Dopamine undermines the joy of the everyday

Reward is dangerous

The English philosopher John Locke famously said that 'Reward and punishment are the only motives to a rational creature'. And from the gold stars we give to our children, to the rewards we administer to ourselves everyday, and the religious stories about paradise after death, we typically see reward as central to our lives. But rewards can be psychologically damaging, addictive and cause a dopamine imbalance in our brain argues world-leading Stanford psychiatrist and author of Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke. We need to learn to be content with absorbing experience in the here and now and living in the present moment.


Modern life is increasingly organized around the many small rewards we administer to ourselves throughout the day, whether in pursuit of pleasure or to avoid pain. Indeed it seems to me that self-rewards have become the way we demarcate lived time: First-thing-in-the morning smartphone texts and the little hit of dopamine they provide, followed by our favorite caffeinated beverage for a jolt of stimulation to prepare for the commute to work, where we listen to music/news/podcasts to avoid the tedium of traffic, segueing into a day interspersed with Instagram Reels (90 seconds), YouTube Shorts (60 seconds), and Tik Tok (3 seconds), the digital equivalent of crack cocaine. We are relying on these digital drugs not merely to reward ourselves for a job well done. We’re interrupting ourselves with a job undone, escaping into the comfort of the Metaverse where the illusion of work and social connection often trumps its reality.


In forgoing future rewards, there is nowhere else to go except right here, right now.


All of this numbing distraction culminates in the moment when we can finally go home at the end of the day to eat, drink, smoke, and/or watch shows till we’ve narcotized ourselves enough to calm down from all that over-stimulation and fall asleep, often much later than planned or hoped for, only to start the cycle over again the next day.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

This scenario is further complicated by the fact that our brains adapt to repeated rewards such that our drugs of choice -- a term I use here liberally to encompass the many ways we seek to get high, escape, or change the way we feel -- eventually stop working and require more potent forms to get the same effect, leading to the “addiction narrative”, as Facebook (now Meta) so aptly put it. Addiction is the continued, compulsive use of a substance or behavior despite harm to self and/or others, including harm we may not recognize. With addiction comes a narrowing of our mental focus on our drugs of choice and a growing inability to take pleasure in other more modest rewards, including the things that used to give us pleasure. I for one got addicted to romance novels, facilitated by my Kindle as a seemingly innocent way to reward myself at the end of the day and fall asleep, something my brain fights no matter how tired I am, escalating over time to frank erotica, which is how I found myself awake at three in the morning reading about “butt plugs”, something I’d never been remotely curious about. How did I get here? 

related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING Dopamine nation With Anna Lembke, Simon Wessely

I know I’m not alone. Many of us find ourselves on the hamster wheel of desire, which by the way is only part metaphor. It turns out that some rats will run repeatedly in a running wheel till their tails have curved permanently in the shape of the wheel. Some will run till exhaustion or death. Like a roller coaster in an amusement park, the three-dimensional movement in space is reinforcing to some mammalian brains. 

But separate from the problem of addiction, I believe there’s a more subtle harm from this endless pursuit of pleasure: The inability to be present in the moment. To test this hypothesis, I invite you to engage in a simple experiment: Go through one 24-hour period without indulging in any activity that you look forward to. You may do the things necessary for survival --- eat, sleep, work --- and you may find some reward in those activities as they satisfy hunger, fatigue, obligation. But even those you must strip to their barest forms, avoiding foods that go beyond basic nutrition, sleeping only as much as is necessary to be rested, engaging in those aspects of work that must be done, while avoiding tasks that create ‘flow’ or ‘fun’. When it comes to digital media, avoid using the Internet for entertainment or to change the way you feel, the bottom-line my patients in recovery from Internet and technology addiction ascribe to. (See Internet and Technology Addiction Anonymous website). In other words, no scrolling through Tik Tok while you’re eating dinner, doing the laundry, and responding to email.

How dreary! you might say, and why bother?! And I would not fault you for it.


For all the pleasure we get from self-administering the many rewards that 21st century life offers, the constant manipulation of subjective experience deadens it.


But if you decide to take on this challenge, as I try to do on a rare occasion, the first thing you may discover is just how hard it is: The cresting wave of boredom mixed with terror is enough to dissuade even the boldest among us.

The second thing you might discover, if you allow yourself to linger there, in that dark and uncertain space, is an unrivaled attention to the present moment. In forgoing future rewards, there is nowhere else to go except right here, right now. And with our full attention on the present moment, we may discover that even the dullest of the dulls has corners and edges that command our interest. The very drudgery we seek to escape now feels like it might after all have some merit. In attending to the everyday-ordinary, we elevate it and make it something more and better than it was, and correspondingly our own lives ignite with a present-ness which is new and exciting and very much alive, and here I think we come to the heart of the matter.

  21 07 15.Pursuing happiness SUGGESTED READING Pursuing happiness is a mistake By Amna Whiston


For all the pleasure we get from self-administering the many rewards that 21st century life offers, the constant manipulation of subjective experience deadens it. In order to feel the vitality of everyday life, we need to maintain some uncertainty, some not-knowing-what-comes-next. We need to sit and wait and see what comes, and we can’t do that if we’re looking inward and working to modulate through repeated pleasures our experience of lived time.

So as you’re going through your day of no reward, look around you, be curious about what the world might offer up to you today, and know that joy will present itself, but probably when you least expect it, and not at your bidding or according to your schedule. When it comes, note how joyful that joy is, the joy of the bodhi tree, expansively branching, eternally interconnected, and providing much needed shade.

  related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING The happiness delusion With Rana Mitter, Aaron Bastani, Joanna Kavenna, Paul Dolan

If you liked what you found, play around with these ideas. Try the abstinence experiment for longer than a single day. Attempt moderation. Note how you feel while using, but also right after you stop. Was it worth it? Be your own scientist, not a subject in someone else’s research.

I write these words as I ride on an airplane from San Francisco to Washington D. C., where as far back as the eye can see, window-shades are drawn and heads are bowed. We’re immersed in the flickering images of our self-stim devices as the breath-taking views of Yosemite National Park rush passed us, unseen, below. How our dopamine-overloaded world conspires against us!

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