How to Be Happy: It Isn’t About the Dopamine

by | Mar 22, 2016


Last weekend I attended a fabulous party. There was excellent champagne, illustrious guests, spectacular food and beautiful live music. The setting was divine, and the cocktails were SO GOOD.

The only thing missing was water. I’m normally pretty good at staying hydrated, but there wasn’t an obvious water station. So to stay cool and keep my mouth from drying out I kept finding myself at the bar.

At least, that was my excuse.

One of the most notorious effects of alcohol is that it effectively shuts down your frontal lobes, lowering your inhibition and turning your mind over to your more primitive impulses.

It is absolutely insane to believe that the best way to keep cool at a party is to have a cold cocktail. It cools you down for maybe 10 minutes and only worsens your feeling of dehydration.

But the part of my brain that considers my long-term happiness was out of commission. My reward pathway had taken over.

The reward system of your brain (basal ganglia, for you neuroscience geeks) is responsible for reinforcing behavior that is immediately rewarding.

It is the neural system associated with addiction and habit formation, and is necessary for initiating movement (it is damaged in patients that have Parkinson’s Disease). Activation of this system involves the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

When a rat is taught to push a lever to stimulate the basal ganglia of its own brain it will do so repeatedly, to the exclusion of food and other rewarding activities. It will even subject itself to pain to get a hit.

One of the assumptions scientists made upon seeing this behavior is that activation in this area of the brain must feel very good. Euphoric even. Why else would the rat keep pressing the lever until it collapses from exhaustion?

Since we already knew that this area was responsible for the reinforcement of rewarding behavior this conclusion made logical sense.

The only problem is that it isn’t true.

Follow up studies (on humans who can actually talk) have shown that the release of dopamine and the activation of the brain’s reward center doesn’t lead to a feeling of bliss and satisfaction. Instead it leads to intense desire and frustration.

Like you are just on the brink of satisfaction, if only you could have a little more.

Dopamine fools your brain into mistaking reward for real pleasure. In the heat of the moment you believe that following your dopamine urges will guide you to certain happiness, but more often than not it leads you into temptations you later regret.

After my second cocktail at the party my reward system had me completely convinced that one more drink (and another, and another) was the best thing I could possibly do to make the evening even more magical. The hangover I was left with lasted for two full days.

If you were under the illusion that dopamine is your friend, I’m really sorry to burst your bubble. It has its value for sure––if it weren’t for dopamine you would never do anything essential for survival––but it won’t make you happy.

Fortunately, there is something that does.

Serotonin, GABA and oxytocin are chemicals in your brain that are actually associated with feeling good. They boost your mood, help you relax and cause you to feel close and connected to people and things you love.

Activities that promote the release of these brain chemicals include exercise, music, meditation, prayer, creativity, learning and socializing.

You know this intuitively when you are cool, calm and collected. When everything is fine the rational part of your brain can clearly articulate that these wholesome activities lead to real fulfillment, and that following your urges and cravings usually leaves you feeling worse (with a dose of shame thrown in for good measure).

But once your reward center has you in its clutches, it’s almost impossible to step back and see the forest through the trees. Your rational brain is locked in the closet while your basal ganglia convinces you that just one more cocktail (or cookie, or cigarette) is the only thing that you need.

How does this happen?

Anything that inhibits the rational part of your brain, the frontal cortex, will cause you to rely on impulses and intuition to guide your behavior.

Alcohol is a quick way to do this, but stress is usually the culprit. Stress makes you anxious and stimulates the fight-or-flight response in your brain.

Your fight-or-flight response evolved so that you can act quickly in an emergency. If you’re being chased by a tiger you don’t have the luxury of rationally deliberating over which tree is best to climb. You just need to get your ass up the nearest tree ASAP.

Your frontal cortex is tossed out of the driver’s seat and your instincts, which act much more quickly, are put in control.

If you’re really being chased by a tiger, this is a very good thing. But if you’re stressed because there’s a ton going on at work and your kids have a big school project due tomorrow, it is way less helpful.

Instead of going to the gym to destress from work then going home and calmly working through the project, you frantically run home, order a pizza, and slap together some construction paper and glue. Maybe later you’ll polish off the rest of the ice cream.

It is unfortunate that most of the time our stress response leads us to act against our own best interest, but we don’t have to live entirely at its mercy.

A pleasant side effect of the feel-good activities I mentioned earlier such as exercise, meditation, and spending time with loved ones is that they actively reduce feelings of stress.

This can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment, but building stress-relieving habits into your daily routine can help you be less vulnerable to dopamine’s siren song.

When stress does get the better of you, simply being aware that your brain has been hijacked by dopamine is incredibly powerful.

It helps to have an arsenal of go-to stress relievers like breathing exercises, stretching or even someone to give you a long hug that you can always turn to so that you don’t seek relief in less healthy ways.

Stress comes in many forms and can unravel the best of intentions. In those moments remember that what you think will make you happy is very different from what will actually make you happy.

That serotonin, not dopamine, is your true friend.

Have you been bewitched by the false promises of dopamine?

Originally published March 23, 2015.

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24 Responses to “How to Be Happy: It Isn’t About the Dopamine”

  1. I have a strict policy of drinking at least one full glass of water (tap, still or sparkling) for each alcoholic beverage consumed. Very helpful in more ways than one.

  2. Ken says:

    Great article. Educated me in more ways than one.

  3. Michael Delizia says:

    You’re one of the few people I know of, Dr Rose, that would turn a two-day hangover into an instructive essay about dopamine. Don’t ever change!

    I do think there is a genetic component to people’s reactions to stress. My dad, rest his soul, was a very heavy drinker, and I have worried since I was a teenager that I might inherit that. I’m 72 now and still no sign of trouble, so I guess I should stop worrying, but I know I never will. This constant over-cautiousness has doubtless saved me a world of trouble, not to mention a few hangovers. It doesn’t translate into good advice for others, though. You can choose your poison, but you can’t choose your DNA. Yet.

  4. AJ says:

    I love this post! You have such a fantastic way of reflecting on your own experiences, applying your neuroscience training, and writing in an honest but easy and comical way that is so user friendly. Thank you!

  5. Judith says:

    What an awesome post Darya! I was actually confused about dopamine and serotonin! Reading this was great.

  6. Monika says:

    I really really love this article. This is the most insightful article about dopamine I’ve ever read.

    Thank you!

  7. Janice says:

    “When stress does get the better of you, simply being aware that your brain has been hijacked by dopamine is incredibly powerful.” It took me years to realize that under stress my rational brain is not engaged so I do or say things impulsively that I AWAYS regret. You are right, just being aware is powerful. Now that I am aware that in times of stress my rational brain will usually be “hijacked”, as much as I can, I try to simply wait until my rational brain re-engages. I try to do something very routine, something I would normally be doing without a lot of thought. Sometimes it takes a while and other times it’s like a bolt of lightening – my rational brain re-engages and I am able to respond to the stress. Other times what I thought was stressful, wasn’t much of anything. Thanks for helping me realize what is going on in my brain.

  8. John Simms says:

    I had a real bad hangover the last time I drank alcohol so I decided to quit. I don’t miss it. I wasn’t a heavy drinker. And I only drank about twice a month. But everyone once in a while I would drink too much and wake up sick. Anyway the last time I had alcohol was thirty-one years ago.

  9. Naty says:

    Excellent article. I re-read parts of it over and over to fully understand how the brain works. It totally makes sense.

  10. Aurora says:

    Excellent article Darya and EXACTLY what I needed to get me out of my funk! I now realize that for the past few months, it’s been dopamine that’s derailed the best of my efforts and not my lack of self-control or willingness to self-sabotage. Work has been so stressful for the past while with constant shortstaffing compounded by lazy coworkers who do not carry their weight and spend more time complaining than actually productively tackling the extra work. I never knew how stressed out I was until just reading this and reflecting on my emotions over the last while…working through lunches at my desk to chip away at the work, sacrificing my daily lunch walks that make me happy and give a change of fresh air, getting home from work every day absolutely drained, increasingly opting out of my almost daily runs due to fatigue and/or ‘laziness’ and what appears to be an out-of-control snacking addiction (mostly sugar!). It’s such a disgusting positive feedback loop…the stress continues, the binging compensated, the workouts are given up, the sluggishness intensifies and the shame eats me alive. I have now ‘escalated’ to gaining an extra 8 lbs. above my usual weight…maybe a little less due to my ‘monthly shedding’ now…and this has been all too discouraging. I now see a solution to my predicament. As overworked as I am and as much as things need to be done, it is just not worth giving up my health and I NEED to resume my daily midday lunch exercise, to de-stress, stay active and get some enjoyment back in my day. Thank you Darya for so elegantly explaining the science behind my self-destructive behaviour this past while…here’s to finally fixing it!

  11. Naomi Teeter says:

    Thanks so much for writing this article, Darya! I used to be such a dopamine junky. I took all kinds of supplements to even try to boost it more and more. Over time, I eventually realized that I still wasn’t “happy” or content… and couldn’t figure out why. I’ve knocked it off with any sort of neurotransmitter supplements and just started doing more of the things that increase happiness… like connecting with others, being creative, prayer, slowing down, and even doing things outside of my comfort-zone. Yup, big change in my happiness now. 🙂

  12. Irina says:

    Wow, what a great article. Love this type of analysis by you, eye-opening and educating.

  13. Iz says:

    Thank you! This could easily be THE most useful piece you’ve ever written. Now, I finally get it! All the other stuff, mindful eating etc, can just slot into place if I nail this one!

  14. Jen G says:

    So if different parts of our brain switch off eg frontal lobe and we forget about longterm effects of our behaviour, just like a junkie we want a quick fix rush that feels good at the time but feels awful after. Maybe this applies to negative behaviour when its associated with something we crave for, like gossip makes you feel part of a group, we get an instant connection with others…but does that connection offer anything positive? This really helps me understand my impulsive behaviour at times. Thanks Darya

  15. Elsie says:

    Hi Darya,
    Very interesting how you make the distinction between things that keep us craving because they make us feel desire “like you are just on the brink of satisfaction, if only you could have a little more” and things that bring actual satisfaction.
    I recognize this difference in relation to different foods, for example: white chocolate will make me eat more and more and more, never completely satisfying me. Dark chocolate (70% cacao) will satisfy me, often after just one small piece…
    Do you think different ingredients (or combinations of ingredients) trigger the release of dopamine / serotonin?

  16. Marie Flores says:

    Wow excellent…. This was written by Dr Darya Ph.D and not the summertomato Darya.
    It took me a while to clearly understand all you wrote.
    Great post

  17. Tracy says:

    Your readers are insightful, captivating writers! So thankful for these thoughtful comments in addition to your excellent article, Darya. I’ve realized over the course of several food battles/”dieting” experiences that if I really want to get a handle on my impulses, it really helps me to know the nerdy scientific/psychological rationale behind my actions. It also helps me to know that my changeable emotions aren’t in the driver’s seat. “Self, dopamine has just hijacked your frontal cortex. Having that knowledge, just find something to do and wait it out; rational thought will return shortly.” 🙂 Thanks so much.

  18. Sarah says:

    DO not drink people, I know that alcohol has a long history, but don’t be tricked by that, alcohol is a hard drug in the same category as heroin, meth or cocaine.. (actually much more people die because of alcohol than heroin). If you have ever read studies about alcohol you should know that even if you drink a glass of vine once in a week, you have higher risk of various diseases & cancers, and it has no medicinal value at all.
    If alcohol was introduced to our society today it would never be legalized..
    If you really into healthy living, try switch from alcohol to marijuana, it’s harmless and also has lots of health benefits, and it doesn’t make you annoying person like alcohol does.. 🙂

  19. It’s so crazy that you wrote about this topic this week because I just learned about this in school yesterday. We were studying Ayurveda in school last week and they were talking about the 3 Ayurvedic mental constitutions, one of them being “tamasic” which means that you are someone who is addictive to doing things that release dopamine (shopping, drugs, alcohol, eating sugary foods, etc.). Basically when you get to this stage it means you are past the mental constitution of “rajasic”, which is never being satisfied with what you have, and are now just numbing yourself. What always sparks this topic in school is sugar. Sugar (like other addicting things) clouds your mind and disables you to be your calm true self and to make clear decisions. Just like you are talking about here. Thanks for reinforcing this subject for me! Good stuff!

  20. Michael Hatcher says:

    You mentioned there was no obvious water station, but there was one right in front of you – the bar! Just ask the bartender for water. That’s what I often do, especially at work-related functions.

  21. Arthur J. Marr says:

    Good article! Dopamine is only part of the picture, and below is a different neuroscientific perspective that I would hope conforms with your position.

    This is an argument that takes the interpretation of happiness proposed by the distinguished neuroscientists Kent Berridge and Morton Kringelbach (happiness reflects concurrent increases in dopamine and opioid levels in the brain) and provides the first procedural demonstration of their hypothesis. Since the procedure is simple, innocuous, and easily falsifiable, if it doesn’t work you will know it fast! My argument is provided in a free little book on the neuropsychology of rest, which was vetted and endorsed by Dr. Berridge. A synopsis of my argument is below and also on pp. 43-45 of the book. The book by the author and Berridge’s article are linked below.

    Below is my argument in a nutshell:

    Individuals who engage in tasks in which they perceive a consistent and high degree of present and anticipated novel and positive outcomes or ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity, doing productive work) commonly report a feeling of high alertness and arousal that may be construed to be due to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, a significant subset of these individuals also report a feeling of pleasure that is characteristic of opioid release, but these reports occur only in non-stressed situations when the musculature is relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid and dopamine systems stimulate each other, the resulting blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that are very easily achieved. In this way, which engages both resting protocols and an active sense of meaning, both dopamine and opioid release can be increased in the brain, and provide a level of deep rest that can effectively mitigate stress and anxiety while producing feeling of satisfaction or happiness.

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