Choose to Swim: Dopamine and Mindfulness for a Better Life

Not a Platitude

I met a friend of a friend for the first time, not too long ago:

Me: “So what do you like to do?”

Her: “Mmmm I’m really into mindfulness, and I’m an energy healer!”

Me (Out loud): “Cool!”

Me (in my head): *eyes rolling legitimately to the back of my skull*

It’s true that for some, including myself in the context of our above conversation, the term mindfulness can seem a bit tired and platitudinal. Maybe that’s because it can get lumped in with other new-agey practices (such as that of my new friendˆ1), maybe it’s because there are lots of charlatans who claim to know more than they do on the topic, or maybe it’s because I live in LA and a great many people here really enjoy talking about how in touch with their emotions they are.

In any case, I don’t particularly like this outcome and think it’s a shame. Mindfulness in it’s true form not at all cringey or platitudinal, it’s quite the opposite in fact: an extremely powerful tool to manage the way that we experience the world around us, which can literally change our reality.

The concept of mindfulness is not a new one. However, it has somehow eluded the West for literally thousands of years. Its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism date back to as early as 2000 BC, but in Western culture, mindfulness has only been steadily on the rise much more recently, since the late 1970s. Practiced properly, techniques such as meditation, breath work, and yoga are effective ways to improve mindfulness, connect more deeply to the world and people around us, and improve our well-being. Mindfulness challenges us to bring awareness into the way we live minute by minute, tune into our thoughts and feelings, to “be present” and to focus on the journey, not on the destination.

Despite my half-hearted cynicism about the terminology expressed in my interaction above, I am an avid proponent and practitioner of meditation, yoga and mindfulness techniques. I have experienced huge increases in my ability to manage stress, to put things into perspective, and to manage my emotions.

It has improved my performance at work, my relationships, and changed my life in many other profound ways that I won’t inundate you with here, but many others have experienced the same. Indeed there are a plethora of studies on mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and improve well-being.

The question I grapple with often however is why, in a society that typically rewards traditional measures of success such as money, fame and influence, is the joy these things bring us so fleeting? And how is it that focusing on the process, not the reward, produces greater amounts of pleasure, then the reward itself?

At least part of the answer seems to be explained by the neurotransmitter, dopamine and its relationship to our experience of pleasure. To properly answer these questions, we need to understand a bit about what dopamine is, and how it works.

The (Easy) Science

We hear about dopamine a lot, mostly within the context of catalysts that produce pleasure. Think: eating chocolate, having/watching/thinking about sex, ingesting cocaine (and some other drugs).

I won’t pretend to be a neuroscientist and try to explain all the science behind exactly how it works but in sum: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a messenger molecule that brings a signal to different cells in the body, telling them to do something. When dopamine is released where the neurons “fire” (electrically ignite), and boom … we get that "good" feeling.

We experience dopamine as a temporary but often extended pleasurable feeling (happiness, motivation, focus, along with some others), which varies in length and intensity depending on the catalyst (and some other factors, as we will soon learn). What happens is dopamine is released from one part of the brain, across a neural pathway to another part of the brain (for example, the prefrontal cortex, but not just the PFC) which produces the feeling we experience as pleasure, or motivation, or whatever.

The brain is releasing dopamine many times throughout the day in response to many different catalysts (eating food, working out, listening to music, getting fresh air, receiving a compliment, etc. etc).

Peaks, Valleys, and Baselines

Naturally, one might attempt to increase their dopamine levels to, quite simply, keep feeling “good”. There are plenty of suggestions out there on how to do so but it seems to me that these might be deceiving and actually result in the opposite of the desired outcome. This is due mainly to the concept of dopamine having a “baseline” level, “peaks” (i.e spikes above baseline) and “valleys” (i.e dips below baseline).

There are two fascinating implications here:

Implication 1: We all have different baseline levels of dopamine. One would think that the most favorable outcome would be to maximize the number of dopamine peaks, and increase the baseline as high as possible. However, as you can imagine, it’s not so simple. Our subjective experience of the pleasurable event is dependent not just on the height of the peak, but also on the relative distance between the baseline and the peak. That is, the release of dopamine has a tolerance effect. That is, with each subsequent dopamine hit, the dopamine release is subjectively experienced as less intense than the prior experience.

Implication 2: Once the dopamine peak drops back down it actually dips lower than the original baseline. This happens because there is only so much dopamine readily available to be released at any given time, so the levels in our brain will dip below baseline to give time to recover / re-synthesize, as needed. Just as we experience the peaks as pleasure, we experience the dips as “crashes” that might result in low motivation, sadness, or anxiety. It’s this feeling that is what triggers us to want to chase more of that thing that gave us the peak in the first place.

For Example

Let’s say you are swiping on a dating app.You get a match (congrats!). Your brain releases dopamine, giving you a feeling of motivation, excitement or happiness (the peak). But the next profile is right there. So the peak is short lived and you basically immediately forget about the match you just had. You swipe again. Another match (you’re on fire!). Another dopamine release (you probably feel this one a little less). You keep going but find yourself uninterested after a few more minutes of swiping as the relative distance between your dopamine peak and the prior peak lessens. You close the app, then 5 minutes later you feel alone, and have the urge to swipe again (the valley).

Or, do you ever find yourself opening up Instagram and seeing a bunch of comments on your photo (the peak), closing it, then immediately feeling the urge to open it back up again (the valley)? It’s not you being a moron (well, not only that), it’s driven by a chemical process happening in the brain. This phenomenon is also what can lead to addiction for many drugs that trigger the release of dopamine on a much more intense scale.

Fascinating how weak and easily manipulable we all are.

If you can push through that urge to pick back up the phone, your baseline dopamine level, once it settles, should actually feel really good because it’s relatively higher than your prior dopamine valleys.

This is all much more concisely explained in the words of one of my favorite poets, Curtis Jackson: Sunny days wouldn’t be special if it wasn’t for rain. Joy wouldn’t feel so good if it wasn’t for pain.”

Peaks and Valleys. Fifty had it right all along.

Multiple Catalysts

It gets even more interesting when we look at starting to layer multiple dopamine catalysts. For example, if you are someone who enjoys going to the gym, you get a dopamine release when you go. If you like listening to rap music, same story. However, let’s say you typically layer those and always listen to your favorite rap music while working out.

What ends up happening is that your brain will release dopamine from both catalysts. Because the brain only has so much readily available dopamine, over time and often very subtly, you are depleting your brain’s ability to experience the same level of pleasure from doing the same activities and you lose the ability to get the same amount of subjective pleasure from either catalyst independently.

Your experience of going to the gym is suddenly less pleasurable if you don’t have your favorite jams playing. You turn on your favorite song in the car while driving, and it suddenly doesn’t sound as nice.

By layering dopamine hits you are depleting your own ability to experience pleasure from the thing that once brought you pleasure on it’s own.

Based on this information about baselines and peaks, we can deduce that our subjective experience today of any given dopamine catalyst is impacted by the sum total of all our prior catalysts triggering dopamine releases (and subsequent drops below the baseline) in the prior hours, days and even months. This also means our dopamine releases today affect our experiences of subsequent dopamine releases later today, tomorrow and a few months from now.

Doing the exact same thing twice could result in very different subjective levels of pleasure, excitement or motivation each time.

Not just Swiping and Gyms

Earlier I named some dopamine catalysts such as swiping on dating apps, the gym, eating chocolate, having sex and doing cocaine, all activities that can trigger the release of dopamine and result in subjective pleasurable experiences.

To quote OG Mandino: “I am part of nature and so like the tides, my mood will rise; my moods will fall”ˆ2 . This fact is inevitable. Peaks and Valleys. But we can at least be aware of how and why those tides move the way they do, and start using them to bring more joy to our lives and positively impact those around us.

It turns out, however, that the release of dopamine is also triggered by the pursuit of hard things (ex: chasing a romantic partner, running a marathon, going after a promotion, finishing a piece of art, etc).

That’s right, dopamine is not just released upon the completion of these hard activities, but also upon the pursuit of these activities themselves. It’s easy for many of us to focus on the reward from doing something, rather than the doing of the thing itself. But as anyone who has ever received a promotion they really wanted, or ran a marathon will tell you, the great feeling of that promotion is extremely fleeting. However, what we know now is that the act of running the race (not the completion of the race itself) can trigger a dopamine release. What’s more, we have the power to actively change the catalyst from the finishing of the race, to the pursuit of the finishing of the race.

Enter, mindfulness, once more. This is really what being mindful is all about: focusing on being fully immersed in the task at hand, and thinking about performing that task, not completing the task (and certainly not getting the reward that comes at the end of the task).

In transcendental meditation, the meditator focuses on the breath, in and out. Not about the thoughts that arise during the session, or about what she will achieve from said session. The task is only done for the sake of the doing of the task. Not for what comes after.

So, what?

From what I can gather, there are two main actionable takeaways here.

Actionable takeaway 1: We now know that layering too many dopamine catalysts will cause us to mute the subsequent subjective experience of the same catalysts in the future. But does that mean you should never listen to music when you go to the gym, never go on Tinder and never drink alcohol or eat amazing food again? No. What it means is that we can be more mindful about the activities in which we choose to engage, and when we choose to engage in them. You probably shouldn’t eat chocolate while doing lines of coke every time while having sex … Maybe just once in a while. Balance, people.

Actionable takeaway 2: We all want to feel the great subjective experiences that dopamine releases trigger: more motivated, happier, more focused, etc. If you compare the amount of time you spend pursuing something meaningful, to the “reward” for completing the act itself, you will probably spend a hell of a lot more time pursuing that thing, than basking in the glory of the reward. Wouldn’t you rather receive the feeling of pleasure all those times you worked on pursuing it, rather than just the accomplishment of the task itself?

Start to focus your energy on the task at hand. If you’re working, focus on doing good work. If you’re running, focus on breathing and moving your legs, one in front of the other. If you’re playing a sport, be fully immersed. Study yourself, study your opponents. If you are reading, imagine every detail of the scene. Slowly, you will start to forget about the reward or the destination, and simply enjoy the journey.

This also means that if we can start to get motivated by pursuit rather than reward, we can shift our mindset from being intimidated to pursue hard things, to being excited to pursue hard things.

This is the power of mindfulness. It’s not just a way to be more calm or “zen”, and it’s not just a way to reduce anxiety (though it does all of those things). It can be a technique to actively change the chemistry of our brain to help us both focus on and gain pleasure from the process, not just the reward, thereby training ourselves to pursue more difficult challenges in life. Makes for a much more interesting life, if you ask me.

Choose to Swim

I’ll close with a quote from Hunter S Thompson that was recently re-shared with me by a dear friend, that I feel to be relevant in this context.

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

Based on what we know now about dopamine and mindfulness, I would say, choose to swim. And try to look up every once in a while and check out the fishies.

The majority of the information and opinions formed therefrom are based off of the Huberman Labs podcast: CONTROLLING YOUR DOPAMINE FOR MOTIVATION, FOCUS & SATISFACTION.

[1]: Disclaimer: I have nothing against energy healing. In fact I am very curious about the topic and believe it probably works to an extent and has merit. I am using it as an example here as it’s a trade not backed by traditional scientific rigor in its claims and therefore solicits more skepticism. Also just a fun and easy target.

[2] The Greatest Salesman in the World, OG Mandino, p. 79

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Practical thoughts about health, balance, connection, philosophy, personal growth and the pursuit of an interesting life | Measurement and Privacy Lead @ Google

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Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas

Practical thoughts about health, balance, connection, philosophy, personal growth and the pursuit of an interesting life | Measurement and Privacy Lead @ Google

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