up and our hands instinctively reach for the bedside table, where our precious has been patiently charging overnight, readying itself for the hundreds or even thousands of times we will touch it throughout this new day. We will ask it about the weather this morning, use it to schedule our workday, order lunch on it, entertain ourselves with music in the afternoon, use it to search for mindfulness in the evening, and take in a Monday Night Football game to cap the day. We play games on it, tweet with it, send emails, take pictures, share pictures, manage our money and express our political views on it. We get instant feedback on what we say, how we say it and how it makes others feel. We are in search for the likes, the checks, the hearts. Why? Dopamine. Lots of little squirts of that lovely little chemical that makes us look up and say WOW, many many times per day.
In her August 14-15, 2021 article in the Wall Street Journal titled Digital Addictions are Drowning Us in Dopamine, psychiatrist Anna Lembke tells us that the brain likes to keep itself in a state of balance called homeostasis. This means that every time a little hit of dopamine comes along, the brain downregulates the receptors that recognize it, trying to restore balance in the Force. She says that “there is a natural tendency to counteract it by going back to the source of the pleasure for another dose”. Another tweet. Another email. Another like. Another heart. If we keep this up for weeks or months, she tells us, “the brain’s set point for pleasure changes. Now we need to keep playing games not to feel pleasure but just to feel normal.” If we decide to stop, what happens? We feel irritable, anxious, don’t sleep, get depressed and crave the activity that made us feel good. Addiction? Yes sir, you betcha. Hit me.
Dr. Lembke tells us that there is now a whole new class of electronic addictions that did not even exist twenty years ago, and they are primed to keep us coming back with their “flashing lights, celebratory sounds and likes to promise ever greater rewards just a click away”. Funny thing is, even though we all have ready access to these addictive devices and processes, “we are more miserable than ever before”. “Rates of depression, anxiety, physical pain and suicide are increasing all over the world, especially in rich nations.” It’s hard to take an objective look at all this when we are still “chasing the dragon”, as it were. Dr. Lembke says “It’s only after we’ve taken a break from our drug of choice that we’re able to se the true impact of our consumption on our lives.”
So, the answer to this whole dopamine dysregulation question might be to ease up on the addictive devices, games, social media and other aspects of modern life that are in fact making us less happy than we were ten years ago. Avoid high potency stimuli. Regulate how much time you spend in the presence of the little glass god. Dr. Lembke calls the smartphone “the equivalent of the hypodermic needle for a wired generation”. Ouch. Reducing phone time is hard, as it makes us feel deprived, irritable and cranky at first. “If we keep it up long enough, the benefits of a healthier dopamine balance are worth it. Our minds are less preoccupied with craving, we are more able to be present in the moment, and life’s little unexpected joys are rewarding again.
Sounds like a very good prescription for happiness. I’ll take it. Hit me.