Dopamine: The Greedy Molecule That Makes You Miserable

Some books are like personal instruction manuals.1Not to be confused with personal user manuals, which explain you to other people. They explain you better than you can explain yourself.

You read one and realize why pushing certain buttons has specific effects on you. And you sometimes discover functionalities you didn’t know you had.

The best example for me is, Quiet by Susan Cain. While reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “Ohhhhh! So that’s why I feel and act the way I do.’” And it showed me that my introversion isn’t a defect, but a feature.

Another personal instruction manual is the book I just read and want to share with you in this post: The Molecule of More, by Dan Lieberman and Mike Long.

Like Quiet did for my introversion, The Molecule of More taught me how my dopamine levels explain much of what I do, including many things that make me miserable. Then it showed me how I can use it to improve my performance instead.

Here’s what I learned, and how you might be able to use a better understanding of dopamine to improve your performance, too.

Here and Now molecules and dopamine battling for your attention.
Dopamine and the here and now (H&N) molecules battle for your favor.

Dopamine and the “Here and Now” Molecules

Most people think of dopamine as the “pleasure molecule.” But that’s not accurate. Here’s a better way to think of it:

Dopamine is the greedy, never-satisfied spouse in your head.

Consider these descriptions of dopamine from The Molecule of More and tell me they don’t sound like a misery-making wife or husband:

  • “It can never be satisfied. Dopamine can only say ‘More.'”
  • “Dopamine pursues more, not morality.”
  • “Dopamine doesn’t stop. It drives us ever onward into the abyss.”

But as greedy as dopamine is, you don’t want to divorce yourself from it. We need dopamine to motivate us to maximize our future resources. Without it, you’d accomplish nothing because the “here and now” (H&N) molecules take over.

The H&N molecules are like the pot-headed hippies in our minds.

They include neurotransmitters like serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and endocannabinoids. H&Ns give you feelings of satisfaction that allow you to enjoy the moment rather than greedily go after more.

Everyone has different natural levels of dopamine and H&Ns. And with this understanding, it’s worth asking yourself:

Which do you think has more influence in your head?

The Two Dopamine Circuits

Making matters of your mind extra messy, your future-focused dopamine is divided into two circuits:

Desire Dopamine

Desire dopamine is geared toward maximizing your future resources in the short term.

It’s the gold-digger. It lusts after anything unusual or valuable and pushes you to make impulsive decisions to get more of it with little regard for the longer-term consequences. And the closer you get to these rewards, the stronger desire dopamine eggs you on.

People with gambling, sex, and other addictions tend to be influenced by powerful desire dopamine circuits.

Control Dopamine

Control dopamine wants to maximize your future resources for the long term.

It’s the power-hungry string-puller. It compels you to approach life with a tenacious, cold, calculated mindset so that you continue to get more and more… of everything.

People with powerful control dopamine circuits are super productive but not a lot of fun to be around.

Astronaut and zen person illustration of how dopamine and H&N affects personality and behavior.
Genetic differences in dopamine and H&Ns affect your behavior.

How Dopamine Explains Who You Are

Your relative levels of gold-digging desire dopamine, string-pulling control dopamine, and hippy pothead H&Ns determine your actions. And if you agree that you are defined by your actions, they then define who you are.

Dopamine makes you more creative.

“To [dopaminergic people], the difference between loving humanity and loving your neighbor is the difference between loving the idea of a puppy and taking care of it.”

Dan Lieberman and Mike Long, The Molecule of More

The future fixated mindset of dopamine encourages you to use mental models to generalize your understanding of the world to predict how it will unfold and act accordingly. You can also envision combining these models in creative ways, which is the basis of creativity.

H&N molecules, on the other hand, focus on the specifics you have right in front of you.

Dopamine makes you worse at decision-making.

You need H&N emotions to push you over the edge when cold logic isn’t enough or when the situation is too complex or uncertain for dopamine to wrap its head around. This explains why pie-in-the-sky big thinkers can have such a hard time making simple decisions like what to order off the menu, for example.

Dopamine is a danger to long-term relationships.

I love Humanity but I hate humans.

Albert Einstein

The more dopaminergic you are, the more likely you’ll agree with Einstein’s words above. And, like Einstein, you’ll be more likely to get divorced.

Dopamine drives you to find love (and lovemaking) but also leaves you wanting more once you get it. For the supreme and ongoing satisfaction that fosters a lifelong partnership, you need higher levels of H&N neurotransmitters.

More generally concerning social connection, highly dopaminergic people tend toward “agentic relationships,” which are formed with a career-, achievement-, or even sexual-satisfaction-related purpose in mind. People with a higher H&N quotient have more “affiliative relationships,” which have no purpose other than the pleasure of social interaction.

Dopamine makes you lean left.

The more dopaminergic you are, the more you embrace change rather than seek to preserve what’s working already. If you’re into politics, the Molecule of More has a whole chapter on this and how dopamine levels play a surprisingly large role in determining people’s political affiliation.

Dopamine makes you restless.

Dopaminergic people are seekers, so they are more likely to migrate and thrive in new and unfamiliar environments.

This might partially explain why the US is not among the world’s happiest countries despite all its “success.” It attracts and culturally rewards dopaminergic people from around the world. They build wealth but don’t have the H&N chemicals to enjoy it.

People with more H&N molecules tend to be happy staying put in their country, like, say, Costa Rica. In turn, their live-in-the-moment lifestyle attracts more similarly-minded people from abroad.

Learning can satisfy both your dopamine circuits and your here and now neurotransmitters.
Finding joy in learning is an activity that does the trick for dopamine and the H&Ns.

How to Use Dopamine to Your Advantage

Most of The Molecule of More covers how genetic differences in dopamine and H&N levels affect our behaviors.

But what if you want to rebalance?

The authors don’t get into this too much, but do share a few ideas worth considering:

Choose which to listen to.

It helps to keep a conscious awareness of the battle for your attention that goes on in your head between your greedy and future-focused dopamine circuits and content and complacent H&Ns.

And remember, you have the final say.

For example, if you’re working, consciously go into “future mode” and listen to what your dopamine’s telling you to do. And when you’re with your family, tell your dopamine to give it a rest, go into “present mode” and let your H&Ns have their way.

Pay closer attention.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,”

Daniel Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth

Quit letting your mind wander and instead seek wonder and what’s in front of you.

The world is full of endless surprises. So the more you heed your H&Ns’ urges to chill out and pay close attention to the present, the more you’re likely you’ll find things you don’t expect, which rewards you with a healthy dose of dopamine. This creates a positive feedback loop that doesn’t stop until you stop finding surprises.

Distinguish wanting from liking.

Highly dopaminergic people fall into the trap of working hard for things—like money, power, and sex—that they want but don’t actually appreciate once they have them.

Highly H&N people have the opposite problem. They like what they have, but when those things go away, they’re left wanting.

In either case, you might want to ask yourself:

What do you like doing that never stops getting you more of what you really want?

Some possible answers can include strengthening relationships, learning, and reading The Unconventional Route.

Create happiness rather than seek it.

The hedonic paradox goes that if you pursue things you think will make you happy, they will not. And that’s dopamine’s fault. It will never stop asking you for more.

But if you don’t do things for dopamine’s sake but for a greater purpose—i.e., to make other people happy— you will be happier as a side-effect.

Create other things, too.

“Because it is always new, creation is the most durable of the dopaminergic pleasures.”

Dan Lieberman and Mike Long, The Molecule of More

Ask yourself:

What activities can you pursue for a lifetime without ever getting stale?

Examples include cooking, woodworking, painting, gardening, playing sports, and, ahem, blogging. These endlessly engaging activities earn you rewards from both future-focused dopamine and present-enjoying H&Ns. And the rewards keep increasing the more you achieve mastery at them.

As The Molecule of More authors write, “It’s like mixing a little bit of carbon with iron to make steel. The result is stronger and more durable.”

Find activities that satisfy dopamine and H&N.

Here’s to having your cake and eating it, too.

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

E.B. White

It seems E.B. White would have benefitted from a better understanding of dopamine and the H&Ns. He’d then have realized that the answer to his dilemma is not to decide between improving the world and enjoying it.

The answer is to find ways to do both at the same time.

And that goes for all of us. For a life where you can endlessly enjoy having your cake and eating it, combine dopamine’s powers with those of the H&N molecules:

Find ways you enjoy improving yourself and the world around you.

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