“Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional response, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.” – Psychology Today
There are a lot of articles on the internet about dopamine and how it affects your mood, behavior, energy, and focus. What’s not commonly spoken about, however, is how dopamine is affected by your perception. Discussed more rarely still is the reason why your dopamine levels may be low. Below are 10 ways to increase your dopamine levels, courtesy of Power of Positivity, as well as my own observations regarding the underlying issues which may have led to each situation, and how to tackle them.
1. Don’t Get Addicted
“Many people get addicted to something because it gives them some kind of instant gratification – drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, shopping, and other addictive behaviors actually have the opposite effect on dopamine levels in the long-term. In essence, when we get overly addicted to something, the ‘reward circuitry’ of our brain kicks into overdrive and we crave the ‘quick hit.’ This is not a sustainable solution for dopamine production, which can and should be done naturally.”
What’s missing here is the fact that addiction is quite often a result of low dopamine, meaning addiction is more of an attempt to fix an already existing problem. In essence, “the underpinning of your addictive personality is a lack of fulfillment from within, with a resulting urge to achieve fulfillment through substances, objects, or events that relieve the inevitable pain – for a while.” (source)
“When we receive a reward of any kind, dopamine is released in our brains. Over time, this stimulus and release of dopamine can lead to learning. Researchers have recently found that how quickly and permanently we learn things relates directly to how much dopamine we have available in our brains. As we get rewarded over and over again for something, we learn that we should keep doing whatever that is very deeply, and it’s hard to unlearn those kinds of behaviours.” (source)
What this means is that low-dopamine is a response to a lifestyle which doesn’t offer much in terms of reward to the person living it. It may be a response to the environment you’re living in, the clothes you’re wearing, the tight budget you’re working within, the relationship choices you’ve made or have been made for you, or a result of trauma where there was no perceived reward. It’s very easy to understand how dopamine levels may appear low when we consider all the potentials leading to less-rewarding lifestyles and life-experiences.
What’s necessary then is less of a ‘don’t get addicted’ approach and more of an ‘increase the rewards in your life’ style of applied advice. Fact is, you’ll constantly feel less fulfilled through low dopamine when you’re not (or are unable to) fill your day with things that inspire and reward you. Meaning, the most effective protection against addiction and greatest advantage to high-dopamine levels is a defense against low-rewarding activities and an offence working towards rewarding actions, activities, and ultimately, a lifestyle of fulfillment and achievement.
Also, because addiction is most often rooted in past traumatic experiences, where emotions create a fight or flight response that becomes rooted in your core emotions, it’s vitally important to seek proper and effective help in dissolving past trauma. Doing so can only help you perceive more rewarding experiences in your life, rather than filtering experiences through a ‘traumatized’ awareness.
2. Checklist Small Tasks
“Dopamine increases when we are organized and finish tasks – regardless if the task is small or large. So, don’t allow your brain to worry about things that need to be done. Instead, write these tasks down and then check them off one at a time. It’s been shown that it’s more satisfying to the brain’s dopamine levels when we physically check something off of our to-do list. Also, write down and check stuff off regardless if you can mentally remember the tasks.”
In reading the book Principles of Self-Management, I came across a brilliantly well-researched understanding of motivation when it comes to tasks. In short, if a task is greater than 25% of a change in a person’s routine, the person will be overwhelmed with feeling incapable of achieving it. This leads them to self-defeat and self-sabotage to avoid accomplishing the task. On the other side, if a task is less than 10% different than a person’s normal routine, they don’t do it because it won’t have enough meaning for them to do so. As such, it’s wise to make sure you write down goals and tasks that are in between this 10% to 25% range of new behaviors and actions, otherwise, you just won’t do it.
However, this 10-25% range is simply a guide for tasks that are not directly linked to our highest values. In reality, if you can link a task to your highest values and see clearly how it will help you accomplish what’s truly most important to you, you’ll do it. If you can’t see how it will help fulfill your highest values, you’ll procrastinate, hesitate, and get frustrated in the attempt to do it. By linking a task to your highest values, you’ll both increase the chances of you doing it and also increase the reward you will feel when you accomplish it, a result of producing more dopamine in the brain.
3. Create Something
“For us writers, painters, sculptors, poets, singers, dancers, and other artists, we can identify with this. When we’re in creative mode, we can become hyper-focused. As a result, we can enter a state called flow. Dopamine is the brain chemical that allows us to achieve this state. The lesson is this: take up a hobby or activity in which you actually create something tangible. Try something like arts, crafts, auto repair, drawing, photography, or something else that sounds interesting.”
Sparking your creative drive is an effective way to increase your potential for feeling great, achieving goals and inspiring yourself through your accomplishments. However, it can also be a distraction from a feel-bad lifestyle, if it’s not maintained with a purpose in mind. Whenever you’re working on a project, creative or not, that truly inspires you, you’ll activate your ‘flow state,’ where time and space seem to stand still. So how to you determine what it is that truly inspires you?
The most important goal in revealing your most authentic creative energy is to remove the creative energies of other people from your life. So many of us look up to the creations of others, whether works of art or music, and their works or talents take up time and space in our own minds. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it can influence your own beliefs about what you can create. If you compare yourself to others and minimize yourself, you’ll repress your own creative ability. This can affect your dopamine levels, because if you can’t see your own creations as rewarding to you, as much as someone else’s, you’ll feel inferior and incapable.
One very effective way of neutralizing the influence other people have on your mind is to literally look at the negatives or downsides of their accomplishment. This isn’t to practice being a critic, but it can enable you to de-infatuate with their creative powers, helping you to stop minimizing your own. Once you recognize that your creative endeavors can exist on the level of those you admire, through practice (just like they did), you’ll increase your ability to see your own creations as meaningful and rewarding.
“Same ‘ole, same ‘ole, we know. We’ve discussed repeatedly the importance and benefits of physical exercise, and we’re just going to add to this list again. So, not only does exercise help us relieve stress, achieve better physical health and make us more productive; it boosts our dopamine levels. More specifically, exercise increases multiple neurotransmitters – serotonin and endorphins, besides dopamine, receive a boost. Here’s something else cool: the exercise needn’t not be arduous. Simply taking a stroll or climbing some stairs will achieve a good dopamine jolt.”
Exercise is important, but it can also become a crutch or an addiction if it’s not something being integrated into your daily life. Many people go to the gym to work out, yet don’t live a life that requires the body they’re building. Another thing is actually placing a value on exercise itself. Many people buy the gym memberships, yet never use them. So what’s the easiest way to make exercise a part of your life?
There’s a branch of exercise called ‘functional training’ in which exercises are tailored to help you with your daily tasks. This is much more helpful than just ‘workouts,’ because if you can train your body into a state where your daily tasks are not taxing on your energy, you’ll breeze through the day and have more energy at the end of it. Staying in a high energy state instead of being brought down by your daily tasks will help you be more inspired during your day and innately feel more inspired to exercise.
5. Get a Streak Going
“As with creating a checklist, getting a streak going is a great way to increase dopamine levels. For the purpose of this article, a streak is a visual reminder of how many days in a row you’ve achieved something.
Get a calendar specifically for this purpose: write down whatever goal you have and the days of the week or month when they are scheduled. For example, if you work out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, mark these days on the calendar for the month. As you finish a workout, mark it off on the calendar. Keep a streak going, and you’ll keep the dopamine coming.”
While the ‘streak’ is a useful tool for celebrating accomplishments, it unfortunately has a downside—routine. Doing something enough times becomes a routine, especially if the action isn’t continuously fulfilling to your highest values. To counter this, try adapting the ‘goal’ or ‘action’ in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. By continuously finding ways to improve the performance of the behavior, over time, you can look back at how many times you’ve done it, but also how much better you’ve become at it. This way, your performance becomes a competition with yourself, which increases your potential for feeling rewarded as you master a skill.
6. Increase Tyrosine
“Of the chemicals that make up dopamine, none are more important than tyrosine. In fact, tyrosine is considered the building block of dopamine. Therefore, it is important that you get enough of this protein. There’s a large list of foods that increase Tyrosine, including: Almonds, Avocados, Bananas, Beef, Chicken, Chocolate, Coffee, Eggs, Green Tea, Watermelon, Yogurt.”
Food is a reward, not a chore. This is the difference between living to eat and eating to live. While it’s important to utilize foods to your advantage, it’s just as important to recognize that the brain is its own best pharmacy. Few foods actually make it past the blood-brain barrier and this actually includes Tyrosine.
“Tyrosine is one of the 22 key amino acids that are used for building proteins around the body. In addition to this, however, it also raises the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, namely dopamine and norepinephrine. These are famous for being ‘feel good’ chemicals that can help boost mood and elevate concentration, making tyrosine a popular nootropic. However, tyrosine is completely incapable of passing the BBB. This way, no matter how much of it you were to take, you’d feel almost no effects.” (source)
The truth is, tyrosine must be bonded with another molecule to make it past the blood-brain barrier, so tyrosine in itself isn’t capable of making significant impacts on the brain. However, through natural digestion and regulating healthy bodily function, it can assist the brain in having to work less on fixing an unhealthy system, which in turn can help increase the potential for dopamine and dopamine related good feelings.
7. Listen to Music
“Do you ever wonder why music makes you happy? I mean, we can be in the dumps one moment but once we put on our favorite jam, we’re swaying and shaking away…feeling pretty good about ourselves too! The reason for this is that listening to music increases dopamine levels. In fact, scientists say that listening to music has the same effect as eating our favorite foods or watching our favorite T.V. show. So, when you’re feeling down, throw on some of your favorite tunes and jam out!”
Listening to music can increase dopamine levels temporarily, but what we’re really looking for is a lasting fulfillment feeling so you can make your daily life enjoyable and productive for your goals. Also, popular music these days is often manufactured in such a way as to prey on your brain’s chemical dependency, making much of music a form of substance addiction.
However, music has been a part of human history since as far as we can see, so its influence on our brain is greatly appreciated. In fact, one of the greatest cultural appreciations throughout history has been music. So, listen to music, but just make sure it’s not the only source of dopamine in your life.
“As with exercise, we are discovering more and more benefits to meditation. We are again adding to the list. As we discussed, the human brain is susceptible to a variety of addictions. One other addictive habit that we have is overthinking. In fact, some Buddhists have a phrase for this addiction: ‘monkey mind.’
Overthinking is not merely a distracting habit, it’s also a genuine compulsion that leaves us in a perplexing state, while also having a negative effect on our spiritual development. However, scientists are finally catching up to what Buddhists have known for thousands of years: meditation and mindfulness are essential to a healthy mind.”
Meditation can be a highly effective form of dopamine increase if done properly, as it can weed out the mental influences which may be causing your chemistry to be less than desired. With the intent of reaching a state of self-fulfillment, meditation clears out the mental clutter and replaces it with presence and fulfillment for just being alive. This is a state available to every human and can help assist our daily lives by increasing our awareness of what feels good for us and what we don’t resonate with.