The Dopamine Rush

A few weeks ago, I downloaded the Instagram app on my phone for posting to my work account. I did this after I was unable to cross-post to Instagram from Facebook in my desktop browser (due to a browser issue). After installing the app on my phone, I observed, over time, that my use of the app became more compulsive. I found myself mindlessly opening the app on my phone every few hours to look for notifications, even though I had external notifications/badges disabled. This meant there were times when I would check and there would be no notifications, while other times there would be notifications. Of course, the more random the reward (notifications) the greater the positive reinforcement (behavior of checking for notifications). Every single shot of dopamine from checking notifications and arbitrarily seeing the red dot kept me coming back for more. I was craving a shot of dopamine not only to feel good but more importantly, I was looking for something new to peak my interest. This goes to show the addictive nature of these apps and their insidious influence on our behavior over time.

I delve into dopamine below, but for now, know that it’s a neurotransmitter, which gets released in the brain when we do something we set out to do (healthy) or when we receive an unexpected reward (unhealthy). The more random the reward, the greater will be the reinforcement.

Other examples included checking social media for notifications in my desktop browser before starting work each day, checking website analytics first thing in the morning, or binge-watching YouTube videos mindlessly into the night. These are some examples of how I was addicted to technology and constantly in search of novelty.

A universal example that comes to mind is if you are gambling and losing money, you want to play one more hand so you can get out of the gambling hole. I remember some time ago, I used to play a game on my phone that required me to flick the ball across the screen. The game kept me coming back for one more flick of the fingers to get the ball across the arch. This was random positive reinforcement at its best (worst!).

Some people have likened carrying phones to having casino slot machines in our pockets. It’s only a matter of time before we get our fix. I don’t think that comparison is far-fetched at all. We’re always looking for new ways to get that dopamine high and having a phone just makes it so easy (temporarily anyway).

Dopamine is a chemical in our brain that is commonly understood as “the pleasure molecule”. However, it has more to do with novelty than pleasure. The other thing to note is only unexpected rewards trigger (unhealthy) dopamine. Here’s how Daniel Z. Lieberman, a professor and psychiatrist, describes it:

Dopamine is the chemical of desire that always asks for more — more stuff, more stimulation, and more surprises. In pursuit of these things, it is undeterred by emotion, fear, or morality. Dopamine is the source of our every urge, that little bit of biology that makes an ambitious business professional sacrifice everything in pursuit of success, or that drives a satisfied spouse to risk it all for the thrill of someone new. Simply put, it is why we seek and succeed; it is why we discover and prosper. Yet, at the same time, it’s why we gamble and squander.

Dopamine in and of itself isn’t bad. It’s the feeling we accomplished something we set out to do. For instance, every time we check off a To-Do from our list manager, we get a shot of dopamine. Its purpose is to make sure we get stuff done. Dopamine makes us go after our desires, goals, and dreams. When we achieve them, we experience healthy dopamine as a result.

But there is a point when getting a shot of dopamine is going a step too far. The problem occurs when it’s unbalanced because then it becomes dangerous and destructive; when seeking dopamine becomes the goal rather than simply experiencing it as an effect of what we do.

Our brains release dopamine from using our smartphones addictively. It’s no different than smoking (nicotine), gambling, alcohol, satisfying emotional hunger, social media, shopping (retail therapy), or seeking a performance bonus at work. But really, it’s worse than those examples. There is nothing wrong with doing any of those things. The problem occurs when our use of those things becomes excessive to our detriment. The other reason is when we do them simply to escape the reality of our lives, if only for a short while (because it feels good) rather than dealing with the obstacles head-on.

I’d wager our addiction to phones/tech is far worse than our addictions to gambling, alcohol, or drugs, because these addicts don’t do those things simply for the novelty but just for pleasure. Only in their case, there is a lack of intermittent variable rewards, but one thing is unequivocally true – they need their fix from time to time without which they become restless, scared, and reactive. The common factor between these examples is we are looking to fill that inner void with something external to us, whilst failing to learn that the thing itself is the cause of our loneliness.

Here’s what Lieberman contends:

From dopamine’s point of view, it’s not the having that matters. It’s getting something—anything—that’s new. From this understanding—the difference between possessing something versus anticipating it…

Dopamine is highly addictive. It’s excessive use is fragmenting our attention and affecting our ability to concentrate in intentional ways. We find ourselves constantly hopping from one thing to the next in search of novelty (not so much pleasure). The desire for the next thing is never-ending. I’m reminded how I’ve mindlessly binge-watched YouTube videos in the recent past. It’s almost as if no matter how much I consumed, it wasn’t enough. I was looking to fill myself internally with something that was outside of me. We look to these devices to fill that void in our lives, but these devices are responsible for creating that void to begin with.

Unfortunately, our cellphone behaviors have not kept up with advancements in technology. The ease of having information at our fingertips comes at a tremendous cost. What ends up happening is we serve our devices more than they serve us.

By the way, we think using feature phones will help us curb our addiction to our smartphones, but I’m afraid it’s not the answer we seek. While feature phones might help some of us to be mindful of using our smartphones, it’s unrealistic or sustainable to use as our only device, since we don’t want to have to keep switching between devices nor think about which device to use and when. And when we can’t use it as our only device, then it begs the question: why even have it in the first place and what problem is it really solving. We would be better off training ourselves to be more intentional with our smartphones than getting these feature phones to curb our addiction. By using these feature phones, in many ways we might be implicitly admitting that we give up and we don’t have agency over ourselves to use our smartphones mindfully.

Here are some ways I’ve come to deal with the dopamine rush.

The first thing to note is the problem isn’t necessarily with cellphones, social media, etc. as much as how we use them. While these can surely be made less addictive by their makers, we have the ultimate agency over how we use these tools. We get to decide how we use our time and attention.

As I pointed out earlier, there is nothing wrong with doing any of those aforementioned things as long as we do them with moderation. For instance, for some, it could mean checking their social media once a day (or week). For others, it could mean checking their phones for missed notifications about 2-3 times a day. Whatever the case may be, we need to learn to be intentional with our use of these tools rather than use them mindlessly.

The one thing that has helped me greatly is to remind myself from time to time to slow down. It has made me pause and question my choices before I exercise them. When you build your intention muscle over time, you’ll find, for the most part, you don’t even get to the point where you need to pause or ask yourself.

I now check social media for my work no more than once a day most weekdays and I keep it down to under 30 minutes of use. I check email once towards the end of my workday. I find it to be way better than using it all the time. Simply put, it’s the difference between being proactive and reactive.

While I occasionally slip up and do certain things mindlessly like the ones I shared above, I’m happy to share that, more often than not, I act with intention and do things proactively.

Ultimately, it boils down to changing our relationship with ourselves. It’s only when we learn to do that, can we be more intentional with everything else in our lives.

As any recovering addict (including myself) will attest, it can be particularly challenging to get off the dopamine rush initially because we are so used to being in the reactive state that even the thought of getting across to the other side can seem alien. Admitting we have a problem is the first step. We can slowly untrain ourselves over time to gain control of this addiction. Rather than control our addiction, let’s seek to improve our relationship with ourselves. We can learn to be more intentional in everything we do. We can always exercise our will to do what feels right.

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