Addicted to Happiness: The Brain is Your Dopamine Dealer

I decided to see if there was any science behind the fact that I love vacations (I know, who doesn’t?) and it seems to alter my brain activity. What I found suggests that, like many other enjoyable things, more dopamine is released when you are on vacation enjoying yourself. You see, I may actually be addicted to vacationing.

In the past, dopamine rewarded humans by being released to promote survival. Psychology Today uses an example of a berry patch being found, which promoted survival for primitive humans. So the next time they saw a berry patch, or something that last time led to a berry patch, dopamine is released. This ensures the brain is rewarding things that will help you survive.

But it is not always like that these days, probably because it is so easy to survive. An alcoholic gets a dose of dopamine when he sees a bar, and a doctor when he finishes a surgery. I get a dose of dopamine when I explore a new city. But if I always went to the same city, my brain would not release as much dopamine, so I would need to find a new place to explore in order to get the old “high”.

I made this from Caribbean shells that I picked up in February on my cruise, and first vacation of the year. I attached them to a piece of palm bark from Georgia on my way home from my last vacation of the year. Even though I can't always be on vacation, I can bring back the memories and feelings when I see my little creation.

I made this from Caribbean shells that I picked up in February on my cruise, the first vacation this year. I attached them to a piece of palm bark from Georgia that I found on my way home from my last vacation of the year. Even though I can’t always be on vacation, I can bring back the memories and feelings when I see my little creation.

This is the same thing that happens with setting, working towards, and accomplishing goals. Each of these things encourages your brain to release dopamine, thus helping you on your way to “survival”. When I talk about this small goal/ large goal paradigm to promote happiness, this is the scientific explanation behind it.

Everything that makes your brain release dopamine will inevitably get old, or run its course, which is why you need to always have different types of goals you are working towards and accomplishing. Once you accomplish a goal though, your brain is going to want another. Otherwise, the absence of dopamine will make you feel sad. That is why it is important to diversify your goals, and your hobbies.

Work goals should not be your only source of dopamine, because then you might not be happy when you are at home. And hobbies cannot be your only source of dopamine, because then you will become irritated in other settings. The Psychology Today article points out that we need to make peace with our “unhappy” brain chemicals in order to reap the full benefits of the “happy” chemicals like dopamine.

Eventually your brain will be rewired to the point where it knows it can survive the unhappy chemicals. It is like replacing instant gratification with long term rewards. If you can wait it out, and weather the boring or unhappy times, the dopamine reward in your brain will be that much better when it comes.

If the chemistry behind your feelings interests you, check out the Psychology Today article. It also talks about the other “happy chemicals” that course through your brain. If dopamine equals success, serotonin equals importance, oxytocin trust, and endorphins “brief euphoria that masks physical pain”.

They are all released by our brains to promote survival, though congruent with my theory, our brain is essentially still serving cave man needs. That is why it is important and beneficial to understand our brains, so that we can usher them into the modern era, and make them work for us, instead of being a slave to our brain chemicals.

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