As the New Year approaches, many of us will pursue happiness by setting goals. Whether it be to lose weight, quit smoking, or get out of debt. However, when it comes to happiness, we cannot trust our brains to point us in the right direction.
The brain consists of an area referred to as the reward system. This area is the brain’s most primitive motivational system, one that evolved to propel us toward action and consumption.
How does the reward system compel us to act? When the brain recognizes an opportunity for reward, it releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine tells the rest of the brain what to pay attention to. A dopamine rush doesn’t create happiness itself, but rather the feeling of arousal. We feel alert, awake, and captivated. We quickly recognize the possibility of feeling good and are willing to work for that feeling.
When dopamine is released by the promise of reward, it makes us more susceptible to temptation. High levels of dopamine amplify the lure of immediate gratification, while making us less concerned about the long-term consequences. The promise of reward is so powerful that we continue to pursue things that don’t make us happy, and consume things that bring us more misery than satisfaction. Two examples: selecting the slice of cheesecake on the dessert tray only to feel sick to our stomach after consuming it. Maxing out our credit card and later experiencing buyer’s remorse.
We mistake the experience of ‘wanting’ for a ‘guarantee of happiness.’ As a result, we continue to pursue things that don’t make us happy.
In the New Year, I recommend taking the “I Won’t” challenge to help you achieve the infamous resolutions you have set. Mindfully indulge in something your brain tells you will make you happy (e.g., junk food, shopping, on-line time wasters). Before indulging notice what the promise of reward feels like: the anticipation, the hope, the excitement, the anxiety — whatever is going on in your brain and body. Then give yourself permission to give in.
How does the experience compare with the expectation? Does the feeling of the promise of reward go away, or does it continue to drive you to eat more, spend more, or stay longer? When, if ever, do you become satisfied? Or do you simply reach the point of being unable to continue, because you’re stuffed, exhausted, frustrated, or out of the “reward”?
I guarantee you that if you try this exercise; you will get one of two results. You will either realize you need far less than what you thought you would need to feel satisfied or you will find the experience completely unsatisfying, revealing a huge gap between the promise of reward and the reality of the experience. Both observations will give you greater control over your desires and what has felt like an out-of-control behavior. If practiced, this exercise will strengthen your willpower making it easier to succeed at your yearly quests for self-improvement.
Desire is the brain’s strategy for action. It can be both a threat to self-control and a source of willpower. When dopamine points us to temptation, we must distinguish wanting from happiness. But we can also recruit dopamine and the promise of reward to motivate ourselves and others. In the end, desire is neither good nor bad. What matters is where we let it point us, and whether we have the wisdom to know when to follow.
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