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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gómez

Feel Bad to Feel Good: How to Disconnect ourselves from the Dopamine Hamster Wheel

Updated: 14 hours ago

One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies is my “Roman Empire.”  It's the scene in Ready Player One, where the main character drives his car backwards in order to get a prized key. I keep coming back to it because the more I learn about life and human development the more this lesson rings true. Going backwards pushes you forward. It's this homeostasis of life, this wheel of truth that is hidden to many. Like the movie, as we are all seeking the key to the oasis or in this case happiness, we never think to work backwards. 

So when I listened to Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke recently, my ears perked up. When we continue to seek pleasure, we end up with pain. And I realized I had heard this before. One thing I learned in Buddhism is that suffering is inevitable and necessary in life. The only way to eliminate suffering  is to eliminate ourselves. In the Way of the Bodhisattva, the second noble truth mentions this. It says that when we cling to desires and avoid discomfort we continue the suffering wheel. And, it looks like science backs this up.

The book talks about the danger of dopamine seeking behaviors, or addictive behaviors, that leads to withdrawals. The dopamine deficit state. In a previous article I mentioned the dopamine economy: The way that our society has developed to maximize access to things like sex, drugs, food, shopping, and other dopamine inducing behaviors through capitalism. While this is a future that ancestral humans would have relished in, we have seen the way that it has led to overconsumption of our planet, the opioid epidemic, and health challenges abound. Americans are the prime example of what a dopamine economy looks like- but the answer to happiness does not lie in having another drink, another house, or another hit- but rather the opposite. 

If gluttony is a sin, hunger is a virtue. Our body and brains are a fine-tuned scale we have to keep balanced. When we restrict ourselves our body compensates. We release dopamine , norepinephrine, and endorphins. Exercise is an example I’m all too  familiar with. As I tapped back on the bike at Soulcycle this weekend, I grimaced. The classes and instructors are known for their challenging drills, runs, and choreography. “Turn it up Brian” the instructor shouts, as I desperately try to keep up with the front row all-star moms. Classes like this and Barry’s Bootcamp, Tone House, Y-7, and Solidcore, never really get comfortable, even if you get good at them.

But afterwards, I always feel this elation, I tip the balance into pain, and I get pleasure. To be sure, this has its limits. I think of dopamine as not just one nutrient but many. There’s cheap dopamine, high-quality dopamine, and temporary dopamine. There are ways to induce pain, like self-harm, that are harmful, yet release endorphins. And so, there are infinite roads to get to pleasure, and the tricky part is choosing the yellow-brick road that leads to the longest-lasting dopamine that causes the least harm , while the road to get there might not be the smoothest.

It’s about going the long way ‘round. I once knew this group of friends that modeled this. Most of the time they were judgmental, capricious, and moody. But every couple of weeks, they drowned in drug-induced dopamine binges, ecstatically professing their happiness and care for one another. As the highs wore off their ships crashed, and this put them back on the wheel to pursue dopamine in this same way again. To stop and experience withdrawal would have been painful but it would have led to a reset of their scales. But like Shantideva talks about, we seek to avoid suffering in the short term and this keeps us stuck. After a weak plea to the member I believed was most receptive, I wasn’t able to change their minds and distanced myself. While they are still stuck in that cycle to this day, most of us are in some way or another .

Our society is built around addiction, because it translates to economic growth. Our economy and our psychology are not individual actors but rather they interact with each other often. And so it’s both a mental, emotional, physical, and economic struggle. Turning the tide can seem expensive but it doesn’t have to be. While boutique fitness, cold water plunges, and other dopamine fasts can be, it actually is about doing less. Whether it's letting your body feel hunger, sprinting for a block, or not buying something you really want, you can micro-dose pain. 

As we do this, we can move towards countering the almost magnanimous forces that govern our lives. Doing this also expands our pain tolerance. This is why the most privileged people can be the most unhappy. The series “White Lotus” is a great caricature of this. The more we try to avoid any feelings of discomfort the more sensitive we get to increasingly minute inconveniences. Sooner or later our canceled Yacht trip leaves us upset for weeks. 

Here’s another micro-dose, post something on social media you know people in your community disagree with. Not to troll , but to disconnect the dopamine circuit on social media. Apps like Facebook and Instagram have a long history of engineering addiction and part of the misinformation wave and the forces creating a fractured social media landscape have to do with dopamine. There are few people addicted to less biased media like AP news. Unsurprisingly it's not very profitable.

Our minds cling to information we’ve seen before and disregard information we haven’t heard before even if it's true. In this way the echo chamber is created. Our circles become regurgitations and embellishments of truths as they descend into conspiracy. And not only is your feed curated to give you information you already believe in, but you also get dopamine from sharing that content and getting likes, shares, and reposts from others. In this way we move away from any semblance of truth. While this might feel good, again we actually have to do the reverse.

Think about what information, experiences, feel hard or painful, and dive in. Doing this will not only lead to your own happiness and health, but perhaps create a society in which we are all more connected with each other. One thing about dopamine dependency, especially the type that is quick and easy, is that it's isolating. Cheap dopamine isolates us not just from others but from ourselves

Whether it's a behavior that we can’t come to terms with, hide from others, or a belief in a smaller and smaller set of truths we deem to be immutable- all of these behaviors promote disconnection. I had a friend who displayed this behavior. She had an ever-narrowing set of beliefs that kept her isolated. As soon as a friend disagreed with her, she would write them off as unworthy of her time. This created a revolving door of friendships that narrowed over time but maintained her spirits high. By avoiding feeling bad in the short term, she sacrificed her long term happiness and connections to others. This caused me to avoid disagreeing with her until one day I slipped up, and it all came crashing down. 

This can also isolate ourselves from.. ourselves- when we can’t admit painful experiences we then avoid processing pain stored long away in our minds and our bodies. While some find it easy to share and reshare pain caused by others, we often stop short of acknowledging the pain we have caused to others and ourselves. But avoiding pain is not the answer. Once we move through it we will see dramatically improved relationships, patterns of behavior, and connection to ourselves. Pain is not only a part of life modernity has sought to eliminate, but rather it is an essential piece of it, if we ever hope to be joyous, happier, and healthier individuals and societies.


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