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Dopamine and Willpower, Detoxing, Guide to Influencing Your Brain Chemistry

🤸‍♀️ Stretch 53

Going from…

“Why can’t I just get this done?!”

to…

“I've been staring at a screen for 4 hours so my dopamine levels are probably pretty low. I’ll go for a run, and try this again in the morning.”

Let me tell ya:

WORLD of difference for my moods and output.

Having a basic understanding of neurochemicals has completely changed the relationship with my brain. I’m convinced this can help many people who regularly end up in a battle of morality and self-worth based on how their brain performs (when really, it’s just doing what it has evolved to do!)

So, let’s talk about dopamine.

🤸‍♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:

  • Don’t mistake desire for happiness. The role of dopamine in your willpower challenges.

  • It’s not a dopamine detox. You wouldn’t get very far without dopamine in your system.

  • Learn how to balance your dopamine levels. Behavior + nutrition + mindset goes a long way.

🍔 DON’T MISTAKE DESIRE FOR HAPPINESS

  • Should I get these jeans?

  • Should I order pizza?

  • Should I have that second glass of wine?

In these moments, you truly believe that whatever you're craving (jeans! pizza!! wine!!!) is worth it and is going to make you happy.

But have you ever noticed that the moment you swipe your credit card, you feel kind of down? Or the second you finish that last slice of pizza, you can't wait to get rid of the greasy box?

When our willpower is being tested, it’s really important to understand the role of dopamine.

Obviously, if you want another glass of wine, go for it. I had pizza last night and it was delicious. But we want these to be conscious decisions we feel good about afterwards. None of that “why did you do that blabla” mental torture afterwards!

The reward system & dopamine

Okay, so here’s what I learned from the book The Willpower Instinct by Stanford educator Kelly McGonigal:

We all have a reward system in our brains. It’s part of the brain’s most primitive motivational system, one that evolved to propel us toward action and consumption.

How does the reward system motivate us to act?

By flooding our brain with dopamine—an incredibly powerful neurochemical.

When the brain recognizes an opportunity for a reward (a 50% off sign; the thought of melting cheese; a terrace full of people at sunset), our reward system is activated and dopamine is released.

Desire ≠ happiness

Many people mistake dopamine for a happiness chemical, but it’s really about motivation, craving and desire—mostly towards external things that we want to pursue.

It drives us to seek things out.

But here’s what’s so fascinating and powerful to understand:

The act act of obtaining those things doesn’t necessarily make you happy.

Evolution doesn’t care about your happiness (sorry!). It only cares about your survival and reproduction.

So it will use the promise of happiness to motivate you to act.

As Kelly writes in the book:

“If we pause and notice what’s really going on in our brains and bodies when we’re in that state of wanting, we will find that the promise of reward can be as stressful as it is delightful. Desire doesn’t always make us feel good—sometimes it makes us feel downright rotten. That’s because dopamine’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy. It doesn’t mind putting a little pressure on us—even if that means making us unhappy in the process.”

Pay close attention to these moments of craving

Every book I came across felt like a shiny new thing—promising more mental resilience, more creativity, more joy, better habits, better negotiation skills, and on and on.

At the height of my ‘addiction’, I was downloading 3-4 books per week, barely finishing any. It would leave me feeling exhausted and shit about myself. Yet, the next day, I'd do it again!

I’d be really hard on myself about this. “I’m all over the place, I’m so undisciplined, yada yada yada.”

But once I learned about what dopamine does to my brain, I started internalising that downloading yet another “best-selling” book won’t give me the satisfaction and life-changing knowledge I thought it would.

It took a few relapses but after a while, I became very conscious of this craving sensation and could make a rational decision. (I absolutely do not need another productivity book, no.) I still feel the rush of excitement when I come across a “100 must-read books of 2023”, but now I know this is my dopamine-flooded brain talking.

Kelly writes in the book that there is growing evidence that when people pay close attention to the experience of their false rewards, the magical spell wears off. If you force your brain to reconcile what it expects from a reward with what it actually experiences, your brain will eventually adjust its expectations.

What would Tomorrow You want you to do?

Desire is not necessarily bad. We need to want things in order to get anywhere and engage with the world.

But we need to be mindful about what we desire and whether it makes us happy.

The modern world definitely doesn’t make that easy. Everything is designed to captivate our attention and trigger these dopamine releases, which makes it challenging to focus on what truly matters to us.

But we’re not completely defenseless.

Learning about our brains and paying close attention to what spikes our dopamine is the way to go.

So, the next time you find yourself faced with a decision driven by a sudden rush of desire… take a step back.

Recognize that your brain is flooded with dopamine and ask yourself what you genuinely want.

I find it really helpful to ask myself what Tomorrow Charlotte would want Today Charlotte to decide.

The more you practice this, the easier it becomes. Now I just need to get over my addiction of podcasts and online courses. 🤦‍♀️

Interested in improving your willpower? I’ve been reading The Willpower Instinct and writing about my thoughts:
Chapter 1: The power of I will, I won’t, I want
Chapter 2: The link between HRV and willpower
Chapter 3: Setting yourself micro-challenges to train overall willpower
Chapter 4: Beware of moral licensing

🦠 IT’S NOT A DOPAMINE DETOX

There’s a lot of talk online about dopamine “detoxing”.

The idea of removing or minimising things in your life that you know will give you dopamine hits but often leave you feeling unsatisfied: social media, notifications, online shopping, porn, alcohol, etc.

The intention’s there, but the term detox is misleading.

The word describes the removal of something toxic and harmful, but dopamine, made in the brain, is neither of those things—nor is it being removed!

A better term is “dopamine fasting.” The goal is to starve that dopamine-specific reward pathway of constant and effortless activation.

You don’t want to banish dopamine. Without it, you wouldn’t move. You want to balance it.

⚖️ HOW TO BALANCE YOUR DOPAMINE (AND 3 OTHER BRAIN CHEMICALS)

I find this so cool and empowering:

There’s zero point in being annoyed at yourself when you’re feeling low and unmotivated.

Instead, think about what you can do to increase your dopamine levels.

That simple mindset switch puts you in the drivers seat.

I wrote an entire guide on how you can influence your brain chemistry for a more focused, creative and motivated day. I talk about dopamine as well as 3 other powerful brain chemicals.

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