I am writing in a hotel in Dublin. From time to time my eyes crease to the strum of sunlight, eking through the cloud-smeared sky. Below, the river teams with ripples, making their way east. Tomorrow, I travel to Belfast but today I am just here, in Dublin.
Being abroad shields me from daily obligations, and hands me a day to actually get something done. We know where those days normally go.
If you are like me, you are a sucker for procrastination. Items on your ‘nice to do’ list languish on the page as you spend your time on news websites, emailing or watching funny videos. When you send the keyboard skimming away in disgust you feel little satisfaction for these activities. You probably didn’t even actively enjoy them while you were experiencing them: you were skirting around BBC News looking for that one good article – just one more, then out – that proves quite elusive.
The maddening thing is, the much delayed activity (say, writing a blog post) would be providing a real pay-off at the end of the day. Moment by moment, it’s typically pleasurable in its own right. When you really hit your stride, doing something you aimed to do, the feeling is hard to beat.
We aim to do what
will be pleasant to do
and satisfying to finish
but end up doing what
leaves us unsatisfied
and we little enjoy
‘My own behaviour baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe?’ St Paul’s letter to the Romans
Like St Paul, you may too wonder: why? I’ll put forward an answer – or at least, a gesture towards understanding this. It’s dopamine.
The dopaminergic system is a key reward circuit within our brain. It encourages orientation towards features of the environment by the mechanism of wanting: you aren’t forced to eat food, you want to eat food. So you eat food.
Recent theories argue that dopamine doesn’t give you all the goods. To understand this, know that there are a few things tied up in the notion of neurological reward. Pleasure, or liking something, may not be driven purely by dopamine, but rather by range of reward transmitters: opioids and cannabinoids for certain kinds of consumption, oxytocin for interactive pleasures such as social or physical contact.
The thing that dopamine is damn good at is anticipatory desire: that ‘I have to have it’ feeling. The dopaminergic system is very sensitive to a few things: novelty, uncertainty, and salience, for example.
As Tom has pointed out, many systems out there give us exactly this in spades – and his points about emails hold true of all sorts of facets of the web, checking your texts, updates in the football scores etc.
It’s also clear that these events aren’t massively satisfying: how can they compete with the feelings we get from bodily feedback, opioidal consumption, social synergies or cognitive accomplishment? It’s basically just staring at colours on a screen.
A neurochemical explanation thus goes as follows: there are many competing events in our environment that are pinging our dopaminergic system, tempting us with anticipatory desire but leaving us in the gutter without a satisfying pleasure payout. Hence, we are still hungry for our pay-off, and suckered in again and again by the carrots that the dopamine-friendly stimuli are dangling.
But, hang on. Isn’t there more to it than that? Sure. Lest we threaten to fall into an absurdly reductionist view of the issue, I’m going to take a step back and talk about happiness, and some ways in which society may have interfered with its ready flow. We’ll get into that in the next post.