The Pursuit of Happiness

Can too much of the feel-good hormone dopamine can be a bad thing?
Set aside a few hours a day where you engage in low-stimulus behaviors, such as going for a walk.

By Tapp Francke Ingolia, MS

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in how we experience pleasure. Known as one of the “happy hormones,” it is created both by neurons in the midbrain and by the microbes in the gut, in response to a feel-good activity like eating a food that we like, listening to music, exercising, chatting with friends or sitting in the sun. When someone is feeling stressed or sad, their brain will encourage them to engage in one of these behaviors to help stimulate that dopamine release. Listening to that favorite piece of music will feel uplifting, exercise will make them feel better, eating that comfort food will literally bring comfort. This encouragement of the brain to stimulate the reward center is part of what helps mood remain balanced.

In addition to feelings of optimism, dopamine is also associated with learning, memory, motivation and attention. So if a little dopamine is good, then we must need a lot, right? No. Dopamine, in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” fashion, is about balance. The right amount is good, but too much can be detrimental. Too much is “too hot” and too little is “too cold.”

Dopamine balance can be complicated. Along with the feelings listed above, dopamine is also the “just one more” hormone. It can become too much. This is part of the reason why people struggle to stop after one cookie, one video game, one Instagram Reel or one episode of a favorite Netflix series. Because we perceive this behavior as pleasure, our brains want to keep it going. Too much dopamine is associated with drug and alcohol addictions, binge-eating, gambling, ADHD, anxiety, anger and aggression. Too much, simply put, is too much.

We are living in an extremely stressful time. The fear that COVID-19 has created, and the social isolation that has resulted, has propelled our brains into reward-seeking overdrive. Our need to keep our physical distance from one another has made people turn to their electronic devices for pleasure and connection. Zoom meetings, social media and streaming TV shows have become the norm. TikTok, Instagram and Facebook have replaced social gatherings. We now do IG and Facebook Lives instead of attending events, and have our exercise classes and meetings streamed through Zoom.

Although there are many positives that have resulted from these behavior changes—like accessibility to people and events that physical distance may have made impossible—they come with a dark flip side. The problem is that when we are on the internet, there are no limits. We can scroll all day long, and we do. As a result, our brains are being tipped into the “too hot” side of reward-seeking behavior. A good example of this is social media behavior. Anyone who has spent time on a social media platform can tell you how hard it is to get out of the scrolling vortex, how unmotivated they feel after binge-watching, the aggressive nature of so many of the comments on these platforms and the extreme difficulty in getting a child to disengage from these devices, which shows us pretty clearly that we are drowning in dopamine.

So how do we bring ourselves back into balance? We need what has been dubbed a “dopamine detox.” That means stopping anything that is considered a pleasure trigger for a period of hours. This does not mean the avoidance of all pleasures, but rather those associated with hyperstimulation that tend to lead to more compulsive behaviors. Get off your phone, close your laptop, don’t reach for sugary or processed foods—significantly limit those behaviors that are potentially addictive.

By destimulating, we clear our heads and can start again fresh. This gives the brain a break from the constant onslaught of too much stimulation. It is not literally a dopamine fast, as that is not possible. Instead, it is merely abstaining from those addictive or potentially addictive behaviors to get some distance and regain footing. Set aside a few hours a day where you engage in low-stimulus behaviors. These include going for a walk, practicing meditation, getting out in nature, eating unprocessed, whole foods, and spending time with friends and loved ones. Taking a break from the addictive behaviors can help to break the “just one more” cycle and help you find harmony again. Try it! Your brain will thank you.