How Your Balance of Dopamine vs. Here and Now Molecules Defines You

Some books are like personal instruction manuals.

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

The best example of a personal instruction manual book for me is, Quiet by Susan Cain. While reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “Ohhhhh! So that explains why I feel and act the way I do.’” I discovered that my introversion isn’t a defect, but a feature, and how to use it.

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 balance of dopamine and so-called “here and now” molecules explain much of what I do. Then it showed me how I can use this understanding to improve my performance.

Let’s see if I can’t pass on a few of those instructions to help you do the same.

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. You need dopamine to motivate you to maximize your future resources. Without it, you’d accomplish nothing.

Why?

Because the “here and now” (H&N) molecules would take control.

The H&N molecules are like the pot-headed hippies in your mind.

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 that (im-)balance affects your behavior.

I’ll explain more below, but with this understanding, it’s already 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 the gold-digger.

It’s geared toward maximizing your future resources in the short term—lusting after anything unusual or valuable and pushing 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 short-term 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 is the power-hungry string-puller.

It wants to maximize your future resources for the long term—compelling 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 much 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 and H&N Explain Who You Are

Your relative levels of gold-digging desire dopamine, string-pulling control dopamine, and hippy pothead H&Ns determine your actions. And since we are all defined by our actions, they define who we 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 novel ways, which is the basis of creativity.

H&N molecules, on the other hand, aren’t interested in thinking so hard about such things that don’t exist. They 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’s mental models to piece together a solution to.

This explains why pie-in-the-sky big thinkers can have such a hard time making decisions, like what to order off the menu or who to marry.

Speaking of the latter…

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.

That’s because dopamine drives you to find love (and lovemaking) but also leaves you wanting more once you get it.

Lifelong partnerships work when you feel a supreme and ongoing satisfaction with each other. That’s the H&N neurotransmitters’ game.

In non-romantic social life, your dopamine/H&N balance will likely affect the types of relationships you have, too:

  • 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 may 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 balance to enjoy it.

People with more H&N molecules tend to be content staying put in their country, like Costa Rica, reportedly one of the happiest nations in the world. 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 pleases both 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? (How dopaminergic of you.)

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 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.

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 are left wanting when those things disappear.

In either case, it’s worth asking yourself:

What do you enjoy 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.

Whatever you come up with, those are the activities that satisfy both your H&N molecules and your dopamine circuits. Do more of those.

Create happiness rather than seek it.

As per the hedonic paradox, if you pursue things you think will make you happy, they will not. But if you do things to make other people happy, you’ll be happier as a side-effect.

Doing so requires finding a purpose that powerful enough to compel you to deny dopamine’s selfish desires.

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.

Have your cake and eat 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

Judging from that quote, it seems E.B. White would have benefitted from a better understanding of dopamine and the H&N molecules. 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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