Our brains govern everything in our lives. Our wants and desires, our fears, our behaviors. And the fundamental “wiring” essentially is the same as it was thousands of years ago. For survival purposes, we’ve been wired to avoid pain (stay safe and alive), and seek out pleasure (shelter, food, sex). The “dopamine pathway” is a system in the brain that is specifically involved in this pain/pleasure mechanism.
Dopamine is an extremely powerful chemical that is often referred to as the “molecule of pleasure”. But it’s really more of a molecule of motivation. The dopamine pathway in the brain gets us moving and drives us towards our goals and desires.
Once we achieve some outcome and are rewarded with pleasure, the brain acts to balance itself back out. It does this by inducing a bit of pain, so to speak. So we always come down from that “high”. The pain from that “come down” can lead to the motivation to seek out that pleasure again (or another pleasure).
Dr. Anna Lembke describes this in her fascinating book Dopamine Nation. She says that pleasure is the reward for pain, and pain is the reward for pleasure. The dopamine pathway connects to many important regions in the brain (like the rational cortex and emotional limbic system). It’s like a see-saw in the brain, where pain balances out pleasure and pleasure balances out pain.
Mindfulness is Key
We need to be mindful of this pathway and recognize the abundance of things in our lives that are pulling on it, both healthy and unhealthy. Everything from food and family to our jobs and social media activate the dopamine pathway and can lead to powerful habits or even addictions if we aren’t careful.
So think about the things in life that bring you pleasure and ask yourself if they are healthy. Are you seeking pleasure from good sources? Are you seeking too much pleasure? According to Dr. Lembke, we should try to avoid too much pleasure. If we find we are in pursuit of it all the time, it could be because the balance is tipped towards the pain side and the drive to eliminate this pain through even more pleasure is overwhelming.
But this can be reset after 30 days, according to her clinical experience. Also, purposefully seeking out moderate amounts of healthy pain or stress (like exercise or cold showers) can induce healthy pleasures and provide a good balance in the dopamine pathway.
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