Think of dopamine as finite resource to spend on activities

We usually think of dopamine as a feel-good chemical we get from specific activities, without considering that dopamine production has limits. What if we reversed our thinking to dopamine-first, that it’s a finite resource we can spend on activities?

Dopamine is known as the motivation and reward chemical in the brain. There are others as well, and it’s more complicated than that, but for the context of this article let’s think of getting (releasing) dopamine as feeling good and motivated. It’s a good enough proxy.

In our daily lives we try to feel good as much as possible. The more we feel good the better. Nothing wrong with that, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Nobody wakes up thinking “today I want to feel shit”.

The body, however, can’t produce an endless amount of dopamine. The brain operates via a self-regulation process called homeostasis, meaning for every high, there’s a low. Regardless how amazing our lives are, we will have down phases. They’re impossible to avoid.

Instead of trying to avoid down phases, which is a losing battle anyway, how about we control from which activities we get our dopamine, i.e. high phases?

We can get dopamine from a variety of different activities. Some more productive, like working out, creating something, finishing tasks, learning, spending time in nature, or being with friends. Some are less productive, like scrolling TikTok, eating junk food, watching TV, or taking drugs.

If we have a limited amount of dopamine each day, how would you rather get it? By scrolling TikTok or by working on a project you’re passionate about?

I’d assume by working out. The problem is that if you spend too much time on TikTok, you’ll enjoy working out less.

That is why I propose thinking of dopamine as a resource to spend on activities. It’s reverse from what actually happens (we release dopamine based on activities), but because it’s limited, at some point it’s over. And when this resource is depleted, our enjoyment of these activities goes down.

Thinking of dopamine, motivation, or enjoyment as an endless well doesn’t work, because it’s limited. At some point even the most enjoyable activity won’t bring joy anymore.

My hope is that having the question How would you rather get dopamine? in the back of our minds will cause us to think if we really want to spend the 15 minutes waiting time scrolling TikTok, therefore depleting dopamine and reducing motivation for the next thing.

As mentioned before, the body is more complex than that, but anecdotally this feels true. Whenever I spend my time watching short videos, I’m less motivated for the task after that. Similarly, when I’m well-rested I get more enjoyment from videos and movies than when I’m tired and exhausted (apart from the guilt I feel of not being productive when I have the capacity to do so).

Even if it isn’t 100% scientifically correct (and I’m not claiming it is), it can be a useful concept, a useful approximation, in our daily lives.

Applying this concept made it easier for me to resist certain activities during the day, like scrolling TikTok when I’m waiting for a couple minutes. It makes clear that doing that will lessen enjoyment of my work, workout, and other productive tasks. And enjoying my work is more important for me than avoiding five minutes boredom.

In short, it helps me enjoy my productive activities more.