The Modern World is a Dopamine Minefield. Here’s how to navigate it.

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

Flashback 50,000 years. You live on the land and survive as a hunter-gatherer. The more laid-back members of your tribe — the ones who are satisfied with a decent hunt or can’t be bothered to explore the next valley over to see if there is more food there — tend to do less well in the long run. Among other things, what drove those people to explore, strive and struggle for more was having a lot of dopamine, a brain chemical that rewards us with a dollop of great feelings whenever we take action towards our desires and goals.

Dopamine was particularly useful to us in that low-stimulation environment. It gave us a surge of reinforcing pleasure on the relatively rare occasions when we earned that dopamine hit. Unfortunately, we’re operating today with software designed for the Stone Age. Our brains — and their chemicals — were shaped by evolution to survive and thrive in a completely different era. Now, cheap dopamine hits abound in almost every app and activity, while our brain chemistry is at risk of being hyperstimulated for power and profit.

Dopamine used to be the driver of progress; now it delivers distraction and dissatisfaction. Worse, it’s addictive and unhealthy. Dopamine is the new Nicotine.

There are dopamine dangers everywhere in the modern world. Once you take this red pill, you’ll see the Matrix everywhere.

Most of the technology we use every day are dopamine manipulators. There is a trillion-dollar economy in using these triggers to make us scroll more, watch more, click more, and spend more.

  • If you’re single and using Bumble, Hinge or Tinder, know this: dating apps should be called Dopamine Apps. Dopamine is all about possibilities, not reality. In this case, it’s the (illusory) promise of a perfect partner that will drive you back to swiping right, every time.
  • Maybe you’re a parent and you wonder why your kids are on TikTok or Roblox all day long? That amazing dance video or treasure chest that they stumbled on becomes their fix. They’re not alone. Scott Galloway points out that “TikTok now commands more attention per user than Facebook and Instagram combined … It was the world’s most visited site in 2021.”
  • Are you a millennial or Gen Z and investing in cryptocurrencies on the Robinhood trading platform? Those gamified apps — with fiendishly intermittent rewards, like a slot machine — are brilliant at triggering a massive dopa dose. Did you know that rats will pull a lever more often if they sometimes get a food pellet than if they always a get a food pellet? Yes, you’re no smarter than a rat.
  • Perhaps you’re a young couple with kids looking to upgrade your house and spend a lot of time surfing “Property Porn” on Redfin or Zillow? That little burst of happiness when you picture yourself in that new home is your dopamine receptors motivating you to put in a bid.
  • Maybe you’ve caught yourself spending a half-hour trying to decide what to watch on Netflix, suffering what one author pointedly called “continuous browsing mode”? That’s indecision, but it’s also your dopamine spiking on the surfing but not being motivating enough to actually watch the 90-minute movie.
  • Are you vulnerable to impulse online shopping and using the one-click, same-day shipping as a member of Amazon Prime? That feeling of excitement when you place the order — and a less intense version when it arrives — is what one of my friends calls “Doorbell Dopamine”. And that “Buyer’s Remorse” when you open it? That’s because the dopamine boost is already gone.
  • I bet that because you’re a diligent productivity geek, you don’t succumb to the siren song of dopamine — right? Wrong. Do you get a noticeable rush when you tick off an item on your To-Do List? “Do” might as well mean “dopamine” in this instance.
  • I’m certain that you know someone who is constantly planning their next trip or dreaming about their next job. Imagining yourself in Paris or on the playa is pure dopamine, as is contemplating that posting you saw on LinkedIn. That’s your programming for perpetual progress taking over.

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you now see how many apps and activities in your work and life hijack this powerful brain chemical.

Become aware of them. The reality is that we’re all dopamine fiends now. These dealers have taken over the world. They may be ostensibly focused on monetizing our attention, but make no mistake: their by-product is addiction. Most of these apps should be described as WMDs — Weapons of Mass Dopamine Delivery — because they exploit the powerful circuitry we’ve evolved to strive much like sugar, salt, and fat in our diet have supercharged our caloric consumption.

TikTok is a Big Mac for your brain.

Just as fast food pushes our hunger buttons beyond what they were designed for, so too do today’s apps for our brain chemicals. The Western World has an obesity problem today and will have a dopamine one tomorrow.

Addiction is a spectrum disorder: it’s not as simple as being an addict or not being one. Addicted people want/need their fix more than they get pleasure from it. So before you confidently state that you don’t have a problem, ask yourself how much time you spend on TikTok and Bumble, or whether or not your happiness at the moment is adversely affected by your relentless focus on the future?

The process of change can only start when you see reality clearly.

Dopamine is less about happiness and more about the pursuit.

We know that experiencing novel things releases dopamine in the brain. At the heart of the dopamine release response is a mistake — what neuroscientists call Reward Prediction Error. Our brain makes predictions all the time about how something is going to make us feel, and when we come across something new, surprising, and better than expected we get a little burst of dopa.

Humans are curious creatures, however. We enjoy progress in the pursuit more than the happiness of the accomplishment. Rather than giving us pleasure itself, evolution hardwired us to get dopamine when we do things that we anticipate will bring pleasure.

Crucially then, dopamine is not the happiness brain chemical; it’s the driver of desire. It’s all about wanting, not liking. You might be surprised to know that the brain handles these two related but distinct drives with completely separate neurotransmitters.

Dopamine is future-focused and is all about possibilities. A different set of brain chemicals — serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins chief among them — root you in the present and in the moment, creating a space for enjoyment.

The downside is that dopamine doesn’t stop. Its’ mandate is always more. It can’t be satisfied. In fact, we can crave something without actually being hungry. For instance, Seeing a donut triggers dopamine release — even if you’re not peckish. It’s about desire, not need. This is why our current world is so dangerous because we are carrying around a donut shop in our pockets. You and I spend at least 4 hours a day on — and 24 hours within 6 feet of — the premier dopamine drug dealer ever devised: your smartphone.

The answer: Go on a Dopamine Diet with the NOPA Checklist.

Let’s be real: total abstinence is not an option here. First, dopamine is a necessary and useful brain chemical. The absence of it is associated with everything from a lack of motivation to depression and mental illness. So no one is arguing that we should quit it cold turkey. Instead of aiming for dopamine temperance, let’s focus on management and intentionality. In other words, we need to go on a dopamine diet. I developed the NOPA Checklist to help you dial down your dopamine consumption.

NNotice the dopamine manipulators in your work and life and pay more attention to these triggers. Once you understand this dynamic, you start to see them everywhere.

OOpt out by removing temptation as much as possible (rather than resisting it). Take social media apps off your phone (leave them on your computer if you must) and be mindful about how much you use them. Be intentional rather than habitual when opening Instagram or firing up TikTok.

P — Be Present. Try to think less about the future. Calm your monkey mind with a mindfulness or yoga practice as well as with flow experiences like sports or dancing.

A — Seek out slower Alternatives. I like to dive into what I call “Galaxy Brain”, a headspace that I enter when I interact with nature and especially when I contemplate how big the universe is. Doing so makes us feel smaller, but also puts our future plans — and problems — into proper perspective. Others can find the same serenity in art or in hands-on hobbies that occupy their mind and body.

This may be the most important diet you undertake. Johann Hari recently wrote a chilling book on a familiar topic — the war for our attention — with a surprising insight: we should now describe the modern world as a pathogenic environment. In other words, we need to think about these apps as attention pathogens, taking over our neural architecture in order to monetize it. In doing so, they hyper-stimulate human drives that have evolved over millennia. We are not used to what behavioral scientists call this “super normal stimulation”. Dopamine used to be hard to come by on the savannah; in the silicon era, it’s cheap, ubiquitous, and copious — and that combination is rewiring our brain circuitry. Just as Long COVID is becoming its own plague, prolonged hyper-stimulation of our dopamine receptors leaves lasting damage — from perpetual distraction to addiction.

Second, we risk disrupting our body’s natural inclination to balance pain and pleasure. The human brain operates via a self-regulating process called homeostasis, meaning that “for every high, there is a low.” We are actually hardwired for equilibrium. Our brain floods us with pleasure after experiencing pain in an attempt to reset us. This is why seemingly painful activities like a cold shower or spicy food are actually delightful; your brain “feels” pain and releases pleasing neurochemicals to bring you back into balance. Unfortunately, the dynamic operates both ways: too much pleasure will eventually lead the see-saw to tip to pain. So all of these superfluous dopamine hits are, in one sense, running up a “pain debt” that will someday come due.

Finally, these challenges are only going to get worse. As the algorithms get more sophisticated, the VR headsets become more immersive and the data mining more targeted, we can see the day when these apps deliver dopamine bursts that are personally optimized for each individual. Right now they (over) stimulate us; how much longer before they completely manipulate us?

Dopamine has become the 21st-century drug — so treat it that way.

Dopamine was a positive force for our species for millennia because it was a rare and powerful way for our brain to reward productive behaviors. Today, dopamine boosts are ubiquitous and pernicious, because that same mechanism enables distraction and addiction instead.

Once we understand how dopamine dominates our lives, we’re better equipped to navigate the minefield that the modern world has become. Controlling our dopamine triggers is a crucial step in managing the most important — and valuable — resources in the 21st century: our time, energy, and attention.

Dopamine is the new Nicotine. The sooner you come to see your smartphone as a pack of cigarettes, the healthier and happier you will be.

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Ion Valis

I share the best insights from science, strategy, and philosophy to help people perform, transform, and flourish. | www.IonValis.com