Few things are more satisfying than being intensely and consistently motivated. Finding it easy to stick to habits, pursue goals and try new things. Dopamine is responsible for that. It’s worth understanding how it works and how you can manage it to experience more drive and motivation
Introduction to Dopamine
We tend to associate dopamine with the pursuit of pleasure, but dopamine is the molecule of motivation. It constantly wants to keep us on the run and in pursuit of actions that promote reproduction and survival, such as eating food, winning competitions and having sex.
Dr Robert Sapolsky argues that "Dopamine is not about pleasure, it's about the anticipation of pleasure. It's about the pursuit of happiness."
Sapolsky trained monkeys to know that if they pressed a bar 10 times after a light came on, on the tenth press, a food treat would appear. He measured the amount and timing of dopamine release in the monkeys’ brains during the cycle of ‘see light-press button-get reward’. The monkeys received the treat as soon as they pressed the bar 10 times. Surprisingly, the dopamine release started as soon as the signal arrived, and ended at the end of the bar pressing.
It’s not that dopamine is released when the brain receives a reward, but rather that dopamine it’s released in anticipation of a reward. It’s the dopamine that keeps the monkey pressing the bar until the treat arrives.
Dopamine rises and falls according to a baseline. You feel motivated to act when your dopamine levels are above the baseline - point 1 in the diagram below - and lack motivation when your levels drop below that baseline, like point 2 below.
Spikes in dopamine are dangerous because your body compensates for them afterwards. The higher the spike, the bigger the drop that follows. This happens because your body only produces a certain amount of dopamine each day, meaning that when your levels spike, it adapts to conserve the dopamine it thinks it'll need to continue functioning. Think of your body saying, 'Hang on, we need to do this again tomorrow, we’re cutting you off.’
Anna Lembke writes about the idea of pleasure-pain balance in her book, Dopamine Nation. When we seek something that we really like, or we indulge in it, like eating chocolate, there's some pleasure. But then there's a little bit of pain that exceeds the amount of pleasure, and while it's subtle, we experience it as wanting more of that thing. It’s wanting one more piece of chocolate, after every piece. That’s the pleasure-pain balance and it's governed by dopamine. When you engage in an activity or when you ingest something that increases dopamine, dopamine levels go up and the pain comes from the lack of dopamine that follows.
To understand why this happens, we need to understand how dopamine is released between neurons. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which are essentially chemical messengers that your body can't function without. Their job is to carry chemical signals across a synapse from one neuron to the next target cell, which may be another neuron, but could also be a gland or muscle cell.
One way dopamine is released is into the synapse where it can activate the postsynaptic neuron. The other way is called volumetric release and is distributed more broadly, over a bunch of neurons. In both cases, it's released from these things we call synaptic vesicles, which are tiny bubbles that contain dopamine. They get vomited out into the area or into the synapse. These vesicles form what’s known as the readily releasable pool of dopamine. We can only deploy dopamine that is ready to be deployed, i.e. packaged in those little vesicles and ready to go, so when they get depleted, there our dopamine levels drop.
Experiencing frequent, very high dopamine spikes creates temporary low points that leave you feeling anxious and unmotivated. It also lowers your baseline level because there isn’t enough dopamine to keep it stable.
This is the addiction mechanism and it works for both positive and negative things. After somebody pursues a drug or an activity that leads to huge increases in dopamine, the dopamine is literally not around to be released, so people feel lousy. Many people make the mistake of pursuing the dopamine-evoking substance again, thinking that it's going to bring up their baseline, that it’s going to give them that peak again. Not only does it not give them a peak, but their baseline also gets lower and lower because they're depleting dopamine more and more.
What causes dopamine releases and how much is too much?
Everything you do causes dopamine to be released. Whether it's getting out of bed, eating your favourite foods, hanging out with friends, or asking your in-laws for permission to marry their daughter, dopamine gets released. The amount varies and certain activities, like consuming drugs, lead to massive spikes (and therefore massive dips).
These spikes of dopamine are harmful because they lower baseline dopamine levels, but a huge part of life is pursuing activities and things that lead to spikes. The key is to understand the relationship between the peaks and baseline and how they influence one another. This allows you to make good decisions in the short run that also have a positive benefit on your baseline levels in the long run.
Having a sufficiently healthy and high baseline level of dopamine baseline is what drove the evolution of our species, and they're what drives the evolution of anyone's life progression too. Dopamine is a good thing, provided you manage it properly.
The rest of this essay looks at evidence-based methods to manage dopamine and increase baseline levels over time.
Creating a fountain of motivation
Teach yourself to begin secreting dopamine based on the effort you're putting in rather than the results you're seeing
Dopamine secretion is somewhat malleable and is based on how much we tell ourselves that we enjoy something. This is because dopaminergic release happens via the mesocorticolimbic pathway. The cortical part is important because it contains your prefrontal cortex. This is the area of your forebrain that's involved in thinking, planning and assigning rational explanations to things. It dictates your subjective experience of something.
I’m writing this essay on my Macbook. I love this machine; from the way it looks to the feel of the keyboard to how it fits in my laptop bag. I could probably get a dopamine increase just talking about it. That's not because I have the propensity to release dopamine easily, it's because what we encourage ourselves to think about something has a profound impact on how rewarding that activity feels and how motivated we feel to do it.
Dopamine colours the subjective experience of an activity to make it more enjoyable, something you want to do more of. You can use this to build good habits by attaching your sense of reward to the effort you put in rather than your results. If you're writing a book, tell yourself that the 30 minutes you put in every morning is rewarding, that you're enjoying it, and that it's worth it. If you're trying to run a marathon, tell yourself that putting on your running shoes is rewarding, that you're making progress, and that it's part of a journey.
Remember, dopamine isn't about experiencing reward itself, but rather about the pursuit of that reward. By telling yourself that the process of writing each morning is rewarding, your body learns "I got a hit of dopamine the last time I did that, I'm going to try and do that again." The more you reward the effort process, the more equipped you become to tackle challenges over longer durations, ultimately leading to better work and greater rewards.
Don't layer high dopamine activities
Break up high dopamine activities. Don't eat and watch your favourite show at the same time. Don’t drink coffee while you check Twitter. Don’t scroll through Instagram while you’re out with friends.
Layering activities that lead to dopamine release results in large spikes because the dopamine secreted by each activity gets added together. Take breaks between activities and do them on their own.
Don't start your day with a high dopamine activity
Your dopamine history matters. If your dopamine is low, you won't feel motivated. If it's high, you will feel motivated. If it's somewhere in the middle, it'll depend on your dopamine levels a few minutes ago. The recent trajectory of your dopamine levels determines motivation when your dopamine levels are neither high nor low.
This means that the order in which you do activities, and the amount of dopamine you receive for them, are really important. For example, scrolling social media results in a big dopamine hit. Because that hit is so big, whatever you come across afterwards is unlikely to be as interesting. Starting your day with a high dopamine activity means that things tend to be less interesting throughout the rest of the day and you tend to have less motivation. Previous peaks matter.
Studying first thing in the morning is a good idea. So is meditating, writing or reading a book. This allows you to slowly raise your dopamine level and sets you up to feel motivated to act throughout the rest of the day.
If you're completely unmotivated; move first thing in the morning
Go for a walk. Movement releases dopamine (without causing too much of a peak). Have a warm shower and gently make it as cold as you can handle. Warm-up through movement after. This raises your baseline dopamine for several hours and sets you up to feel motivated to act for the rest of the day.
Don’t reward yourself every time
Recall Dr Robert Sapolsky's experiment in which he trained monkeys to know that if they pressed a bar 10 times after a light came on, on the tenth press, a food treat would appear. He found that it’s not that dopamine is released when the brain receives a reward, but rather that dopamine is released in anticipation of a reward. It’s the dopamine that keeps the monkey pressing the bar until the treat arrives.
In a second experiment, the monkeys received food treats only 50% of the time after pressing the bar. What happened to the dopamine in that situation? Twice as much dopamine was released when there was only a 50% chance of getting the food treat.
This is the basis of gambling. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't, but the uncertainty means you keep coming back with the motivation to win. To create an elevated baseline level of dopamine and motivation, the intermittent schedule by which dopamine sometimes arrives - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes a medium amount - is the most efficient way to do it.
As Sapolsky notes, humans are able to "keep dopamine levels up for decades and decades waiting for the reward."
If there’s a habit you want to form, don’t permit high levels of dopamine release every time you engage in it. Exercise is a useful example. Let's say you don’t always want to exercise, but you know the benefits of it, so you force yourself to do it. You incentivise yourself by having a cup of coffee and a spoon of peanut butter just before and listening to your favourite music along the way. This will feel great in the short term; like it's getting you over the line and getting you to run. The problem is that layering these things together to try and achieve that dopamine release needed to get you out the door, you're increasing the number of conditions required to achieve pleasure from that activity again.
Instead, make this reward schedule unpredictable. Sometimes you have your coffee and listen to music, but sometimes you don't do anything to increase dopamine. You just do the exercise. You might think that makes you less likely to enjoy exercising and therefore less likely to continue, but that's exactly the point. If you want to maintain motivation the key thing is to make sure that the peak in dopamine, if it's very high, doesn't occur too often. Your body will learn that maybe it’ll get coffee and music, and the extra dopamine that comes with that ‘maybe’ will leave you with more motivation to exercise.
It takes time to notice the effects of these methods. I’ve been implementing them for the past month and I’m beginning to develop an intuition about how to manage my dopamine levels. It’s been a very positive experiment and one I’d recommend trying. There’s nothing quite like the focus and feeling of being highly motivated.
This essay grew from something I’ve been experimenting with: learning by writing. Take something you know nothing about, read a whole lot about it, and write a deep dive explaining what you found. It's not easy, but it's an effective way to learn. I’m going to continue doing it from time to time, feel free to reach out with any topics you’d like a deep dive on.