Humans aren’t big fans of the status quo. We yearn for new experiences and rewards, whether by seeking a new meal, job, or creative project. Such diverse behaviors are spurred by a chemical in the brain called dopamine. Call it the motivation molecule.
In the modern world, though, dopamine has a dark side. Substances that give us great pleasure, from coffee to cocaine, can raise dopamine levels too high. And digital technologies, such as video games and social media, may affect us similarly.
Because our brains are wired to restore balance, peak levels of dopamine can be followed by painful crashes, marked by cravings for more thrills. Indulging repeatedly may lead to tolerance, addiction, and, ultimately, anxiety and depression.
But we can break this downward spiral by getting healthier dopamine highs. Here’s how to do it.
Keep track of compulsions
Awareness is the first step. Anna Lembke, a Stanford professor and psychiatrist, suggests tracking your daily activities to see if they’re turning into compulsions with negative consequences. An example could be in your hand right now; smartphones deliver “digital dopamine 24/7,” Lembke wrote in her 2021 book, Dopamine Nation. According to a recent report, people spend a third of their day checking their phones.
Addictive behavior is a spectrum; even if an activity doesn’t meet the scientific criteria for addiction, too much of a good thing can still undermine happiness, Lembke says. If your dopamine levels spike constantly, the brain, seeking balance, may respond by dropping its number of dopamine receptors, eventually diminishing motivation and pleasure of any kind.
In her book, Lembke writes about a patient who became obsessed with online shopping. Eventually, new packages lost their thrill, and he piled up large debts—but he couldn’t stop buying. Instead of pills, Lembke prescribed a full month without online shopping. The man accepted her challenge from her. His compulsion from him gradually cleared up, and he started feeling “natural highs” again, such as the buzz of anticipation for seeing friends.
“Not everyone needs 30 days,” Lembke says. “I’ve seen people abstain for one week and reset their reward pathways.” On the other hand, these breaks don’t work for everyone. People often need more aggressive interventions, such as medication. “But for many,” says Lembke, “abstinence is the starting point.”
Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist and dopamine researcher who leads the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that prolonged breaks from addictions could work in theory, but studies must explore whether this approach actually reduces the unwanted behavior in the long term. “Individuals are much likelier to succeed if they have social support systems and access to healthier activities that raise their dopamine and motivate them,” Volkow says.
Get some healthy pain
Good replacements for unhealthy fixations take full advantage of dopamine’s seesaw effect. Dopamine peaks can result in painful lows filled with cravings, but the reverse holds true as well: some initially painful experiences drive upswings in motivation and positive mood—minus the crash. The effect is called hormesis. “Well-timed deprivation can do wonders for pleasure,” says Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist who wrote about dopamine in his 2017 book, behavior.
One example of hormesis is taking cold showers, Lembke says. More research is needed, but a few studies suggest the body responds to painfully cold water by upregulating feel-good molecules, including dopamine. “These are modest natural rewards without a big comedown,” she says.
Kenneth Kishida, a Wake Forest neuroscientist who studies dopamine fluctuations, gets hormesis through camping trips. Not glamping, I have clarified, but roughing it in state parks for several days. This involves cold showers, eating intermittently, and sleeping in a small tent. “It’s really hard, but I come back feeling refreshed,” he explains.
Camping entails exercise, another hormetic stress. When people addicted to methamphetamine cross-trained for an hour, three times per week, their dopamine receptors increased. Alexis, a 29-year-old health aide from Brooklyn, got hooked on phenylcyclohexyl piperidine, or PCP, to numb feelings of sadness after loved ones died. (Alexis requested to use her first name for her only for privacy reasons.) She joined a program run by Odyssey House called Run for Your Life, in which people recovering from substance addictions train for marathons in Central Park. “Exercise gives me energy,” Alexis says. “It’s adrenaline.”
Exercise is also shown to protect dopamine receptors as we age. Otherwise, they dip about 10% each decade.
Be wary of combining pleasures
Just be careful about mixing exercise too often with other exciting stimuli, such as texting and blasting your favorite music. “We need some period of time when we’re not stimulating our brains,” Lembke says. “We need to experience the pain to appreciate the pleasure.” But Wendy Suzuki, an NYU neuroscientist who studies exercise, sees music as a great motivator. “Without music, most people aren’t going to enjoy exercise enough to do it regularly,” she says.
Volkow warned against something else people use to enhance their activities: caffeine. It disrupts the brain’s balancing mechanism, blocking its process of removing dopamine receptors in response to dopamine spikes, her research shows. Many video gamers down energy drinks, making gameplay even more enticing. “You have to be cautious to avoid compulsive gaming,” Volkow says.
Instead of quitting your favorite combinations, try having them less frequently. Some experts suggest this approach based on a principle called reward prediction error: we’re highly motivated by pleasant surprises. If we give ourselves the same highly pleasurable combo every time, it becomes boring and predictable, diminishing dopamine levels in the long run. But if you indulge sporadically, the novelty never fades. Tolerance won’t build up.
Another tool for healthier dopamine boosts is meditation. Eric Garland, distinguished professor at the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, developed a Mindfulness Oriented Recovery Enhancement program, or MORE, that has effectively treated opioid misuse, chronic pain, and emotional distress. In a study published in February in JAMA Internal Medicine, 45% of participants in MORE were able to stop misusing opioids after nine months of follow-up, nearly doubling the rate at which people benefited from standard psychotherapy. MORE calls for daily meditation and mindfully savoring sunsets and other “natural pleasures.” These activities raise dopamine levels without the spikes caused by drugs and other addictions, Garland says.
MORE also involves teaching people with addictions to process negative emotions. “Life involves pleasure and pain,” Garland says. “Mindfulness allows us to embrace both aspects of human existence and accept them deeply.”
Boost dopamine through flow states
“We’re living in a pain-phobic culture,” Lembke says. When individuals accept that some pain in life is inevitable, they often enjoy more well-being and deeper satisfaction. This is exemplified by flow states.
Flow occurs when individuals are so absorbed in a task that they lose track of themselves, coinciding with a slow but steady dopamine uptick, says Rian Doris, co-founder of the Flow Research Collective, which studies the neuroscience of flow states. To unlock flow, however, we must leave our comfort zones, involving pain and struggle, Doris says.
“It’s very difficult to get into flow activities,” says Paul Bloom, a University of Toronto psychologist who authored The Sweet Spot, a book about the value of chosen suffering. “It’s easier to sit on your sofa and watch Netflix.”
Let’s say you want to write a memoir. Mastery of the craft requires arduous, deliberate practice, and “there’s a high drive to distract with stimulating activities for rapid dopamine releases,” says Doris.
But if you persevere, you may eventually access flow while cranking out chapters. Another example: training for a big race. Last November, Alexis ran in the New York City Marathon. “Running gets me out of my head,” she says. “The more you exercise, the easier it gets.”
Whenever dopamine is involved, moderation is key. Don’t spend too much time in flow, Doris recommended, even for your job. For some, Lembke says, “work has become druggified like everything else.” Take breaks for fun. Used occasionally, social media and video games can be great outlets.
“I wouldn’t frame flow as a cure for your Instagram addiction,” Bloom says. “It’s just another thing in life worth pursuing. We all want pleasure, but we also want meaningful activities, even when they’re tied up with struggle.”
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