Winter Blues vs Winter Excitement: It’s a Dopamine Thing

The excitement that makes life feel good is caused by the brain chemical “dopamine.” Your brain releases dopamine when you approach a reward. December is full of dopamine-stimulating activities, but in January, the external world stops triggering it for you. You will feel a slump unless you trigger it yourself. Focusing on your goals is the way to do it. Each time you get a step closer, your brain will reward you with the good feeling of dopamine.

But the good feeling doesn’t last. Dopamine droop is inevitable because the brain easily habituates to new rewards. This is beautifully illustrated by a Wolfram Shultz study at Cambridge.(*) Monkeys were trained to do a task and get rewarded with spinach. After a few days, they were rewarded with squirts of juice instead of spinach. This was a bigger reward than they expected and the monkeys’ dopamine soared. But as the experimenters continued rewarding with juice, something curious happened. The monkeys’ dopamine declined to nothing in a few days. Their brains stopped reacting to the sweet, juicy reward. In human terms, they took it for granted. Dopamine evolved to store new information about rewards. When there’s no new information, there’s no need for dopamine. (* from How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer)

This experiment has a dramatic finale. The experimenters switched back to spinach, and the monkeys reacted with fits of rage. They screamed and threw the spinach back at the researchers. The monkeys had learned to expect juice. It no longer made them happy.

We feel good when we’re anticipating something because the brain chemical “dopamine” is stimulated. When the anticipation is over, the dopamine is over. You may be left with an empty feeling until you set your sights on a new quest. That’s what it take to stimulate your dopamine. It’s not always easy, so it helps to know what turns on the in the state of nature.

A lion surges with dopamine when it sees a gazelle it can catch. A lion does not run after everything it sees. If would starve to death if it did, because it would be exhausted when a good prospect came along. Fortunately, the mammal brain is designed to weigh information about the opportunities around it. When it sees a reward it can get, dopamine surges and energy is released. That’s the good feeling of excitement we have when we step toward a reward we believe we can get. Once we get that reward, the dopamine stops. It’s nature’s way of returning to neutral so you’re ready for the next opportunity to meet your needs.

This up and down feeling is nature’s operating system. So when that drooping feeling comes, don’t jump to the conclusion that something is wrong. Just thank your inner mammal for clearing the decks. You are now ready for your next thing!

A lion’s chase fails most of the time, but the good feeling keeps it going until it meets its needs. You stimulate your dopamine when you take a step toward meeting your needs. But the brain defines your needs in a quirky way. It relies on pathways built from the dopamine surges of your youth. And it cares about spreading your genes, even though you’re not consciously trying to do that. This is why the good feeling of dopamine can be hard to make sense of.

A gazelle meets its needs by following the herd, but you are not a herd animal. Sometimes you get to find greener pastures and choose your steps yourself. When you do, dopamine! A gazelle risks its life when it steps from the herd toward greener pastures. You may get that survival-threat feeling when you take the steps that lead toward your goal. And sometimes your steps will fail to bring the reward you seek. But if you keep stepping, your brain will reward you with dopamine.

About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain chemistry naturally. She’s the author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.


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