Subject: Dopamine ☺ Happy chemical jumpstart #2

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Happy Chemical Jumpstart #2

Fellow mammal,

Dopamine is the great feeling that a reward is at hand

The finish line of a marathon. The smell of bread in the oven. The inviting smile of a special someone. Dopamine makes them feel good.

You want this good feeling all the time, but you can't be crossing a finish line or eating bread or getting smiled at all the time. Fortunately, your brain releases it in advance when a reward is expected. When you train for a marathon, or spend the day making bread, or go searching for that special someone, dopamine motivates the quest.

Your brain releases another drop with each step closer to a reward. But how does it define rewards? How does it know when you are closer? This message explains, so you can understandthe things we do for dopamine, and design new ways to get it.

How our ancestors got dopamine

In the state of nature, you had no refrigerator, so you had to look for food all the time. Think back to a time when you were starving and remember how good that first bite of food tasted. Maybe it was a stale peanut butter sandwich on a camping trip or a dish of ramen in your first apartment. Dopamine made it taste good because it was meeting a need. The more urgent the need, the more dopamine.

Our ancestors didn't wait until they were starving to look for food. Their brains anticipated the good feeling of meeting a need and started searching.
Dopamine makes the search feel good.

This can be confusing in today's world of abundance, where our physical needs are met so our brain focuses on social needs. (More on this in tomorrow's jumpstart message on serotonin and the following one on oxytocin.) But we need to understand our natural seek-and-find mechanism to understand our urge for dopamine. So let's take a closer look at foraging in the state of nature.

Imaging scanning the world around you for signs of something that meets your needs. Imagine your excitement when you see a ripe fruit in the distance, or animal tracks on the ground. Your brain releases dopamine when it sees something linked to whatever triggered your dopamine before. The good feeling motivates action to get the reward. You take a step, and if your brain sees that the reward is closer, it releases more dopamine.

Animal tracks only excite you if your brain associated them with meeting a need in your past. You may get excited when you see a new job listing. But not just any listing-- only a job you expect to be more rewarding than the one you have, but also one you think you can get.
You're like a lion surrounded by gazelles. You could starve to death if you ran after every gazelle because they could all get away. You have to focus on a target you can reach. You choose your target with neural pathways built from past experience. The more you anticipate a reward, the more dopamine you release.

Dopamine is not designed to flow all the time for no reason. That would not promote survival. Natural selection built a brain that makes careful decisions about where to invest its energy. It scans the details of its environment for a pattern that was rewarded in its past, and when it sees one, dopamine!

Each brain defines rewards with
neural pathways built from its own past experience

Dopamine is like paving on your neural pathways. Each dopamine surge wires you to anticipate rewards in that particular way in the future. Early rewards are what count because a young brain is full of myelin, which turns neural trails into superhighways.

As you learned in yesterday's jumpstart message, we are all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. Our connections build bit by bit with each experience. Over time, each brain wires itself to survive in the environment it lives in.

Each little monkey wires itself to meet its survival needs. No one ever gives a monkey food except for breastmilk, and primates are not hardwired like small-brained animals. Every monkey learns to do what it takes because dopamine makes the steps feel good.

When you were born, you were hungry but you had no ability to meet your own needs. Your cortisol surged (more on cortisol in message #5), and someone fed you. Your dopamine surged when the milk met your needs, even though you didn't know what milk was. Your brain built links among all the neurons active at that moment. After that, your mother's voice turned on your dopamine, though you didn't yet know what a person was. You make predictions about how the world works in order to meet your needs, and dopamine rewards you when you make a correct prediction. After a while you didn't need to cry because you anticipated meeting your needs in other ways.

Each time your dopamine surged, you built a pathway that says: "Wow! Get me more of that."
But it's complicated. Rewards are not always predictable. Sometimes it's because the world is not predictable, and sometimes it's because our early rewards were a bad guide to the adult world. For example, if you got a cookie by punching your little brother, you built a reward pathway that is not a helpful guide to rewards today. If you flunked a math test and cheered yourself up by partying, that reward pathway doesn't serve you today.

No one has perfect pathways, so it's futile to point blame or lament flaws. Many people blame harsh parenting or a harsh society for their frustrations without seeing the big picture. Let's say you flunked a math test and your well-meaning mother took you for ice cream to cheer you up. An unhelpful reward circuit gets built. If your well-meaning teacher excused you from math tests when you felt anxious, an unhelpful circuit got built. Fortunately, you can build new circuits by feeding your brain new experiences.

New paths to dopamine

Maybe it sounds hard. How can you have new experiences while running on old circuits?

The short answer is to break your needs into small chunks that you can reach with repeated action. Start stepping toward one chunk and when you reach it focus on the next. Each step triggers a bit of dopamine. With repetition, you will wire your brain to expect to reach rewards that meet your needs.

If this sounds hard, here's a simple way to approach it:
Set yourself a long-run goal, a short-run goal, and a middle-term goal.
When your progress toward one goal is stalled, you can shift to another so you are always making progress toward a goal. That's all it takes to stimulate dopamine! Don't be a slave to your goals. Don't see other people as gatekeepers blocking you from your goals. But find a step you can take and enjoy taking it. Then find another step you can take!

Much more on how to do this is in my book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels. And there are plenty of free resources at the Inner Mammal Institute. You will find free videos, podcasts, daily Facebook and Twitter updates, a training program, slideshows, infographics, more books, and coaching.

But it's still hard, because our brain habituates to the rewards it has. We need "new and improved" to stimulate dopamine. This makes life complicated!

Why dopamine responds to "new and improved"

Our brain is designed to habituate to familiar inputs. So if you're dying of thirst in the desert, you're thrilled to see an oasis in the distance, but unlimited water doesn't make you happy today.

Your brain saves the dopamine for new ways to meet needs. Your ancestors enjoyed it when they stumbled on a pond full of fish, but they didn't get it when they went back to the same old fishing hole. So they were motivated to look for something different, like a new berry tree, and the nutritional variety helped them survive. Today, variety feels good because it stimulates dopamine.

Social rewards are more motivating when your belly is full. But social rewards are hard to predict. Dopamine alerts you to good opportunities. But sometimes your expectations are disappointed and your dopamine droops.

Why your dopamine droops

The first lick of an ice cream cone feels so good that you get excited long before it's in your mouth. But by the time the last lick comes, the excitement is gone. Your mind is already elsewhere-- looking for the next way to trigger dopamine.

Dopamine is not meant to surge for no reason. It has a job to do. It tells your brain to release the reserve tank of energy, and it wouldn't make sense to release energy for no reason. Your brain saves the dopamine for moments that count. The spurt is soon over and the good feeling is gone.

Dopamine droop has value. Imagine you're a hunter tracking prey and you lose the trail. The hunter risks going hungry now, so our brain shifts from dopamine to releases cortisol when expectations are not met. (More on this in message #5.) Dopamine droop helps us stop investing in one quest which makes it available for another one.

We hate it when dopamine droops. We make even see it as danger because cortisol grabs more attention without dopamine to mask it. You're tempted to do anything to stimulate a bit more dopamine to mask those threatened feelings.

We are all in the same situation- seeking good feelings with a brain that's not designed to release good feelings for no reason. What's a big-brained mammal to do?

1. Accept your dopamine droop
Remind yourself that nothing is wrong when you have that let-down feeling. Your brain is just re-setting to neutral to prepare you for a new way to meet your needs. Ups and downs are natural. 

2. Break big challenges into small chunks 
Design a small step toward a reward that you can take, and take it. Then take another. You will keep stimulating dopamine and train your brain to anticipate rewards

3. Recognize your old dopamine circuits
Whatever triggered dopamine in your past wired you to expect good feelings in that way in the future. This is why we chase the same old rewards again and again at the expense of our long-run best interest. When you understand your old circuits, you can build new ones to stimulate your dopamine in new ways.

More on how to do this at Inner Mammal

Find a fast, simple way to build 
happy chemical circuits in my new book,

Only have 5 minutes? Try my free video:

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to someone who will appreciate it.

Sincere best wishes,

Loretta G Breuning, PhD
building power over your mammalian brain chemistry


99 Pinehurst, Canyon, CA 94516, United States
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