The Dopamine Cycle: Breaking free from misery

WTF is Dopamine?

  • A neurotransmitter.
  • Your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells.
  • Dopamine motivates you towards things that give you pleasure.
  • When you ‘eat the cookies’ a flood of dopamine reinforces the craving and the person then focuses on satisfying it in the future.

What happens when dopamine decreases?

We feel withdrawal.

Breaking this cycle is the start of healing.

For when we’re trapped in this cycle we don’t have the space to feel a connection between ourselves and the present moment.

We’re living in a constant state of: ‘the future will be better’.

And this is a type of low grade misery that’s so common in the western world it makes me want to cry.

If you’re someone who finds ‘understimulating tasks’ tedious e.g. cleaning the dishes or doing your laundry it’s likely you’re ‘in the trap’.

By ‘tedious’ I mean you feel the need to be stimulated whilst doing something that is actually stimulating but you can’t feel this because you’ve built up a tolerance (much like a heavy drinker builds up a tolerance to drinking). Feeling the soap and warm water whilst you clean the dishes isn’t ‘intense enough’. But an Instagram post that clocks 100 likes. FUCK YES! And then 100 likes becomes old news. All of a sudden you’re chasing 150 etc. etc.

It’s a bottomless, never ending pit of momentary pleasure followed by consistent dissatisfaction.

If you’re not stimulated in a way that rewards the cycle of dopamine you will feel unsettled much like a smoker feels when they don’t receive nicotine.

The quality of our attention is well and truly the quality of our lives.

As Alan Watts says:

“If I were to ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering.”

Wow. My perception of what happiness means has been so warped!

I got happiness confused with pleasure and thrills.

And therefore anything that didn’t give me a ‘thrill’ wasn’t worth savouring.

But peace is more accurate and obtainable.

As Naval Ravikant says: ‘Happiness is peace in motion‘.

So, once we learn how to access our senses and harness our attention we no longer need things in the future to satisfy our cravings.

This is when everything changes.

And that’s when the answer to ‘what did you do yesterday?’ becomes:

“It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.”

Imagine a world where this was the case!

The dishes would truly be a ‘sensory experience’ and when you stop to think about it – how is doing them not so?

Maggie Smith on set with Stephen Fry was watching some cows chew grass when she exclaimed: ‘don’t they get bored?’. And this is the modern dilemma!

For we can’t seem to fathom that being present and in a state of peace is enough.

So how do we do it?

How do we break free from the shackles of boredom?

Breaking Free

Awareness is the answer.

There’s a difference between knowing something and being truly aware.

For example: I knew for many years that I was addicted to my smartphone. But why didn’t I do anything about it? Because I wasn’t truly aware of the consequences of this addiction. I did try and quit but willpower without awareness does not last for long (within 2 days I was back on my phone).

I became aware when I went on a retreat and spent 4 days tech free. During this time I was able to experience what life was like without my phone. And from this experience the awareness of just how anxiety inducing my phone usage had been was born.

And then the change was effortless because I had the awareness. It actually would have been harder for me to go back to my smartphone.

The only way to change is by changing your understanding.

Anthony De Mello

So awareness is all we need. Once we have awareness the rest is history.

How do I become aware?

Here’s one way:

Find a quiet place, sit comfortably, take 3 conscious breaths and then ask yourself in complete honesty:

Could I be happier?

From the stillness you’ll sense an answer. Your truth.

And if the answer is ‘yes’ then you can surrender to that fact.

For in our admittance of our own powerlessness we can feel empowered.

Empowered to try things differently.

We can experiment.

And experimenting is easier than renouncing. Going 2 days without your phone is not the same as getting rid of it for life. It will be there when you get back should you wish to resume.

Who knows what will happen?

But if you’re curious to see what would transpire within you, then this is a great start.

All you need is to experience a glimmer of a life outside of the cycle and I promise you, you won’t ever want to go back. You won’t need to feel the tiring pangs of self-will but rather you’ll be motivated by your new found curiosity as to:

‘what would my life be like if I did this…?’

You cannot teach happiness. Happiness is what’s left when you strip back your life.

And this is when we can awaken to the wondrous world in front of us.

Using our sensitive eyes, our enchanting ears and the fabulous arabesque of nerves in our brains to interact with the endless array of marvellous patterns right in front of us.

When we find ourselves being entertained by the way snow delicately falls or a swan glides in the water the thought enters our minds:

How could I have ever been bored in the first place?

Published by WillAdolphy

Trainee therapist, host of the 'Into the Void' podcast and Artistic Director of Flux Theatre.

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