I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old adage “comparison is the thief of joy.” It speaks on jealousy, something no one likes to feel.
We get jealous of people with better bodies, people with more money, or people with more status. And in the age of social media, there’s always someone out there showing how amazing they are for whole world to see.
If we all know about jealousy, why are so many of us still scrolling through social media and watching other people live their best life while we’re stuck at home staring at a screen?
It’s we’re addicted to dopamine.
It’s not our fault. Humans are hard-wired to seek pleasure. It’s the reason why sex feels so good, why we love eating food, and why we love to feel validated with likes on our social media posts. It feels good.
If so many people put pleasure-seeking as their number one priority, why is there such a big effort to cure mental health issues? With all this access to pleasure, shouldn’t people be happy?
People aren’t happy because pleasure isn’t directly linked to happiness. Pleasure can contribute to momentary joy, but it won’t lead to happiness.
The answer is to seek the contrast to pleasure, pain. In other words, put yourself in a controlled environment where you can experience mental or physical pain, something like going to the gym and working out or overcoming the challenges that come with completing a project.
Confused? Here’s what I mean.
The Pain:Pleasure balance
When you get a chance, read the book titled Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke.
In a nutshell, Dr. Lembke claims our present level of happiness is directly related to two things: our baseline dopamine levels and how much our dopamine levels deviate from that baseline in most recent events.
For example, if I were to give an average person in the United States $1,000 dollars today, more than likely they would experience joy. On the other hand, if a person were to win the lottery the day before, getting that $1,000 wouldn’t bring the same amount of happiness that it would to someone who didn’t win. Taking this example further, I would say that giving $1,000 to someone who is homeless or someone living in a third-world country would bring that person an even greater deal of joy when compared with someone living in the city.
This is what happens in our brains every day.
Every day, we win the dopamine lottery. We seek pleasure by scrolling through social media apps, browsing porn sites, and binge-watching everything from anime to Netflix.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love anime and watching YouTube content. I’m a big fan of relaxing after a long week of work with video games. I also love to eat deep-fried foods, especially hot buffalo wings. The problem isn’t that we enjoy these experiences. The problem is we’re over-doing it.
When pleasure is the only experience, there’s no where to go but down.
Many people make the mistake of prioritizing pleasure-seeking over overcoming frustrating challenges because, frankly, challenges are hard. People hate to feel challenged. People are addicted to pleasure. People are addicted to dopamine.
Here’s a little bro-science — many people know dopamine as the “pleasure drug.” What many people don’t know is that dopamine is a neurotransmitter that fires at a steady rate, sort of like a dopamine-IV drip. Dopamine is also related to motivation and drive. That’s because your brain wants dopamine, so it tells you that you making TikTok dance videos is fun. Social media platforms make it really easy to experience spikes in dopamine.
You can look at dopamine like a currency in your brain. Every time you experience pleasure, your brain pays the dopamine tax. Things like going out shopping or getting a bunch of likes on a new Instagram post come with a dopamine tax.
Dopamine spikes are the equivalent of gambling — at the end of the day, the house always wins.
In contrast, painful experiences inhibit the release of dopamine. Does that mean go out and break a bone so you can feel pain? Not at all. Overdoing pain can lead to trauma. There is a maximum amount of pain that humans can experience before we “break” both physically and mentally, but you would be surprised to see how extraordinary humans can be (shout-outs to You Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins).
In short, the answer is to delay gratification.
If you walk away from this article learning one thing, it’s this — delay your gratification. Engage in activities that are hard, that challenge you, and that make you frustrated. Frustration is a sign of challenge. It represents a person’s will to overcome obstacles.
Reduce the amount of dopamine spikes you experience on a day-to-day basis and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Controlled discomfort, thinks like working out and reading a book, are amazing pain-inducers that you can control. Like growing muscles, pain and stress lead to adaptation, an adjustment in your baseline dopamine.
How can you reduce the amount of dopamine you spend on things that don’t matter?
Here’s what you can do to balance pleasure with pain.
1. Get bored.
Kawhi Leonard, two-time NBA Champion, once said, “bored man gets paid.” What he meant by this adage speaks on his robotic work ethic, but it also alludes to a philosophy of thought that expresses how balance can lead to a greater lifetime payout in happiness and fulfillment.
Many people are uncomfortable with boredom. That’s because many people are acclimated to an altered baseline of dopamine. People like to get excited. But people are getting too excited too often. On the other hand, if we control our excitement in favor of the pursuit of challenge, if we embrace boredom, we lower that baseline level of dopamine and intensify the spikes that do occur when they do.
2. Workout intensely.
Working out is the easiest to understand in terms of how pain can lead to gains. It’s a direct representation of how you can balance pleasure with pain.
Most people would agree that they don’t like the act of working out but they like the feeling that comes afterward (those that learn to enjoy each workout and embrace pain turn into completely different animals, but we’ll save that discussion for another article). This balance between stress and rest represents the pain:pleasure balance. The more regularly a person can put themselves in a controlled environment of stress, the more gains they realize over the course of their fitness journey.
This experience directly relates to your dopamine balance. The pain you experience with working out balances the pleasure you experience in other parts of your life. The best part about this is you get the added benefit of looking amazing naked.
3. Focus intently.
With more than 83% of people in the world owning a smart phone, distractions are abundant. We get more notifications blowing up our phones than we know how to handle. Each of those notifications is connected with an experience of pleasure, things like getting a text message or receiving a like on a social media post.
When you focus intently, you apply your mental capacity. Focusing intently is not easy and requires a person to get comfortable with a great deal of discomfort.
Turn off the notifications, put your phone on airplane mode, and find the flow state, a concept detailed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book *Flow. *This can come in the form of practicing a hobby, learning, or practicing a sport.
4. Work hard.
A wise friend once said to me, “lazy people do everything twice. Once the wrong time, then once again the right time.”
As a general rule of thumb, work hard in everything that you do. Embrace challenges and welcome difficulties that demand your hard work. Be an active participant in the activities that you do, whether you have a choice in them or not. With this core philosophy as the basis of everything that you do, you’ll naturally welcome difficulty into your life and actively seek ways to give your best effort in challenging situations.