Dopamine is a bit of a buzzword these days, often used for things that spark pleasure, or motivate you.
But a lot of the information casually available on dopamine doesn’t really tap into the true nature of this molecule.
Understanding the complexities of how dopamine works is so important for making meaningful adjustments to your life.
Knowing exactly how to tap into your dopamine mechanisms can help you stay motivated and focused, on-demand!
As with most things, dopamine isn’t good in excesses – both too little and too much can pose a problem.
What Exactly is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neuromodulator – in simpler terms, a brain chemical that affects different circuits within your brain and body.
Among its number of roles and functions, dopamine is the source of your motivation.
When dopamine pulses down your brain’s mesolimbic or reward pathway, you experience anticipation.
In other words, you experience the expectation of a reward because of a specific goal or action.
And it’s this expectation that drives you toward accomplishing that goal.
This could be anything from the reward of trying out a new ice cream flavor, looking forward to hanging out with a friend you haven’t seen in ages, or completing a huge project you’ve been working on.
The reward you anticipate from these things causes an initial spike of dopamine, which makes you feel driven and motivated.
It helps you laser-focus on a goal, and rally your mental and physical resources to accomplishing that goal.
You’re not going to drive over to a new ice cream place or reschedule your appointments to make time for your friend or work hard on your project, if you didn’t have this motivation.
So, while you do experience pleasure from anticipating a reward, and then enjoying the reward, dopamine is really about desire.
It creates the desire in you to pursue a certain goal. And this pushes you to set about doing what you need to do to get there.
But the pleasure is only one side of the dopamine coin.
The Other Side of Dopamine
Plenty of times, you’ll only hear about the “pleasure” aspect of dopamine.
Experiencing a sense of reward makes your brain want more of the reward, and this pushes you to keep going.
But this is just half the picture, because for every dopamine spike, there is a corresponding increase in pain.
And this doesn’t mean physical pain, or even a feeling you’d describe as pain.
This is the craving you experience after that initial spike of dopamine, to have more of it.
Have you ever struggled to have just one slice of cake, even though you’re full? Or failed to switch off a videogame after completing a level, even though it’s late and you have work tomorrow?
How about this? Have you ever felt a little low after completing a huge milestone, like graduating or finishing a massive work project?
You may have ridden the high for a while. But you might be familiar with that feeling afterwards where you’re a bit down, wondering what’s next.
How will you be able to follow up on what you just did? How can you experience that high again? And how can you surpass it?
This is your dopamine’s pleasure-pain system at work.
And here’s the critical thing to understand about dopamine.
Motivating yourself isn’t as simple as constantly doing things to cause dopamine spikes.
And this is because the more you pursue something that gave you a dopamine spike, the less dopamine releases each subsequent time.
That’s not all either – for each lower dopamine increase, there’s a higher level of that sensation of pain.
This is why people can develop addictions for things that cause huge dopamine surges, like drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.
The surge of dopamine is so high that the corresponding pain makes you crave for it again. And you end up wanting to pursue that reward again just to alleviate that acute sense of pain.
This is why using dopamine to your advantage isn’t as simple as chasing that sense of reward.
You have to understand how to healthily tap into your dopamine mechanisms to use it to your advantage. And you need to do so without skewing the pleasure-pain balance.
Table of Contents
1. Set Realistic Goals
2. Space Out Your Rewards
3. Avoid Bright Lights at Night
4. Cut Down on Sugar
5. Boost Dopamine with L-Tyrosine
6. Cut Down Your Caffeine
6 Healthy Ways to Boost Your Dopamine
1. Set Realistic Goals
Say you have a long-term goal you want to accomplish. It’s going to take you a lot of dedication and planning to make sure you stick to the pursuit.
One method of doing this, which neuroscience supports, is to chunk down what you need to do into smaller goals.
Breaking a big task down into several smaller tasks makes it more manageable when it comes to sustaining your motivation.
For example, have you ever started off a new year with a grand resolution?
You might, for instance, have decided you’re going to read a hundred books over the new year.
And often, you might have found that no matter how strongly you start off, you lose steam along the way.
This is because the goal you’ve set yourself is too large and long-term.
In anticipation of having a successful reading year, you might experience that initial spike of dopamine. You would genuinely be excited and motivated to read a hundred books.
Because you’re trying to sustain that dopamine for an entire year, though, you’ll likely end up doing the opposite.
This is an example of a reward prediction error. You anticipate a sense of reward, and an increase in dopamine. If this increase is below what you anticipated, your dopamine levels actually fall.
You end up feeling disappointed and demotivated.
For example, imagine there’s a movie you’ve been looking forward to, that everyone has told you is great.
You’re anticipating incredible things from it. Your expectations are set really high, and you’re excited with all the dopamine coursing through your system.
However, when you watch the movie, although it may still have been good, you might feel a little disappointed.
The degree of reward you expected wasn’t as great as the reward you experienced. And so, the dopamine spike you experience falls short of the dopamine spike you anticipated.
Things might have been very different if you’d gone into the movie without having any expectations at all.
Your dopamine levels might have been higher, because you weren’t already anticipating a huge sense of reward and satisfaction.
This is why expectation management is so important when setting goals you want to commit to.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream big and be ambitious with your goals.
It merely means you should be realistic and chunk your large goal into a series of smaller, attainable goals.
Each time you complete one of these smaller goals, the pulse of dopamine you experience can keep you going toward the next goal.
But as you know, every time you pursue something that releases dopamine, the subsequent dopamine release is lower.
And the degree of pain increases.
To avoid completely burning yourself out from overtaxing your dopamine mechanisms, read on to the next section!
2. Space Out Your Rewards
Rather than celebrating every goal you accomplish, celebrate every other goal.
By doing this, you’re sustaining each dopamine spike over a longer period of time.
Rather than subsequent, rapid fire spikes of dopamine, which correspond to an increase in pain, you can stay motivated longer by spacing out your rewards.
So, for example, you just received approval for a project you worked hard to pitch.
There will already be that initial spike of pleasure from accomplishing something you set out to do.
You might at this stage want to celebrate this accomplishment.
However, instead you choose to use this dopamine high to motivate you into the planning stage of your project. By doing this, you’re sustaining that dopamine high for a longer period of time.
At the same time, you’re staving off the corresponding increase of pain.
So, when you actually do celebrate completing a goal, you’re still going to experience a higher pulse of dopamine.
You’re basically scheduling your dopamine – the term for this is intermittent reinforcement scheduling.
For this to be fully effective, you want to schedule these dopamine spikes at random, not in a predictable pattern.
3. Avoid Bright Lights at Night
But there are several other factors that boost or reduce your dopamine levels, and one of them is light.
As you go through your day, the light-detecting cells in your eyes grow more sensitive.
And this makes them very susceptible to bright, artificial lights after dark.
When your retinal cells detect bright lights in the evening, they suppress your reward pathways.
This means they don’t only reduce your dopamine levels in the moment. They also affect your anticipation for things you’d typically be excited to pursue.
If you’ve ever felt groggy, unfocused, and completely unmotivated to get out of bed, this might be why.
Your dopamine pathways may have been suppressed because of the bright lights from your screens and environment the night before.
The dopamine suppression isn’t the only issue bright lights at night pose for your learning, focus and productivity.
Blue light from your phone, laptop, and TV screens, and LED light bulbs, also suppress your sleep hormone, melatonin.
This in turn can make it very difficult for you to fall asleep.
And sleep is critical for learning, memory, mood, focus, and more.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll likely struggle to accomplish your goals the following day.
And because of the reward prediction error you read about before, this would lead to even more decreases in dopamine.
The light levels in your environment are directly connected to your ability to focus and stay motivated!
So, at night, opt for dimmer lights, and blue blockers for your devices!
4. Cut Down on Sugar
You likely feel extremely uplifted, energetic, and motivated right after eating something sugary, right?
In fact, when you’re stressed out or working on something, you might find your sweet tooth activating.
This is because sugary foods do cause spikes in your dopamine.
The problem, though, is that this sugar rush is followed not long after by a sugar crash.
And as you know about the pain-pleasure balance of dopamine, you know why this is bad news.
For every spike of pleasure, the corresponding spike of pain makes you crave more.
And this “pain” can manifest in many forms. The sluggishness, lack of focus, headaches, brain fog, irritability, lack of motivation, and more you experience during a sugar crash are symptoms of that drastic increase in pain.
Basically, this is one of the unhealthy ways of spiking your dopamine levels.
Rather than narrowing your focus to the goal you want to accomplish, your brain and body hone in instead on the need for more sugar.
Over time, the effects of these rushes and crashes can stack up and damage your dopaminergic pathways.
You would have a harder time getting yourself intentionally motivated for the things you want to accomplish.
However, now that you know about the effect sugar has, you can mindfully moderate how much you consume!
Be careful of hidden sugars in your food, too. Although you might not be able to taste it, the neurons in your gut do. And they send off signals to your brain to fire up the dopamine in an unhealthy way, too.
5. Boost Dopamine with L-Tyrosine
This section includes information about supplements. Do be advised that the intent of this article is informational and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor before consuming any supplements.
So, if you shouldn’t boost dopamine with sugar, is there any other way you can boost dopamine with your diet?
A lot of studies show that consuming foods with l-tyrosine, an amino acid, can help raise your dopamine levels.
This is because l-tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine. Your body can synthesize this amino acid to create more dopamine!
Foods that contain l-tyrosine include meats, dairy, eggs, soy products, bananas, avocados, fish, as well as some nuts and seeds.
L-tyrosine is also available in supplement form.
Again, I strongly advise you to consult with your doctor before starting any supplements of any form. Concentrated doses of any compound may have side effects depending on your health, other medication you’re on, allergies, etc.
Compared to getting l-tyrosine through food, l-tyrosine supplements cause quicker dopamine spikes, but are followed by a dopamine crash.
If you are considering getting supplements, this is something you’ll need to discuss with your doctor.
6. Cut Down Your Caffeine
Caffeine can cause up to a 30% spike in dopamine. This lifts your mood, narrows your focus, and helps you stay more alert.
This effect works in conjunction with caffeine blocking out another molecule, adenosine, from binding with its receptors.
Adenosine is what makes you drowsy throughout the day. When caffeine binds to adenosine receptors and blocks them from doing their thing, it keeps you awake and alert.
The issue, however, is that both effects are short-lived.
As you can probably guess by now, that 30% spike in dopamine is followed by a corresponding spike in pain.
If throughout the day you find yourself getting gradually more irritable, sluggish, unfocused, your mind constantly straying to the thought of another cup, it’s that pain in action.
And the more you rely on caffeine, the less dopamine you’ll get, and the more these withdrawal symptoms will increase.
Meanwhile, when the caffeine fades out of your system, all that built-up adenosine also binds with its receptors.
This “crash” where you suddenly end up feeling extremely tired, combined with withdrawal symptoms, creates a vicious cycle.
You may end up reaching for caffeine again and again. And this might cancel out the benefits you got earlier in the day.
Too much caffeine can interfere with your sleep patterns, worsen symptoms of anxiety and stress, and lead to addiction.
Again, like sugar, understanding the effect caffeine has on you lets you more mindfully control how much you drink daily.
One trick is to put off your first cup of the day to a couple hours after waking. Your adenosine levels are already at their lowest when you wake up.
So, there’s not much for caffeine to do at this point. And by the time adenosine does build up more substantially, your caffeine levels are falling.
However, if you schedule your first cup of coffee about 2 hours after waking, this pushes that midday crash back.
You get a natural boost of dopamine, alertness, focus, etc. to carry you through more of the day.
Another tip is to switch out your coffee for green tea. Green tea contains the amino acid l-theanine, which also boosts dopamine levels.
The great thing about l-theanine is that it’s a natural relaxant and cancels out the jitters you’d get from caffeine.
But again, the bottom line is moderation! Remember the pain-pleasure balance, and don’t overdo it!
Now you know all about the dos and don’ts of dopamine for motivation, you can access focus and drive on-demand!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com, HowtoLearn.Teachable.com, best selling author and an internationally noted brain and learning coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.
She is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!
Contact Pat to find out more about the Brain 2.0 Brain Advantage Learning and Career Assessment and customized faster learning programs for professionals and students.