What are your pleasures, guilty or otherwise?
What was the last thing you did that made you feel good? How do you know it made you feel good? Did the thing, event, or person make you feel good, or do you feel that way because of what happened? Or, are those two questions one in the same? All of us have something that we love, that gives us a sense of comfort, relief, a smile. Maybe it is something genuine like a person, an animal, reading a book, watching a movie, or working in the garden (or anywhere, for that matter). Maybe your pleasure is something you constantly chase after, spending hours a day trying to get the same feeling you did when you first discovered it. Many of us spend some or all of our lives fixated on a handful of actions-whose consequences bring us a sense of pleasure.
It is no secret that we are wired to seek out that which pleases us neurochemically. In saying that, we are also wired to avoid experiences which cause us pain and suffering. For some people though, those two drives merge into the same, so that being in harm’s way is where they derive pleasure. This is a whole other spectrum of drive and motivation to cover, but the bottom line is that we are designed to chase things that make us feel good. Biologically, the thing itself does not make us feel good, but us experiencing it (candy, sex, laughter, roller coaster, etc) triggers a chemical release, and dopamine is the prime chemical in the process of being rewarded, feeling accomplished or satisfied. This can be different from feeling happy or euphoric, but our brains are extremely complex, and at any moment any and all of our neurotransmitters are being released throughout our body.
The subject of neurotransmitters is very deep and intricate, so this is not an all inclusive nor complete guide on how to best work with this area of our lives; I still have trouble with this process from time to time. However, I feel that I have grown to the point where I can share what I have learned about this chemical, and how it affects our lives. The paths we take are all lined with triumph and failure, and every single experience we have, moment to moment, sends millions, if not billions of neurons into action. The truth is, the understanding of our own brains is still in its infancy. What we do have a good idea of is that the choices we make now heavily influence who we are tomorrow.
In my other articles about neurochemistry, I went into a very technical mode of writing, essentially putting into my own words what I was reading from “credible” as well as not so “credible” sources. I tried to gather as much as I could (there is always an infinite amount of data), riddle the articles with links to my sources, and cram it all under 2000 words. After feedback, I learned that that approach is fairly difficult to read, and wasn’t “me”. Improving upon that, this post will be more of my words, with research to back it up, instead of the other way around.
The sequence of creating habits, for better or for worse.
Every single moment, we are slowly but surely locking in habits, whether they be beneficial to ourselves and others, or detrimental. Even if we have no routine, haphazardly moving from one task to another without any focus or direction is still a habit. As we do this, we mold our personalities from the collection of experiences, and essentially, neurons, from the decisions we have made. Whether we discipline ourselves in whatever definition that may be, or if we ignore our rational and intuitional thinking by acting out every impulse, we are creating habits. While all neurotransmitters are interconnected and affect one another, dopamine specifically plays a role in feeling good. Serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine, and several others are also a part of “feeling good” but we must understand that the word “good” is extremely broad when it comes to our feelings.
Somewhere in the next 30-50 years, we might have a wonderful way of showing what the process of neural activity is when we eat an apple for example, vs. a potato chip or chocolate bar. As of now, we are barely ahead of where Columbus was when he tried to explain what his new discoveries were to the people of Spain. The fact of the matter is that we have difficulties explaining in simple terms what exactly the complex organ our brain is, does all at once. When we explain from a practical, psychological, or chronological (as best we can) point of view, it is a bit easier.
In simple terms, there are three steps. There is the leading up to the habit, the association, the 10 minutes or seconds prior to partaking in the act that rewards us with dopamine. For a smoker, this might be driving to the gas station, buying the cigarettes, walking out of the door. For someone addicted to pornography, this could be sitting down in front of the computer, seeing the exposed skin of someone, or seeing a sex scene on tv. On the positive side, this could be stretching before a run, getting ready to go out on a date, preparing to speak in front of others, whatever your niche may be.
Following leading up is the reward itself, the kiss, the start of the movie, the plunge out of the airplane, the bite into the chocolate bar, the hello to someone and something new. Over time, if we do not discipline ourselves with our impulsive behavior, we have a tendency to become addicted to the highs and feel compelled to chase it, needing and wanting more. After you’ve touched down from skydiving, after the chocolate is all gone, after your run or date, after your fix, is the third step, which is the relief. You are temporarily satisfied, and any drive or search for tension is over for the moment. That is until you want more.
Some tips to create better choices, and improve your cognition.
As mentioned earlier, we are wired to want to feel good. But is that the bad part? I would say not, but what is detrimental and harmful is our lack of control, our lack of self-discipline. It is no secret that the best things in life are hard work. It is easy to be safe, to find pleasure in the short term, to only live for the excitement of now. Over the course of my life, especially in the past few years, I have learned that working for the long term, the slow process working towards macro goals, is one of the keys to happiness. Within this, working diligently on micro goals, from minute to hour to day, is the path to obtaining the macro.
This seems like common sense, and it really is, but many people over look it, looking for a quick fix, a pill or surgery to solve it all. I was extremely stubborn in this for many years, avoiding the realization that my biggest problems came from my diet, sleep, and exercise. In some cases, a surgery or a supplement or medication is, in fact, the answer. But having a healthy diet, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep, have been the commonality for thousands of years. Along with this, having healthy relationships and interactions, as well as a purpose or goals, are huge factors in our emotional health, which stems from our neurochemistry. Just the other day, a professor in psych asked what someone would do to treat a case of trichotillomania from a biological standpoint, and when I mentioned eating right, exercise and sleep, this was overlooked. As with every practice and system of growth, the basics or foundation is necessary, before we try to add new layers.
With this in mind, we all have to find what works best for us. Even diet, exercise, sleep, relationships, and a sense of purpose are universal, there is no one size fits all within each of these areas. Some people are vegan, some eat meat. Some sleep 4 hours, some sleep 8. Some of us are extroverts and love to be surrounded by people, while others like one or two close friends. We are all different and unique. Find what works best for you, listen to your body, and do your homework.
It takes time, but the paths you choose now determine what they look like in the future. It’s hard to go back.
We must be careful what we wish for. Many people, myself included, spend years blaming others for our problems. If there is one thing I can leave you with, it is that we are our own problems and our own solutions. You are the center of your universe, you and only you are the commander of your fate. We all are responsible and accountable for our actions. Most importantly, being patient with ourselves through this process is what helps us get through it.
No progress is made being angry or upset. I’ve learned that I only start to learn once I am in a calm mood. Only then do the lessons spring out of the bad moments. Our bodies are very intricate and complex, and we know very little about them. We have explored most of the Earth, but yet there is still space. We have an understanding of the human body and its processes, and yet we are just touching the surface. There is always a new frontier.
Please share any thoughts, feelings or questions regarding this topic down below, I always love hearing what you have to say!