The Dopamine Reward System
As humans, we all have an internal reward system that guides virtually every behavior and action that we take, and the driver of that system is the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as the “pleasure chemical,” because it makes us feel good. But that’s not all it does. It is also responsible for motivation, memory storage, and even movement. In fact, the tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease are actually the result of a deficiency in dopamine.
Dopamine production is triggered within our brains through the process of goal-setting. When we focus our attention on an intention to accomplish something – whether that’s running a marathon or lifting our pinky finger – the brain releases dopamine to motivate us to take action in the pursuit of that goal. Additionally, if we successfully complete the action, more dopamine is released as a reward and to flag a memory of what we did so that we know how to do it again.
The Pleasure Paradox
The problem with dopamine as a motivator and reward for goal pursuit can be seen with what happens immediately after a goal is actually achieved. Let’s look at our evolutionary goal of survival.
One necessary survival-related goal is food consumption. When we think about food, we are motivated to find something to eat – that’s dopamine. As we eat the food, we are rewarded with a feeling of pleasure – that’s dopamine too. But the purpose of eating is actually to convert the energy from the food into our cells, and we don’t get dopamine for that (that’s called digestion and unless something goes badly, we aren’t aware of that at all). This is because dopamine is designed to get you to take action towards goal pursuit – once that action has been taken, the body doesn’t need to reward you anymore.
The same paradox can be seen with Olympic athletes. Their entire lives are devoted to the singular pursuit of one extraordinary goal: winning a gold medal. Virtually everything they do is filtered through that lens. What time they wake up, what they eat, who they hang out with, is all determined by the likelihood that it increases their chances of winning gold. The result is an incredibly powerful and well-structured dopamine reward system, one that gives them unbelievable energy and serves as a wonderful inspiration for others.
But what happens when an Olympic athlete actually achieves that goal? The dopamine reward system that was motivating them toward that goal breaks down after the goal is achieved.
In fact, when Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympic athlete of all time, retired at the age of 31, he came very close to committing suicide. In 2020, he released a documentary called The Weight of Gold, in which he exposed a startling truth that most Olympic athletes become depressed, and a significant number of them have actually gone through with taking their own lives.
How could their outlook change so suddenly?
A Different Kind of Energy
When cavemen went about their day pursuing evolutionary goals like scavenging for food or setting up a structure, dopamine would pull them in the right direction. But sometimes, an unexpected danger – like a lion leaping out from behind a bush – would throw all those goals out the window. In those moments, an even more powerful source of energy was needed: cortisol.
Cortisol is our fight-or-flight chemical that is released by our brain’s amygdala the instant a perceived threat is identified. Even before the thinking part of our brain is aware of the threat, cortisol is busy signaling for the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline, which cause our heart to pump faster, our eyes to open wider, and our sweat glands to activate as our bodies prepare to fight or flee.
We are all familiar with the feeling of stress that cortisol creates. However, rather than burning off the stress by expending the energy required from an actual fight or flight, we bury it because today’s stressors are most often not an actual threat to survival. But because we still feel like we are threatened, those lingering chemicals create dangerous thought patterns that make us think something is terribly wrong.
When the Olympic athlete’s dopamine reward structure (which almost exclusively relies on the future potential of winning a gold medal) no longer exists, the absence of that intense amount of energy is filled with an overwhelming dump of cortisol, and all of a sudden the retired athlete’s thoughts are consumed by unfamiliar patterns of despair and destruction. All too often, those thoughts cannot be overcome.
The same thing happens to each of us on a daily basis, although it is much less extreme. Every time we check off an item on our To-Do list, a little dopamine is released to reward us for taking action. But in those small gaps between goal completions, we are also getting cortisol if we can’t string our tasks together into one solid dopamine reward structure.
The Ideal Solution
So what’s the fix?
If you are feeling very depressed or are having suicidal thoughts, the first thing you should do is seek the professional help right away. Don’t underestimate the power that your internal chemicals have on your behavior and actions – once they reach a tipping point, they can totally hijack your thoughts and decision-making processes.
But if you aren’t at that point, there might be a much simpler way to achieve the inner balance that you were designed to maintain. The way to do this is to identify a goal so far in the future, and so difficult to achieve, that you can not actually accomplish it in this lifetime. However, it is something that you can still use as a North Star to guide all of your other goals in life.
When the dopamine reward structure is firmly anchored in an immovable ideal, each of those goals you accomplish becomes a mile marker on a much larger scale, which keeps the dopamine flow going.
At The Ideal Life, we call this ultimate goal the Ideal, which is the “I” of our proprietary “I GOT This Framework.” You might call it your purpose, or the vision of the type of person that you wish to become. Just like a gold medal, viewing all of your actions and goals through the lens of this Ideal can establish a powerful dopamine reward structure that motivates and moves you through the milestones of life. But unlike the gold medal, it will serve you indefinitely, and your reward system will never break down.
One of the big reasons people fluctuate in their joy or happiness levels is that they are tying their feelings to an accomplishment they are aiming for rather than an ideal they are following. When you identify and align your actions around that ideal, you biologically create a system that doesn’t break down but keeps you pursuing that purpose every day of your life.