Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence

Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence
Image source:

Genre: Self Help

Dopamine, known as the “happy hormone”, is a chemical released from our brain when we pursue things that give us pleasure, whether it’s food, sex, chocolate, coffee, Instagram, TikTok, video games, YouTube, and so on. In today’s dopamine abundance era, all these things that elevate our dopamine levels are readily accessible at our fingertips. We can get an instantaneous dopamine surge whenever and wherever we desire. However, despite this ease of dopamine release, why aren’t we in a constant state of euphoria? Why are we experiencing more mental health issues? Why are we feeling more miserable than ever? Dr. Anna Lembke answers all these questions in her book Dopamine Nation. This book offers insights into the relationship between pleasure and pain and how you can leverage it to lead a more balanced life.

Neuroscientists have discovered that pain and pleasure are processed in the same region of the brain. Imagine a seesaw, with pain on one side and pleasure on the other. Naturally, our brain wants to maintain the state of equilibrium on the seesaw. For instance, let’s say you run into a close friend from school, have a wonderful time reminiscing about the past, then head home. You will feel a sense of happiness for a while, as the interaction triggered a surge of dopamine. After a few hours, the equilibrium is restored, and you return to your normal state, carrying on with your day. It’s no big deal! But even before the restoration of equilibrium, let’s imagine a few things that could likely happen. You come home and spend a few hours on social media, maybe post a couple of pictures and videos from the meetup. Then you feel like watching a show on Netflix. While watching the show, you may want to snack and grab some chips, and if you have a sweet tooth, then you might even get a piece of a pie or cake eventually. Now, imagine the dopamine spikes you have been getting all along and how that affects the equilibrium of the seesaw. After all these exposures, the seesaw tips on the side of pleasure.

The greater the intensity of stimulants, the greater the pleasure we feel. However, as mentioned earlier, physiologically we cannot continue to stay in this state for too long. An equal and opposite amount of pain is needed to restore the natural balance. Nevertheless, we always desire to sustain pleasure. For instance, think about how many times you have said, “I will only watch TikTok for 5 minutes”, yet found yourself scrolling for over an hour. We keep seeking one stimulant or another in an attempt to remain in a state of pleasure. This means our brain has to put what the author refers to as “gremlins” to work on the pain side of the seesaw to compensate for this hyperstimulation and to restore the balance quickly.

Now, the problem begins when we constantly stimulate ourselves with whatever the “choice of our drug” is, whether it’s our phones or something as extreme as actual drugs. When the brain has to put a tremendous amount of energy into maintaining this balance, the gremlins get stronger, and the pain-pleasure balance will start tipping towards the side of pain. That’s when our dopamine baseline gets messed up. We begin to develop tolerance meaning the same amount of stimulant no longer gives us pleasure, and we need higher exposure just to feel normal. For instance, how often have you heard people say that they can’t function without coffee throughout the day? I have seen colleagues at my workplace who make coffee for themselves every couple of hours until the end of the workday. It’s more than likely that coffee no longer makes them feel refreshed or focused; they have reached a point where they need it to feel normal. Now, consider everything from coffee to social media to extreme drugs! All of these things that initially bring us pleasure end up causing more pain. The pain can range from not feeling good after exposure to the stimulant to experiencing emptiness, anxiety, or even depression. The author gave an example of her patient, Delilah, who started using weed to manage her anxiety, but over the years, it only worsened to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed without consuming it.

The paradox is that hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, leads to anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind.

So, now we know about the pain-pleasure balance, and most likely the balance is off for the majority of us because of our “drug choice.” What about the solution then? How do we manage to maintain the pain-pleasure balance in this dopamine abundance ecosystem?

The author suggests the D.O.P.A.M.I.N.E technique, which stands for Data, Objectives, Problems, Abstinence, Mindfulness, Insights, Next steps, and Experiment. I am not going to explain all that, but I watched the author summarize these into three main points in one of her Ted Talks, so I will use the same for this review as well:

Abstain:  You will need to abstain from the “drug of your choice” for at least 30 days to reset the brain’s reward pathway. Once the baseline balance is reestablished you can find more joy in simple activities like going for a walk, watching the sunrise, etc.

Maintain: Once you practice dopamine fasting (abstinence), you will have to determine how you want to maintain that state of balance. For instance, if you are a chronic social media user, maybe consider enabling the downtime feature on your phone, and use social media during certain time of the day for a certain amount of time.

Seek out Pain: Remember the balance we talked about; how pursuing pleasure leads to pain! The good news is that vice versa is true as well. So, if we pursue healthier pain strategies, (emphasis on healthier here!), we can ultimately experience pleasure on the other side. For instance, remember the pain you feel when you have to exercise, but a good workout can make you feel better overall. The other example that the author gave is the practice of cold plunges. A cold shower or ice bath can make you feel good. It is unlikely that I will do it, but if you want to try it out, it might work for you!

To summarize, this book is highly informative and provides insights into how our brain functions. I feel like I have been able to connect more dots and make sense of things after learning about pain-pleasure balance. The only thing I felt while reading this book is that it can get technical at times, and folks who do not have medical backgrounds may not feel as engaged with the content. I wished the author had given more examples of common addictions like chronic social media use, coffee, Netflix, YouTube, and things like that so that people could relate more. However, there are real-life patient stories throughout the book, and people can resonate with things in their own way so, it's up to the readers to consume the content the way they want!

I hope this review was helpful. Now, you can decide on your own if you want to read this book or not!

More book reviews can be found here!

I will “see” you in the next blog post. Until then Happy Reading!! 😊