The Real Cost Of Dopamine
Level 3: Master Of The Mundane
Ever hear the words:
“Can’t you just let me be excited?”
This is often the sentiment of someone high on euphoria - a ticking time bomb.
“The Real Cost of Dopamine” is a contribution from a Guardian of the Guardian Academy. He is also Wolf Pup #29*
*Joseph R (Wolf Pup #29) is taking on a role as a consistent contributor to the Guardian Academy. Most of his contributions will be reserved for the paid tier. This one is free - soak it up.
Recently, The Guardian Academy has referenced the concept of ‘easy dopamine’ vs ‘hard dopamine.’ This quote has been shared: “High levels of dopamine achieved without effort will destroy a person” — Andrew Huberman — shared by Nic Peterson via Joe Polish, and probably many other people.
The Real Cost Of Dopamine
TGA discusses dopamine in the context of crypto, because chasing charts and chasing ‘more’ is a form of chasing dopamine. (I have some recommended reading and resources at the end)
In this article, I’m going to explore the context in my life around which I have been thinking about this idea of “easy dopamine.” I hope my experience may be helpful in discovering something with yourself.
The idea of analyzing my dopamine, and really my activities and choices, in terms of the level of ease with which I attain dopamine from them, has become deeply informative.
I can look back on my own personal history and see that the times in which I succumbed to easy dopamine, I found myself being less happy and achieving less (in a broad sense).
I remember a couple of years after college (this would be 12 years ago now), while working a regular hourly job, doing nothing with my diploma or what I learned (seemingly), burning away the extra hours on video games … and coming to the conclusion I was satiating my inner drive through meaningless activity which resulted in nothing tangible in the real world. That was the first time I made a significant change based on these internal observations, and it led me to 12 years of really good work.
But it wasn’t until this year that I finally put the key pieces together.
Now I am married, I have 3 (step) kids, with a 4th on the way, and I’ve shifted my entrepreneurial career to work which is more stable and reliable (for context, I work primarily as a copywriter now, though I published a magazine all about coffee for 8 years). The frame and concepts around the dangers of ‘easy dopamine’ resonated quickly for two key reasons:
1) Now that I have people I love who depend upon me, my ability to get good work done in a tight timeframe consistently is important. In short, I can’t dick around.
2) My kids are constantly exposed to intense stimulation (primarily screen-based) and, what I see now as, very, very easy dopamine.
These two frames led me to deeply consider the effect of easy dopamine on my life, their life and growing selves, and our family as a whole.
The concept and concerns resonated easily with my wife as well. So in August, as a family, we completely cut off all ‘easy dopamine’ for 2 weeks. This meant primarily screen-related things (video games, tv, etc). Though not intentional, for myself, this also ended up including food — but more on that in a little bit.
Before I get to the outcome (which I want to share early here), I do want to say that I’ve spent a fair amount of time considering the results, impacts, their meaning, and how this all integrates with myself personally, for my kids, for our family, and for our lives as a whole.
The “answer” is not one thing, it’s not easy, but there is something I believe to be quite powerful in what I have experienced and realized.
I don’t know if words are enough to communicate something which you may only see once experienced on your own.
But perhaps what I have to share may inspire one of you towards an experience of happiness.
The beginning was unsurprising.
I’ve done “tech fasts” before, but honestly, I can’t recall a time during regular everyday life when I’ve done an “easy dopamine fast.” If I have gone for a week or more without “easy dopamine” it would have been during say a camping or backpacking trip, but the extreme difference in everyday living would have masked the real effect.
I’ll talk about what I observed in our kids first. Though I believe the most impact I noticed in myself, I’ll get to that in a moment.
Initially they were fairly squirrely, but they also still spend significant time away from screens that getting into NOT doing that wasn’t terribly difficult.
We ended up doing a lot more things together, AND they ended up doing a lot more with each other on their own. We did play more board games than we usually do, which was pretty great. Usually those are overshadowed by video games, but they found a new delight in board games (they are now obsessed with monopoly).
Unsurprisingly, when we stopped the “ban” they snapped from rigidity into chaos.
But more on that later.
One more thing I’ll say about kids. I can see very clearly the impact that easy dopamine and stimulation has on their ability to engage in activities which are by nature longer effort dopamine.
Writing something. Building something which doesn’t immediately work. Starting ANYTHING which doesn’t have a clear quick reward.
I don’t want to start a whole conversation on parenting and child behavior and all that, because there’s plenty I don’t understand, and I’m just figuring it all out as I go.
But it does make sense to me that if they are constantly dropping their baseline dopamine (more on this concept in a moment), and everything they do gets compared to the ease and pleasure they get from “easy dopamine,” then we’ve got a problem (or at the very least, a challenge). This is an ongoing question which likely will never have a clear answer.
I did not have the ability to completely devoid myself of screens, as I do my daily work on a computer. But I did have the ability to cut them off when I was NOT working, and to remove key distractors and time wasters from my day to day, more specifically, to eliminate any activity which I identified as “easy-dopamine seeking”.
One of the (not-so, really) surprising distractions at the beginning was Reddit. In the first couple days I found myself mindlessly habitually getting on Reddit on my phone. I’d be texting my wife, I’d close out the text, and then suddenly find myself on Reddit, as if controlled by some other being like a puppet.
I quickly just deleted the app. On the computer I found it easy enough to not “accidentally” get on reddit, because I had to first open a browser window then type the address into a bar. Still pretty darn easy, but there’s enough steps there to interrupt and keep it from being completely mindless. (Unsurprisingly, I don’t miss it, and i’m left wondering what the hell I was doing with it in the first place).
That was the first curious experience.
The next one came right about after the first week.
I found I had a much easier time getting into, staying in, and re-entering flow and focus for my work.
Consequently, I got a lot more done on a daily basis, even during days when the kids were home for a lot of the time and I was frequently interrupted.
At the end of the two weeks, we moved, and that major disruption kicked us out of the “easy dopamine fast” (though we didn’t intend on doing it for a long time, merely as kind of a ‘reset’).
This experiment for ME ended with a BANG. But more on that in a little bit.
I also noticed something interesting with food. For most of my life, eating has been an emotional/comfort activity. As such, for most of my life I’ve been overweight. This is pretty common. At one point I identified food as an addiction and started taking different actions to reframe how I looked at food. Most notably, I got far more in touch with how different foods made me feel, and tried to shift my focus of eating not on how I felt while eating but rather how I felt after.
I realized during this easy dopamine fast that much of the food/eating habits/actions which I associated as “negative” — those which were primarily emotionally motivated — were likely also easy dopamine seeking.
An example: I consider cheez-its one of my kryptonite. It’s funny now because I see them as kinda gross, but I still can’t help but eat them when they are around. My solution? Don’t have them around. It’s easier to not buy them than it is to not eat them when they are in front of me.
I can see that eating cheez-its (or any mindless snack that is about feeling good and not contributing to my well being) is about easy dopamine. I have so many little good feelings associated with that snack. Eating a handful is just like a pop of good feeling. But what happens if I keep tapping into that? Down I go.
So, after this “easy dopamine fast” my initial conclusions were this:
If I eliminate easy dopamine, then my body (which still wants/needs dopamine) will start to realize that it can get the dopamine it wants/needs from the other activities I do. From a work perspective, writing and finishing and billing projects.
This means I’ll have an easier or more direct or more obvious internal drive towards doing the work, because doing the work = dopamine, whereas before if I needed or wanted dopamine all I had to do was tap my phone.
Playing with my kids became more rewarding. Or rather, I had a higher more sustained feeling of dopamine from the activity.
I found myself just eating less in general. In retrospect this one is probably pretty significant.
The reasons for all this became more clear after I listened to Andrew Huberman’s podcast episode “Controlling Your Dopamine for Motivation, Focus, & Satisfaction.”
Learning about Dopamine
Andrew Huberman’s Podcast
This was a really fascinating episode. Since running into Huberman’s work via The Guardian Academy and The Wolf Den, I’ve been deeply enjoying many of his explorations of different topics. He does an amazing job of explaining deeply complex concepts in a way which anyone can understand.
With that being said, I want to share my thoughts following listening to this podcast episode on dopamine…
And I want to do so with this very clear caveat: I’m not a scientist. I recognize my knowledge and understanding are very limited. I’m trying to digest and share my observations with the greatest possible care because I don’t want to be in a position of disseminating information incorrectly because it validates an idea I have, or something that I want to be true.
It may be I’m misinterpreting or misunderstanding certain things, but I believe what I have to share makes sense, and may be helpful in understanding how dopamine might influence YOUR life.
I’m going to talk through these ideas with the context of my “easy dopamine fast” experience in mind.
(Again my apologies if I am not technically accurate, I am presenting my thoughts from digesting the presented information)
For your reference, here is the episode in question: https://hubermanlab.com/controlling-your-dopamine-for-motivation-focus-and-satisfaction/
Huberman begins the episode explaining what Dopamine does and how it works in your body.
The short answers are these.
Our entire body and life essentially run on dopamine. It’s the primary chemical for motivation within our brain. There are two core neural circuits which are involved in dopamine creation and distribution, and if either of these are broken, you essentially become broken.
That might be a little black and white. But the core lesson I got from this is simple: Dopamine, especially the specific balance of dopamine and how our body creates and interacts with it, is CRITICAL to our motivation and happiness and life.
He gets into a lot of really fascinating neurobiology which I’m not going to attempt to regurgitate here. Go listen to the episode if that kind of thing interests you.
Here’s the part which really caught my attention and made several puzzle pieces fall into place.
In general, we operate with what amounts to a “baseline” level of dopamine. Different things we do can cause different levels of rise over the baseline level of dopamine. Different things we do can result in a higher consistent baseline increase as well.
Generally, the higher and more consistent your baseline level of dopamine (the consistency is REALLY important), the happier and better feeling you will be on a whole.
When I was listening to this idea, I had words from Nic in The Guardian Academy in my head echoing, about “raising the floor.”
The ‘raise the floor’ concept itself is about focusing on creating higher lows, instead of higher highs. In business, this means instead of trying to do better than my best month, I’m going to try to consistently increase my worst month.
In time if you follow this, your worst ends up better than your previous best, and critically you don’t experience the “fall” that happens when you’re constantly trying to beat your best.
With that in mind, I add in this revelation …
The FEELING of “spiking dopamine” is related to the amount of dopamine increase you get from an activity OVER YOUR BASELINE.
AND some things you do will create such a rise in dopamine over the baseline that afterward, the fall from that peak will actually drop BELOW baseline and DRAG YOUR BASELINE DOWN.
There’s another concept which is woven through conversation in TGA — “peaks and valleys.” A short explanation of “peaks and valleys.” Peaks happen for a variety of reasons, usually we’re talking emotional peaks. In crypto, this could be a new all time high. But you’ve got to realize what goes up, must come down. On the other side of a peak is what? A valley.
Back to the dopamine conversation, as a reference point for the feeling of your baseline being dragged down, of dipping into a valley, think about any time you’ve had a HUGE win and felt really amazing about yourself or something you’ve done, and then afterward felt drawn down, perhaps even depressed.
That’s the effect in action.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be so dramatic as to go from ecstatic to depression in one peak and valley.
What I’ve gathered from all of this is that the “easy” dopamine, that which we chase with little to no effort, which can destroy us when chased, will create those peaks which create the valleys which drop the baseline, even if they aren’t huge, the constant peak-valley drops the baseline.
When in a constant state of seeking easy dopamine, then, one is constantly (if maybe slowly) dropping the baseline.
This not only makes you less and less happy and satisfied in life in general but also creates a much more likely scenario of a large valley following a large spike over baseline in the case where you DO something significantly satisfying and which took effort.
An unfortunate, ironic situation where you can’t dig yourself out of feeling bad by having big wins. Another reason I love the “raise the floor” perspective, because it applies here … you feel better not by trying to do things which feel good, but rather by eliminating that which is drawing you down, and then doing the basic “hard” work which slowly brings your floor back up.
Bringing this back to my personal experience, and then to crypto.
The ‘easy dopamine’ fast created a scenario where I was no longer creating extreme peaks and valleys multiple times a day.
Before (and since, but more on that in a moment), I would take ‘breaks’ from my work throughout the day, or from other moments, to do some stupid shit on my phone (easiest escape). Sometimes this was Reddit. Sometimes this was a game. Sometimes it was just nonsense stimulation of pushing buttons.
But either way, I wasn’t just “interrupting my day.” I was actually creating a peak which created a valley, and probably over time, slowly pulled my baseline dopamine down.
Not only this, but my constant easy dopamine exposure lowered whatever internal drive I had for going after the harder dopamine.
Why spend the next 3 hours writing garbage drafts of emails when I could just tap my phone and feel good for a moment?
It sounds obvious in retrospect, but what I realized in the experience and what has motivated me to share this is just how silent, subtle, and sinister the effect is of consistent easier dopamine.
Even though intellectually, this made sense to me before, I couldn’t comprehend how it was actually affecting me internally before going through this experience.
The End of the Experiment
For most of our family, the experiment ended when we moved. As I said before, my wife and I aren’t interested in a dogmatic rigid approach, because it will only result in chaos. This was easily evident by the fact that as soon as we allowed video games, the kids binged to excess.
I was too occupied with moving to have even a moment for distraction, plus I recognized the benefits by then, so I decided to keep going as long as I could. Yes there are the dangers of rigidity, but I was fascinated by just how much work I was able to get done with the limitations at hand (working from home, kids home during the summer, moving a house, all at once).
What ultimately brought the pieces together was The Wolf Den Launch.
You see, I’ve been a part of The Guardian Academy since just before the launch of Guardian. I didn’t have much in the way of assets at the beginning, but I had belief and conviction. I built up my resources through TGA and then KnightSwap, ascending the ranks to Alpha Wolf (and as I write this, I am not far from Golden Guardian).
This gave me the privilege of the initial whitelist for the Wolf Den Launch.
And oh my heavens, how exciting the launch days were. I gathered my 10 whitelist mint wolf pups, AND I received a Gray Wolf for the V1 Pup I’d purchased 13 months prior (and then sat on, waiting).
(here are 5 of my legends)
I. Was. HIGH. On Dopamine. And I realized it.
I had been so muted on my easy dopamine that it was like eating sugar after having not eaten sugar for a month (where even a little bit is so sweet you’re almost sick).
The ramifications of easy dopamine slammed home.
To me it’s simple.
Easy dopamine drains my natural drive to be the best and happiest that I can be.
And yet it’s not simple.
Because we live in a world practically built on easy dopamine. It’s almost inescapable to the point where it does require some rigidity to deal with …
Or does it?
Loving The Process
For now I’ve set my mind to the following task. I am focusing with great intent on feeling the richness of the dopamine which I have created through difficult work.
I know this can be effective because there are many times in my work and my life when I actually LOVE the process.
When I look forward to sitting down and hammering out thousands of words of my ideas to try to communicate and come to something significant, where all the pieces fall into place and I get a chill down my spine as it comes together.
When I am excited to sit with my kids and read a long book to them, or when we sit down to create our own game together.
My thought is, the experience and reward of THOSE activities, of the hard work, CAN’T BE REPLICATED by easy dopamine … the dopamine can, but not the rest of it.
So if I’m conscious about the process, and getting joy from the process, perhaps that will override the drive for “easy” (because THAT enjoyment will be irreplaceable).
Reflecting on Crypto
I’d like to say I recognized the impacts of easy dopamine on crypto early on as these concepts were shared in The Guardian Academy.
But it’s difficult to parse the ideas of easy dopamine and its impacts apart from concepts like Frequency of Exposure, slowing down, making fewer moves, and many others.
When I think of dopamine in terms of crypto, I think of Frequency of Exposure.
The concept that the less often you look at your crypto, the less effect you will have on your decisions and actions (and emotions). It’s of course a bit more complicated than that, and I could write a whole thing on Frequency of Exposure as I’ve observed it in my life and work.
Crypto, Frequency of Exposure, and Dopamine
The only metric of “difficulty” we can really use for considering the level of ease at which dopamine is acquired through crypto is time. That is, how long did you wait to get the result you are hoping for. How long did you hang on and not take action?
After all, no matter how you slice it, crypto is SUPER EASY. You’re just sitting on your butt pushing buttons. So easy you can fall into the “easy dopamine trap” without realizing it. Probably especially because it feels like you are doing something important. Growing your investment! Taking part in the community!
Frequency of Exposure is always on my mind here because the times I noticed the greatest gain and long term satisfaction in crypto is when I sat back and did nothing.
This year for example, most of my actions have been isolated to 2–3 times per month, as I have been slowly farming Bronze Guardian, Silver Guardian and by the end of the year, Golden Guardian. I get into my account and touch my crypto as little as possible, so the ideal scenario is every 15 days I log in, harvest Bronze Guardian, stake for next one (I also harvest and stake any assets while I’m at it — though for a time I was all in auto-compounders, there have been periods where I’m staking assets for the Golden Guardian farming path). Once I’m done farming up to Golden, I expect I’ll set my stuff in the auto-compounders and not touch it for a long time (except perhaps to add to it).
Let’s bring this all together
I believe what I’m noticing in terms of dopamine with crypto, is that when I DON’T expose myself to easy dopamine via crypto, I DON’T have a negative impact on my baseline dopamine levels, and when it comes time to actually make decisions and take actions with my crypto it’s far easier to slow down, do less, and make only calculated moves which support my solvable problem, because I just feel better all around and my motivation and clarity are not messed up by constantly hitting dopamine.
So, what can YOU do about this?
Always this comes back to clarity. What are you trying to solve? What do you need to know and do to solve it? What are the least amount of actions you can take to get it done? What is the least amount of exposure you can give yourself to solve your problem?
And then for me, once I’ve figured out these basics of crypto, it’s about focusing on the rest of life.
If I’m happy, centered, and getting and doing the things I like to do in life, and I know my crypto is solving the problem it needs to solve, I don’t have to think or worry about a damn thing. I just get to enjoy my days with the people I love, doing what matters most to us.
In this I’ve discovered that being highly conscious of the ease at which I get my dopamine (in everything I do) has contributed tremendously to my overall feeling of happiness and how much I enjoy every little thing.
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Resources and References
The Guardian Academy is one of the best places to learn not just about crypto, but about yourself and life. I believe most of us come away with something much deeper.
Frequency Of Exposure Here
On Dopamine. I recommend a few tweet threads, in addition to Huberman’s Podcast. The concept is also woven throughout everything we do in TGA:
On “Raising the Floor” I recommend reading Bumpers. If it’s available to you, watch Nicsmas 2021.
Bumpers is here.
If you’d like to follow along the journey of WDWP #29, you can find me here:
Until next time!
Joseph is a great contributor to the Guardian Academy. Don’t miss his next contribution: