Generally we think of dopamine as the neurochemical which gives us pleasure. We think of it as integral to our reward system. However, I would argue that the neurochemicals which are truly the seat of pleasure, are the ones that allow us to tap into feelings of contentment, joy, and love: the present moment neurochemicals of serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and endocannabinoids. True pleasure is about feeling and appreciating an experience in the moment, whereas, “cheap pleasure” or the thrill of dopamine is merely about fantasy.
Our brain is set up to work one way in the present (via present moment chemicals) and another way when conceptualizing the future (via dopamine). Both are important processes of being human which ideally should work together, however, rapid changes in technology and society are making dopaminergic states far more common and the present moment states are becoming increasingly left behind. Without access to present moment states, we become disembodied, living in our minds, more prone to anxiety and depression, cut off from the emotions which guide us, and unable to experience deep states of happiness, peace, and overall satisfaction.
For example, let’s look at love a little more closely. In movies we’ve grown up seeing love sold to us as the dopaminergic state-the art of seeking and the reward of finding someone who lights us up inside. In reality, however, our ability to be creative and to imagine something that does not yet exist is driven by dopamine. These are our fantasies. Love, on the other hand, is by its very nature something that exists-the moment we engage with another human being in front of us. This engagement is when the pleasure of dopamine ceases to fire and instead the present moment neurochemicals of serotonin, oxytocin, endocannabinoids, and endorphins become activated. These present moment neurochemicals are concerned with sensations and emotions in the body, they provide us with a different kind of pleasure. The pleasure of deep experiencing and bonding.
Some people have a difficult time ever getting to this point, however, because of the pitfalls and distractions of being driven solely by dopamine. Culturally, we are taught that strong, passionate emotions must mean we are falling for someone. But what if our strong emotion is actually just our dopamine alarm going off? For example, if in the beginning of dating we feel someone start to pull away or distance, a lot of times our reaction is to ramp up the pursuing. Dopamine tells us that something is important and gives us the motivation to pursue it. A lot of times that feeling of “importance” is not based off of actual compatibility or love, but instead based off neurochemical withdrawal. We had expected to obtain something and then it was prematurely taken away, so this causes a painful drop in dopamine which makes our body want to rectify this uncomfortable feeling by pursuing even harder. The act of pursing itself is the realm of dopamine and is rewarding us with little hits of pleasure that make us think we are on the right track. In reality, however, this is taking us even farther away from the true feelings of love. We begin to mistake our strong feelings of desire for love and we incorrectly interpret this to mean that the object (person) we are chasing must be incredibly worthwhile.
We easily become stuck in traps of dating emotionally unavailable people, unable to see how our mistaking dopamine for love is contributing to the cycle. So what happens when we come across someone who might actually be compatible for us? Well, if we are not used to feeling the more subtle emotions of peace and contentment, we might mistake this compatibility for boredom. They don’t light up that feeling of passion and longing in us (the world of what could be), but sadly, we could be missing out on the depth of what actually is (which in time, is what invariably leads to genuine love).
We are not just missing out on loving relationships, but being driven primarily by dopamine can also affect our relationship to sex. Again, the pursuit of sex and even the arousal of sex is dopamine-driven, however, what happens when we are actually experiencing the act of sex? Well, this requires us to transition to the present moment chemicals of endorphins and oxytocin. If we are primarily stuck in our heads, disconnected from our bodies and emotions, this transition might be difficult and the actual experience of sex might just leave us wanting for more (i.e. we are still in full dopamine mode). There is a certain tragedy in always wanting, craving, and seeking, but never being able to appreciate, savor, or feel the having.
It is up to each of us to decide if we would like to spend our lives living in the intoxicating fantasy that is the dopamine chase or if we would like to wake up enough to slow down, feel back into our bodies and enter the true world of pleasure-the pleasure of the present moment.