The Universal Currency of Motivation

September 12, 2022

Recently I've been studying the physiology that underpins motivation.

What happens at a biological level when we feel driven and motivated to strive for goals?

I've mentioned a number of times on this blog that I've previously had the propensity for slumps.  Over the past few years I've learned some interventions that can quickly get me out of a slump before it fully sets in.  These tools have been extremely helpful in my goal for consistency.

But now I want to figure out what causes these slumps in the first place.  

Perhaps, by understanding the underlying mechanism of motivation, I can prevent having slumps at all.  

Dopamine Might hold the Answer

Apparently, the universal currency for motivation is a chemical called dopamine.  So, I found the best sources on the topic and embarked on a deliberate reading session to work through the all the following:-

My notes on all the above can be found here.

My dopamine research journey has led me down an interesting rabbit hole. Here's a summary of my findings...

What we know about Dopamine

  • The difference between someone with no drive and endless drive is dopamine (there are other factors involved, but this is the primary determinant)
  • Dopamine is a universal currency in all mammals. It helps us move towards goals and how much dopamine is in our system at any one time compared to how much dopamine was in our system a few minutes ago, and how much we remember enjoying a particular experience in the past. That dictates your so-called quality of life and your desire to pursue things.
  • There is a baseline level of dopamine circulating in your brain all the time - this is very important for how you feel generally
  • Baseline levels of dopamine are almost certainly genetically related
  • You can have peaks and troughs of dopamine levels
  • If you have no drive to do anything, it's almost certain that your levels of dopamine are low at that point in time
  • Dopamine is relative to baseline and your previous dopamine peaks. This is why when you repeatedly engage in something that you enjoy, your threshold for enjoyment goes up and up and up.  
  • Typical things people do and how many times it increases dopamine:-
    • Chocolate (1.5 x normal)
    • Pursuit and act of sex (2 x)
    • Nicotine that is smoked (2.5 x)
    • Cocaine (2.5 x)
    • Amphetamine (10 x)
    • Exercise (between zero and 2 times depending on how much you enjoy it)
  • Caffeine upregulates dopamine receptors - this leads to more enjoyment from the same amount of dopamine released
  • There are natural activities that will give us healthy sustained increases in dopamine.  Most notably cold exposure (cold showers, ice baths) and exercise
  • Working hard at something for sake of a reward that comes afterward can make the hard work much more challenging and much less likely to lean into hard work in the future. 
    • If you get a peak in dopamine from a reward, it’s going to lower your baseline and the cognitive interpretation is that you didn’t do the activity for the activity itself, but you did it for the reward.
    • The neural mechanism of cultivating growth mindset is learning to get rewards from effort in doing. Over time you can evoke a dopamine release from the friction and the challenge that you happen to be in.
  • Your levels of dopamine are under your control.  Use the understanding of dopamine to modulate and regulate your levels to suit your performance.

My Main Takeaways for Consistent Drive and Motivation

Learning about dopamine has helped lift the veil on some aspects of my life and why I've found myself falling into periods of apathy.

For example, I used to have the habit of going out most weeks and drinking quite a lot of alcohol.  After a session, even when the hangover doesn't get me, I'd nearly always lose track of my habits in the day or two after.

I'd miss my daily writing practice, skip the gym, order some junk food while scrolling social media on my phone. The downward negative spiral cascades so  fast.  Furthermore, it's noticeably very difficult to recover and sometimes can take me three days or more to muster up the willpower to get back to where I was before.  I really don't have much drive.

Now, with my newfound understanding of dopamine, this behavior makes total sense...  

My brain is flooded with dopamine while I'm out drinking.  The next day, in an act of correction, dopamine levels drop to extreme lows.  After a few days, when dopamine levels have more or less recovered, my new baseline is not quite as high as it was before. 

So, by regularly having a drink habit, I'm systematically depleting my dopamine levels.  Not only does this make it much harder to enjoy positive activities that are far more subtle in their dopaminergic effects, such as reading and writing, but it also means I'll have less drive and motivation to do these things that matter in the first place. 

But this extends beyond drinking to other activities... 

How can you sustain a strong baseline level of dopamine, and thus drive and motivation in order to do positive habits, if you're filling your days and weeks with highly dopaminergic activities such as drinking, porn, social media, fast food and sugar addiction? 

Until now, I hadn't realized the physiological link between all these addictions. It doesn't matter that they're all different in nature - they all contribute to depleting the very currency that gives us the drive and motivation to consistently do our habits.

Practical "Dopamine" Implications for my Life Going Forward

  • Cutting every pleasurable activity out of our lives is unachievable and undesirable.  Variety is the spice of life and pleasurable experiences are an important part of living well.  Instead of complete abstention my focus will be on both limiting these activities and making sure that they're not part of a regular schedule.  

    For example, randomly browsing YouTube for entertainment can be fun and enjoyable as a one off and won't derail my consistency. Browsing YouTube for an hour every day before bed as a habit, though, could potentially be harmful for my levels of drive the next day.  

    Likewise, it's not that I won't ever drink again, but I won't ever drink regularly on a weekly basis again.  Instead, I'll manage it strategically - maybe I'll drink once every few months, and at lower doses, for example.
  • I will continue to work on the skill of producing dopamine while working.  In other words, I will continue to try and develop an autotelic personality.  

    I'm dedicating my life to building and creating things.  I'm sufficiently excited about producing software, writing books, recording videos and building companies to be fully engaged in what I'm doing.  As referenced before on this blog, the key to enjoying work is 100% focus on the task at hand without distraction.  My goal is to develop the skill of loving my work, so that these activities are dopaminergic for me, and everything is in alignment.
  • When not working, I will aspire to achieve  dopamine "highs" naturally as opposed to through substances and artificial stimuli.  

    I want to feel great from the relatively small levels of dopamine release such as reading a book, instead of cranking dopamine into oblivion through things like porn and drug use.

    For me, this means taking weekend adventures, seeing amazing natural wonders of the world, hiking, exploring and spending time with people.  These are all enjoyable activities that don't create a supraphysiological stimulus that comes at a high neurological cost later.
  • I will continue to drink coffee in the mornings...

    The best part of this dopamine journey was when I learned that caffeine upregulates dopamine receptors and is thus in alignment with my goals!

This exercise has again re-confirmed the idea that learning how your brain and body works is not only very interesting but offers an unbelievable return on investment.  Previously, I had never even considered managing pleasure in a strategic way in order to create and protect motivation.  

This could literally be a life-changing discovery and help me to be even more consistent than I am currently while increasing life enjoyment at the same time.

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