In late 2015, a group of scientists wanted to understand the relationship between addiction and dopamine. They asked: Is the release of dopamine enough to trigger addictive behavior? So they created an experiment where mice would feel a dopamine hit whenever they used a lever.
The mice pressed the lever so often that they forgot to eat and drink. They were so eager for dopamine it overrode all healthy behaviors. Had the scientists not taken the mice out of the experiment, they would have kept pressing the lever until they died.
Today, we live in hyperstimulating environments that trigger our dopamine neurons with high frequency and intensity. Infinite scrolling, on-demand streaming, always-on news, junk food, games, bright lights, advertisements, and more are purposely designed to be addictive and catch your attention in the most irresistible way possible.
We Are All Mice
This continuous informational and sensory overload has turned us into addicts. Nowhere is that more obvious than in our relationships with our smartphones. Try standing in a long queue and not pulling out your smartphone. It's hard not to.
We justify our inability to not do anything for a while with excuses like maybe someone messaged me or I need to stay updated with the news or I can watch something interesting as I wait, but in reality it's just our brains wanting another dopamine hit.
We know it's not good for us. Just like with drugs, continuous exposure to these stimuli up your tolerance for them, and will eventually lead to destructive addictions where you're no longer getting pleasure out of what may have been a habit you previously enjoyed. Ever hopped from game to game, getting bored after a few minutes of playing each game? Time to reset your dopamine tolerance.
Hyper-stimulating environments also worsen our ability to focus. Dopamine rewards novelty-seeking behavior. We've all felt this. We're trying to focus on one thing but our minds are drawn to our smartphones, those Rings of Power, because we want to find out if there's anything new happening in our worlds.
If you're not careful, eventually you'll lead a life that's full of choppiness. You switch from one thing to another searching for more dopamine. Ever refreshed the website of your favorite media outlet minutes after you were on it, hoping there was something new you could read?
When there wasn't, did you switch to social media? Then YouTube? Did you struggle to quit, despite knowing it wasn't going to lead anywhere? Did you feel just a little more anxious when you did manage to quit? These are all telltale signs of addiction.
There's a Way Out
Creating a healthier environment requires resetting your relationship with dopamine. You want to reduce your exposure to hyperstimulating activities. This is best done one at a time: Do you have an addictive relationship with one particular activity? How could you redefine your relationship with it?
You have a few options, the most radical being quitting cold turkey. Often, this is the only one that works. Some things are just so addictive that even allocating small amounts of time to them isn't enough. You need to quit completely, if only for a few months, after which you can set sharper boundaries.
Another option is to significantly limit your exposure to the activity. Set a time limit to the behavior or schedule it. Social media and news only thirty minutes at lunch. Cheat day with junk food once a week. No YouTube on weekdays. As best you can, make it harder to do the activity when you're over your time limit.
Another way to combat addictive behavior is by introducing activities that are not hyperstimulating. Add some yang to the yin. Examples include:
- Walks in nature (no phone)
- Reading print books
- Writing fiction
- Spending time with your family
- Small talk
These activities add peace and quiet to your life and reduce the chances you'll suffer from a dopamine burnout. When you begin doing any of these activities, you may feel bored or eager to do something else. That's your mind's addictive tendencies at work. Give it some time and they will disappear.
It's important to remember that most of these addictive activities are not inherently bad by themselves. Videogames can be works of art. Netflix can be a great way to relax. Social media can be a great way to network and connect with people. YouTube can teach you about anything in the world.
But the excessive use of all of them combined can turn into something dangerously addictive. If you're not careful, you can become a slave to your dopamine desires. Reducing the number of stimuli will give you back control and allow you to enjoy the things you like with purpose. You'll enjoy smaller things more, become more grateful, have more energy, and feel more grounded in the present moment.