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Dopamine - the universal currency of seeking highs.

We all have a baseline of dopamine, and generally seek out activities to create peaks. When we reach a peak, eventually our baseline level of dopamine goes down to just below what it was before. If this didn't happen, we wouldn’t have the motivation to pursue the win again. The extent to which it drops is proportional to the peak we’ve experienced.

Compulsively pursuing huge surges of dopamine is an addiction. The postpartum drop in mood we then experience is reflective of the drop of dopamine below the baseline - aka hangovers, comedowns and so on. We keep pursuing the dopamine evoking activity or substance thinking - mistakenly - it’ll lift our baseline level. What happens is the reverse - the baseline gets lower because dopamine depletes more and more. To end the cycle and rebalance, abstinence is required.

So, how do we manage dopamine levels in recovery - surely positive dopamine 'peak' experiences will eventually have a negative effect as well? The important thing is to understand the link between baseline and peaks of dopamine.

Essentially, our dopamine system can replenish itself when we give it a break from overindulgence and extreme drops of baseline - this is relevant to addictive behaviours, but also positive ones.

This essentially means that we need to develop habits and behaviours that encourage dopamine reward prediction errors. Meaning, that we don’t always reach for the peaks and highs, but instead allow ourselves the ‘risk’ of something being just ‘ok’. This might feel like a you’re shortchanging your dopamine circuit, but actually you’re servicing your own progress and wellbeing.



Reference: Huberman Lab