Don’t Be a Dopamine Dope-Fiend

Of serotonin and self-efficacy.

In The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal discusses the famous experiments of James Olds and Peter Milner, who implanted electrodes deep into the brains of rats and discovered what they thought of as the “pleasure center.”

“They set up a lever that, when pressed, would electrically stimulate the rat’s pleasure center. Once the rat figured out what the lever did, he began giving himself shocks every five seconds. Other rats given free access to self-stimulation showed no signs of satiation, and would continue to press the lever until they collapsed from exhaustion. Rats even found self-torture acceptable if it led to brain stimulation. Olds put self-stimulating levers at the opposite ends of an electrified grid, and set it up so that a rat could only receive one shock at a time from each lever. Rats willingly ran back and forth across the electrified grid until their charred feet were so injured they could not continue.”

McGonigal writes that:

“It didn’t take long for a psychiatrist to think this experiment would be a pretty neat thing to try with humans. At Tulane University, Robert Heath implanted electrodes into his patients’ brains, and gave them a control box to self-stimulate the newly discovered pleasure center. Heath’s patients behaved remarkably like Olds and Milner’s rats. When given permission to self-stimulate at any rate they liked, they averaged forty shocks per minute. When a food tray was brought in for a break, the patients — who admitted they were hungry — didn’t want to stop the self-stimulation to eat. One patient put up vigorous protests whenever the experimenter tried to end the session and disconnect the electrodes. Another participant continued to press the button over two hundred times after the current was turned off, until the experimenter finally demanded that he stop.

Heath thought he had discovered the therapeutic secret to happiness. But as McGonigal writes:

…it’s true that the patients said the shocks felt good. But their near-constant rates of self-stimulation, combined with anxiety about having the current turned off, suggested something other than true satisfaction. What few details we have about his patients’ thoughts and feelings reveal another side to this seemingly blissful experience. One patient, who suffered from narcolepsy and was given the portable implant to help him stay awake, described the feeling of self-stimulation as intensely frustrating. Despite his “frequent, sometimes frantic pushing of the button,” he was never able to achieve the sense of satisfaction he felt he was close to experiencing. The self-stimulation left him anxious, not happy. His behavior looked more like compulsion than a man experiencing pleasure. What if Olds and Milner’s rats weren’t self-stimulating to exhaustion because it felt so good that they didn’t want to stop? What if the area of the brain they were stimulating wasn’t rewarding them with the experience of profound pleasure, but simply promising them the experience of pleasure? Is it possible the rats were self-stimulating because their brains were telling them that if they just pressed that lever one more time, something wonderful was going to happen?
Olds and Milner hadn’t discovered the pleasure center — they had discovered what neuroscientists now call the reward system. The area they were stimulating was part of the brain’s most primitive motivational system, one that evolved to propel us toward action and consumption.”

McGonigal then explains the current scientific understanding of the reward system:

“How does the reward system compel us to act? When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to and what to get our greedy little hands on. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself — the feeling is more like arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling. In the last few years, neuroscientists have given the effect of dopamine release many names, including seeking, wanting, craving, and desire. But one thing is clear: It is not the experience of liking, satisfaction, pleasure, or actual reward.”

So what neurochemical is associated with actual satisfaction? One that seems to fit the bill is serotonin.

In his Psychology Today article, The Neurochemicals of Happiness, Christopher Bergland writes:

“Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it. For the sake of practical application I call it “The Confidence Molecule.” Ultimately the link between higher serotonin and a lack of rejection sensitivity allows people to put themselves in situations that will bolster self-esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging. To increase serotonin, challenge yourself regularly and pursue things that reinforce a sense of purpose, meaning and accomplishment. Being able to say “I did it!” will produce a feedback loop that will reinforce behaviors that build self esteem and make you less insecure and create an upward spiral of more and more serotonin.”

This kind of confidence is what Nathaniel Branden calls “self-efficacy,” which he argues is a chief component of self-esteem. The experience of pleasure/satisfaction/happiness that flows from accomplishment and which is associated with serotonin represents a boost in our sense of self-efficacy, which Branden described as “confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life…”

In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Branden wrote:

“Self-efficacy means confidence in the functioning of my mind, in my ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions; confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of my interests and needs; self-trust; self-reliance.”

With deficient self-efficacy, the individual becomes more despondent, listless, and anxious: emotional manifestations of a deep existential uneasiness.

Framing choices in your mind in a manner informed by these basic facts of neurochemistry can be useful for boosting willpower. I’ve taken to asking myself, “Is there a serotonin pay-off for what I’m doing now? Will there be a feeling of accomplishment and a boost in my sense of self-efficacy resulting from this action?” If there is, then that’s a path to growing happiness. I get to enjoy the dopamine rushes of seeking my goal and later also enjoy the serotonin rush of actually accomplishing my goal. And thanks to my increased self-confidence, I will be more motivated to pursue goals in the future, which will mean still more dompamine and serotonin rushes.

Activities soaked in a healthy balance of both dopamine and serotonin can include working, pursuing creative hobbies (like essay-writing or photography), reading to stimulate your thinking, taking restorative walks, using Facebook to connect with people, or even enjoying a show or movie to unwind: basically any activity pursued mindfully.

If there is no prospective serotonin pay-off for what I’m doing, then I’m probably acting compulsively in a way that I will later regret. Continuing to do so will be to become more of a dopamine junkie, chasing an endless series of dopamine hits, each one less pleasurable than the last. Meanwhile, my self-efficacy will be eroding and, deprived of serotonin, I will likely become more anxious and melancholy.

Activities soaked in pure dopamine can include mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, binge-watching Netflix to avoid thinking about pressing problems, mindlessly snacking, or maybe even thoughtlessly grinding away in a job that makes you dead inside but which has become a comfortable rut: basically any activity pursued compulsively.

Don’t be a dopamine dope-fiend. A dynamic brew of dopamine and serotonin is the recipe for self-mastery, self-esteem, and sustainable happiness.