Dopamine is that wonderful chemical that helps us recognize an opportunity to feel good. Dopamine release is about craving, wanting and seeking. Those sensations are all very different from liking, loving or being happy.
When a rat’s dopamine system is wiped out, he’ll still love the taste of sugar if you give it to him, but he won’t work to get it. Dopamine is what spurs us to work to get what we think will make us feel good.
Dopamine is about anticipation of a reward, not the actual experiencing of a reward. Brian Knutson did brain scans on humans who knew that when a certain symbol appeared on a computer screen that they would be given money. The interesting result was that the dopamine releasing pleasure center of the brain lit up when they saw the symbol, but not when they got the actual reward.
Dopamine’s role was to for the person to act to get the reward, so they wouldn’t miss out. The reward system was reacting to anticipation.
Anticipation is a sensation that most people know well. We don’t really need researchers to point out that anything that we believe is going to make us feel good will trigger the reward system. Think about the smell of cinnamon buns in the mall or coffee in the morning. Think about the anticipation of a birthday present or a vacation that you believe will be fun. Think how you react when you see a beautiful outfit that you just know will look great on you or hear an advertisement for a great new tech toy.
One study, according to Kelly McGonigal, showed that playing a video game led to dopamine increases equal to amphetamine use. Perhaps the anticipation of winning or doing well is more rewarding than the actual experience. This probably explains the constant checking of email. We hear that sound that says we have mail and we anticipate a good feeling, but often it’s junk.
The dopamine system keeps us focused on what we believe will make us happy. So we may drink more and more coffee and buy more an more clothes and stand in line for a new phone even though we already have all those things. We don’t distinguish the good feeling of anticipation from the not -so-satisfying feeling of having. So we keep buying and checking email and eating more sweets.
Dopamine also triggers the release of stress hormones. This means that you’ll feel anxious as you anticipate the reward that you want. The need to get it takes on even greater importance when there’s the added fear of not getting the prize you crave.
Looking for a new pair of shoes may feel quite pleasant. You anticipate finding the perfect pair that you will love to wear. You drive to the store with pleasant feelings of expectation. There’s a sale on–40% off is even better.
But now you may find yourself stressed and not so happy. There are too many shoppers in the store, you aren’t sure of your choice, and what if someone else got the better deal? You feel grumpy standing in line. You drive home, put the shoes in the closet and you feel dissatisfied. Maybe you consider eating some cookies or chips. Maybe that would feel good. You eat them and then you either want more or you feel worse.
Everyone needs ways to comfort themselves when stressed. For people who are emotionally sensitive, finding ways to comfort themselves is especially important. When dopamine is released, that is a pleasant feeling, but the promise of reward is not happiness. Dopamine spurs you to go after something, but it’s really the anticipation that is making you feel good. Sometimes the result is pleasure, but sometimes it isn’t.
You can learn to control what you pursue and what you don’t. Sometimes you may want to engage in the anticipation without acquiring the object of that anticipation. Going to the mall to window shop or to smell coffee and sweet rolls may be the end result, not the buying or the consuming. Or with the awareness of what wanting is really about, you may want to choose a bubble bath or reading a magazine with a warm cup of tea.
Note to Readers: My thanks for your wonderful generosity in filling out the survey on being emotionally sensitive. We reached our target number, thanks to you. The results will be given in a future post.
McGonigal, K. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.