Dopamine: put this brain chemical to your advantage

Your brain communicates between nerve cells by way of chemical called “neurotransmitters”. There’s a lot of them and one very interesting one is called dopamine. There’s actually a whole dopamine system, the brain’s reward system, which functions as the engine of pleasure and motivation. When it is released in large amounts, it creates feelings of pleasure and reward (motivation) so the chances of repeating a behavior are increased. One way to increase the release of dopamine in the brain is to accomplish a goal. It’s a “happy chemical” that is released as a reward when we do something good. This is very motivating, and we are inclined to repeat the behavior that caused the release of dopamine in the first place. And that’s where the problem is…when we do something good.

Let’s say a person wants to lose weight, so he/she sets a goal of losing ten pounds in a week. The first the person weighs themselves on each Sunday morning. After week goes by the scale shows they lost five pounds. Darn! Missed the goal. The second week shows a weight loss of seven pounds. Better but still not good enough. The third week shows an increase in weight by two pounds! How depressing! Maybe this dieting thing is not such a good idea after all. There are other ways to improve on one’s health, like eating more vegetables.

Another example is someone who sets up an exercise program with the goal of running three miles every day. The first two days, Sunday and Monday, are fine. On Tuesday work interferes when the person doesn’t get off work until seven p.m., too late for running. Wednesday they are back on track when in the middle of the run they feel a pain on the side of their right foot. They hobble back home, disgusted with themselves and abandon the idea of running altogether.

Notice a common theme? If realistic goals are set, the chances of accomplishing the goal is greatly increased. For the weight loss program, a more reasonable goal would be three pounds, not ten. It really is a mental game and we don’t realize we can shape the goal to our advantage with a little forethought. For the running program, it may be better to create a plan where the goal is to run five of seven days per week, especially if the likelihood of work interfering is high. Likewise, if one is just starting out a three mile a day goal may be too much.

With the above examples it looks very easy to develop a realistic goal but in reality, it is very easy to bite off more than we can chew with goal setting. Part of the reason is that we think the bigger the goal the bigger the reward which is true only if we are able to reach the goal. It is far better to start off slow with reduced goals that increases the likelihood of success which produces dopamine which then increases motivation and the cycle repeats itself.