The Deep Well of Want
Wednesday, August 9, 2023
It used to be that people in wealthier nations were happier than those in poorer countries and that those folks from the wealthier nations got even happier over time. But starting about 20 years ago that began to change. Why this is the case isn’t known for sure, but from Stanford University psychiatrist Anna Lembke’s point of view, it’s possible that abundance had finally reached a tipping point. She explains the phenomenon behind the threshold in her book Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Abundance:
“The paradox is that hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, leads to anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind.”
We all intuitively know that having too much of a good thing (cake, vacation, wine, shopping, even reading as we shall soon see) can become a problematic thing. And with the opioid crisis we all know painfully well that having too much of a dangerous thing (street drugs) can quickly become a self-destructive thing.
Either way, the problem is paved by the way our brain processes pleasure and facilitates motivation. As you probably know, when we experience something pleasurable, that pleasurable sensation we feel is produced by a feel-good dose of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brain that produces the feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation. However, because our body is constantly trying to bring us into balance (homeostasis), the brain begins almost immediately to put the brakes on the pleasure to bring about stability.
Back in the olden days that system worked out because who wants to go out and hunt down another antelope when you’re already full of antelope and tired from the day? By morning, however, it’s a different story when a motivation equal to the pangs of hunger fire up. It was a virtuous cycle of motivation, reward, recovery (homeostasis) on repeat with plenty of time between cycles to naturally build a motivating appetite. There was no reward powerful enough and instantly available enough to throw off the effort/reward/recovery system.
Nowadays, however, things have gotten wonky. Door Dash is a text away; all we have to do is place the order then open the door when it arrives. What’s more, not only is pleasure immediately available but rewards come in endless varieties. Just think about the rewarding nature of racking up likes on social media, for instance. Our brains never saw that coming, and here we are with our devices right at our fingertips, 24/7.
Addiction is the result when our brains try to manage the excess of rewards by aggressively stomping on the brakes to stabilize our system, which then inadvertently sets off an equally wild frenzy of reward pursuit. Unfortunately, with all the constant excess we’ve been exposing our overworked reward pathways to, we’re now also a bit underwhelmed with dopamine’s magic which can drive us to even greater lengths to get a reward that measures up. A disastrous cycle has been set in motion.
Illustrating the sometimes-stealth nature of addiction, Dr. Lembke herself fell prey to the fallout of an overtaxed reward pathway herself despite being an expert on addiction. She never would have imagined that what started innocently with reading a young adult vampire romance (which had been circulating amongst the mom set of her teenage daughter’s friends) would ultimately bring her to an obsession with trashy romances and erotica.
At first, she hid the books with their embarrassing bodice ripper covers from her family by tucking them into respectable medical journals. Slowed down by the library interloan system, when Kindle came online things escalated dramatically. In the end, she was frantically cramming in 10 minutes of reading between her sessions with patients. It was only when tried to stop and experienced classic withdrawal symptoms that she realized she was addicted. The experience provided her with useful insight, though, which she shares in Dopamine Nation.
Central to the solution she proposes is putting ourselves on a little dopamine “fast,” which can look like:
- Stepping down consumption by permitting the behavior only as clearly mapped out with a specific set of conditions (like watching funny pet videos only on Tuesdays and Thursday while on the exercise bike)
- Stepping away for a designated period (like putting away social media for a month)
- Or, if not in check after a trial period, stepping away for even longer or stopping entirely and forever
According to Dr. Lembke would all be wise to practice some stepping down in this age of abundance because we’ve got a situation on our hands. “Our brains are perfectly adapted to a world of scarcity, but by raising our neural set point with repeated pleasures, we become endless strivers, never satisfied with what we have, always looking for more. But herein lies the problem. Human beings, the ultimate seekers, have responded too well to the challenge of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. As a result, we’ve transformed the world from a place of scarcity to a place of overwhelming abundance. Our brains are not evolved for this world of plenty.”
Whether any of us is addicted or not, the major takeaway for me from the book is how consciously we should be protecting our fragile reward pathways given its design.
To less is more and simple pleasures,
If you’d like to see a list of my favorite Dopamine Nation quotes
describing how the reward pathway mechanism functions, how vulnerable the design of this mechanism is in a world of abundance, and how far too easily it reinforces over-consumption, shoot me an email.
I also recommend listening to this two-part Hidden Brain
interview with Dr. Lembke:
The Paradox of Pleasure
The Path to Enough
Or this single episode interview with Dr. Lembke on The Next Big Idea
The Next Big Idea: Why the Modern World Puts Us All at Risk for Addiction (2021) (wondery.com)