Hacking Dopamine to Achieve Long Term Goals

Hacking Dopamine

Why is the grass always greener on the other side?

How come we never really find that state of ‘happily ever after’ after attaining a goal we’ve been striving for?

Why does that romantic, exciting type of love at the beginning of a relationship always seem to fade? 

The answer to all of these questions hinges on a simple molecule produced in the brain.

In their 2019 book:  ‘The Molecule of More’, Dr Daniel Lieberman and Michael E Long argue that dopamine may be the main driver of love, sex and creativity, and that how we manage it, will ultimately determine the fate of the human race. [1]

Understanding dopamine and how it works holds the key not only to better mental health and wellbeing, but also better relationships, sustainable motivation, breaking addictions, experiencing more happiness and satisfaction in day-to-day life, and developing what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has coined as ‘The Growth Mindset’. 

In this post, you’ll learn what dopamine is, how it’s influencing your behaviour and emotions, and what you can do to control it, so you can maintain motivation towards achieving long term goals.

What is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. 

Simply put, this is a molecule used by your nervous system to send messages between nerve cells [2]. 

It’s kind of like the ‘postman’ of the brain and body. 

Hacking Dopamine - Postman Pat

When released, it gets you looking outside of yourself, pursuing goals, and craving things you don’t yet have. 

It’s the ‘wanting’ chemical. 

It’s responsible for how we feel, how we move, and how motivated we are towards pursuing our goals. 

It exists in all mammals, reptiles, birds and even fish – but no species has more of it than humans. It helps us keep track of pleasure, success, and whether or not we are meeting the challenges of life. [5]

Our brain releases it when we are expecting a reward. 

If you associate an activity with pleasure, merely anticipating it will increase dopamine. 

For example, if you love coffee, but haven’t had your morning ‘fix’ yet, simply catching the aroma of a coworker’s espresso is enough to trigger your brain to release dopamine, which motivates you to pursue your first cup of the day. 

When the craving is satisfied, more dopamine is released to reinforce it, thus keeping you motivated to pursue it again in the future. [6]

The Neuroscience of Dopamine

Dopamine is released in two ways. 

The first is ‘tonic’ release, which is a low level ‘baseline’ amount that’s always there, circulating in your system. 

The second is ‘phasic’, which refers to the peaks that rise above baseline, e.g., when we achieve a goal or satisfy a craving.

Hacking Dopamine

It’s important to understand that dopamine is a limited resource and we can only release a certain amount each day depending on how much we have available in the ‘readily releasable pool’. [7]

When you experience a big peak in phasic dopamine release above baseline, you deplete your dopamine resources. 

And now your levels drop below baseline, causing you to feel pain. 

This explains the drop in mood and motivation after achieving a big goal you’ve been striving for, e.g. getting a degree, running a marathon, etc.

It’s that nagging feeling of ‘what’s next?’ 

Spikes in dopamine are almost always followed by drops below baseline. 

The higher the spike, the lower the fall. 

A Chemical Cocktail For Motivational Energy

Hacking Dopamine

Dopamine is co-released in the nervous system along with epinephrine (i.e. adrenaline), which is the main chemical driver of energy. 

When epinephrine is released, it ‘wakes up’ our body’s physiology as well as various neural circuits in the brain to give us alertness and readiness to act. 

It’s the chemical responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response.

When you experience a peak in dopamine, you also experience a peak in epinephrine. 

The two differ in that dopamine ‘colours’ our experience of an activity, making it more pleasurable, motivating us to want to do it again in the future. 

Epinephrine, on the other hand, is more about raw, activation energy. 

It’s released when we experience threat, trauma and fear. 

By itself, there’s nothing inherently pleasurable about epinephrine. 

But when co-released with dopamine, it creates a chemical ‘cocktail’ causing us to feel excited, and motivates us to pursue goals. [5]

What Affects Dopamine Levels?

Everyone has a ‘baseline’ level of dopamine which varies from individual to individual.

Often this depends on genetics.

However, we can influence the amount of dopamine in our system in a variety of ways. 

Some are external substances we can ingest. 

Others are activities which influence our internal release of dopamine. 

The table below shows some of the most common ways of altering dopamine:

Activity/SubstanceIncrease in Dopamine Above Baseline
Chocolate1.5 x
Sex2 x 
Exercise (that you enjoy)2 x 
Nicotine2.5 x 
Cocaine2.5 x 
Cold water exposure 2.5 x
Amphetamines10x 

A couple of things to note here. 

The first is that cold water exposure (e.g. a cold shower) releases the same amount of dopamine as cocaine.

Hacking Dopamine - Cold Exposure
Photo by Tim Wilson on Unsplash

Better still, the effects of cold exposure are long lasting in that they raise baseline dopamine levels for hours that follow, whereas the high from cocaine quickly subsides. [5] 

The second is that some of these things are ‘objective’ (e.g. chocolate, cocaine, nicotine), meaning they cause the same release in dopamine in everyone who takes them. 

Others are subjective (e.g. exercise) in that the amount of dopamine released varies depending on the individual’s interpretation of the activity. 

For example, someone who enjoys exercise will get a 2x increase in dopamine from exercising, whereas someone who does not, will not release any. 

This suggests that you do have some influence over how much dopamine your brain releases during an activity.

Your interpretation is helping to ‘colour’ your experience.

If you perceive yourself to be enjoying something, then you release more dopamine, which motivates you to want to do it again in the future. 

Optimising Dopamine for Long Term Motivation

When optimising dopamine to achieve long term goals, the optimal strategy is to increase baseline levels, while avoiding huge spikes (and drops) along the way.

To achieve this, Neuroscientist Dr Andrew Huberman recommends the following practices:

#1 – Prioritise Enjoying the Process

Hacking Dopamine

If your aim is to stay motivated towards long term goals, it’s critical to understand: 

Your motivation and pleasure in anticipating what’s coming next is determined by how much dopamine you’ve released prior. 

If you experience a peak in dopamine before an activity, there’s less available for the activity itself; thus reducing the pleasure you experience while doing it.

This has two important implications.

The first is that it’s important to avoid spiking dopamine before an activity you’ll need to repeatedly do to achieve your long term goal.

For example, let’s say your long term goal is to get in shape, so you commit to going to the gym three times each week. Before your first workout, you’re feeling exhausted after a hard day at the office, so you take a pre-workout supplement.

The supplement spikes your dopamine (and epinephrine) before the workout, causing you to feel great during your session. 

Although this gives you more energy for that particular day, it’s a bad long-term strategy if you want to keep up your habit of working out. 

Why?

The amount of dopamine we can release during an activity depends on how much was released prior. 

So if you spike dopamine beforehand, you reduce your ability to release dopamine during the activity, making it more difficult to enjoy for its own sake and maintain the habit in the long run.

The second is to be careful about rewarding yourself after completing an activity. 

For example, let’s say you want to develop the habit of writing every day. 

So you tell yourself: 

“I’ll write for one hour every morning and reward myself with a giant latte afterwards.”

When you do this, you’re essentially telling your brain to postpone experiencing pleasure until after you’ve finished. 

So no dopamine is released until the reward afterwards.

Again, this diminishes your capacity to experience pleasure from the activity itself, which makes it more difficult to sustain in the long run.

To sum up, if you want to maintain long term motivation, it’s vital to avoid:

1.) Continuously spiking dopamine before an activity

2.) Always rewarding yourself after you complete it. 

So, what can you do instead?

#2 – Be Like a Casino – Reward Yourself Intermittently 

Hacking Dopamine - Intermittent Rewards
Kyvnga on Unsplash

The brain releases a lot of dopamine when we experience novelty or unexpected rewards.

This is how casinos keep us gambling, elusive romantic partners keep us chasing, and social media networks keep us hooked. 

They vary the reward. 

Sometimes you get it. Sometimes you don’t. 

Because you can’t predict exactly when it’s coming, this ‘intermittent reward schedule’ keeps you pursuing.

This is valuable to know if you’re interested in staying motivated towards a long term goal.

Dr Huberman recommends rewarding yourself intermittently (like a casino would), so your brain can’t assume that “doing ‘x’ behaviour, will get me ‘y’ reward”. 

Intermittent rewards keep novelty in the equation, making it easier to stay in pursuit for the long haul.

You can come up with your own strategy, but the key thing is – you have to remove the expectation that you will get the reward. 

#3 – Develop a ‘Growth Mindset’

Hacking Dopamine - Growth Mindset

The “Growth Mindset” is a concept developed by Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck. [4]

This is a state of being in which you derive pleasure from effortful activity on the way to achieving your goals. 

Growth-minded people don’t base their self-worth on the outcome. 

Instead, their metric for success is how much effort they put in on the way there. 

A growth mindset provides a strong sense of internal validation, resilience, and a source of sustainable motivation. It’s linked with higher performance levels, greater capacity for risk taking, lower stress, and better working relationships [8].

When viewed through our understanding of dopamine, this starts to make sense. 

People with a ‘growth mindset’ have developed the ability to release dopamine (and experience pleasure) from engaging in the effortful activity required to achieve their goals. 

In simple terms, they’ve re-trained their brain to release dopamine in moments of difficulty. 

This is a superpower that comes with the human brain.

The mesolimbic pathway in our prefrontal cortex enables us to ‘rewire’ our cognitive interpretation of stimuli, so that we can transform effort into something we can derive pleasure from. [5]

To develop a growth mindset, it’s critical to take control of your self-talk when experiencing difficulties on the way to achieving your goal.

For example, you might tell yourself:

“The difficulty I’m experiencing is a signal that I’m moving towards my goal. It feels good to challenge myself like this.”

Over time, you’ll train your brain to release dopamine during effortful activity, and gradually, the effort becomes the reward.  

Want a Deeper Dive into Dopamine?

The main resource used for this post was the following video/podcast from Dr Andrew Huberman:

Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction

If you’re interested in a ‘deeper dive’, I highly recommend giving it a watch.


References

1.) The Molecule of More – Daniel Lieberman & Michael Long

2.) What is Dopamine – Web MD

3.) Neuroscience Says This is the Most Powerful Way to Reward Yourself

4.) Mindset – Carol Dweck

5.) Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction – Dr Andrew Huberman

6.) How Does Dopamine Affect the Body? – Healthline

7.) Characterization of dopamine releasable and reserve pools in Drosophila larvae using ATP/P2X2-mediated stimulation

8.) Your biggest asset for academic career success? A growth mindset

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Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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