Discover more from Culturcidal by John Hawkins
Beware of Cheap Dopamine
Some things you shouldn’t do because you will enjoy them too much.
Last week, I was listening to a podcast and the guys involved got off topic discussing how hard it was to manage the time their young kids spent on a tablet. One of them was talking about how their kid essentially got addicted to playing a tablet game. He said it happened so fast and the kid was so emotionally attached to playing the game, that he got a little freaked out by it. His solution to that was to tell his young child it was “broken and he wouldn’t be able to play again until daddy got it fixed,” which of course, didn’t happen. The other parents had similar stories.
Now, you might say, “Oh well, you know how kids are.”
WAY back in the day, when I was a wee lad (maybe 10 or 11), I was staying over with my cousins who got an Atari. It had a now classic game on it, “Defender.” We spent hours playing that game and others, but I was really good at “Defender.” When they went to bed, I told them I just wanted to finish my game before I went to bed. When they woke up the next morning, I was still playing.
I still have a little bit of that in me and I know that because a few years ago, I decided to try “Overwatch.” “Overwatch” was a team-based game (it has now been replaced by “Overwatch 2,” which I have never played) that had more than 20 characters to learn and play, all of which are different enough that it takes a good bit of time to master each of them.
I generally enjoyed playing, although I found it to be frustrating at times. I also had friends and a girlfriend that played. I’d rack up an hour or two at the end of the night, as a break after working and more on the weekends. Why not have a little fun, right? Except one of the many features “Overwatch” has is a listing of how much time you’ve put into the game total and with each character. Eventually, I looked at it and was stunned to find that over the course of a year, I had put in several hundred hours of time. Relatively soon thereafter, I gave up on Overwatch for good rather than waste that much of my time on it.
Then there’s social media. Have you ever heard this quote before? It’s by Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice president of Facebook user growth, but it applies pretty much to every social media network:
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth… I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds, [our children] are not allowed to use this sh*t.”
As someone who uses “RescueTime” to track their social media usage, I can tell you that it is EXTREMELY EASY to wrack up 20 hours of social media time per week. Just think about the time you spend on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, and other social media websites in a week. In my case, I can tell myself that it’s, “for work.” There’s some truth to that. I do promote my columns on those websites, but I also spend an awful lot of time reading comments and checking to see which of my comments are getting the most attention. It’s very easy to watch video after video on YouTube or just make yourself at home in the notifications on Twitter.
The reason it’s easy is it’s designed that way. These companies test everything they do with tens of millions of people to find better ways to hook you. They’re actually looking at things like colors, button shapes, and what sound is most satisfying just to get you to click a little more.
Then, there’s pornography. Pornography has existed as long as man has, but it used to be someone scrawling crude drawings on a cave wall or parchment. Eventually, it moved to the shame of having to pick up a nudie magazine and take it to the counter to buy. Now, it’s sitting in the privacy of your own home, scrolling through multiple sites that each have hundreds of thousands of porn videos, all categorized by time, body type, and kink. We could go into the long-term ramifications of training yourself to become primarily aroused by touching yourself while looking at a variety of different women on a screen as opposed to actual sexual contact – and there’s no way that can possibly be good for you as a human being – but for now, let’s just put it in the same bucket as video games and social media.
It’s more “cheap dopamine.” It’s an easy hit of a homegrown additive in your body, a feel-good chemical that makes you feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation.
Of course, there are lots of other ways to do this. Television. Movies. Eating junk food. Smoking. Getting high. Gambling. Getting drunk.
All of these types of cheap dopamine have some things in common.
1) There may be a few exceptions (say cocaine or fentanyl), but for the most part, they are probably not going to hurt you if you are good at controlling your intake of them. If you blow $50 on the slots, watch a porn video, or play video games now and again, it’s unlikely to do a lot of damage. That is true.
2) However, it’s also true that it’s VERY EASY for most people to HEAVILY overdo it on some of these sources of cheap dopamine. Some addictions are more harmful than others, but all of these things can become a problem if you take it to an extreme and unfortunately, a lot of people have trouble controlling themselves around one form of cheap dopamine or another.
3) All of these sources of cheap dopamine are extremely easy to obtain in modern America.
Now, you may say, “So what? If people are having a good time and there aren’t any big negative effects, why should we care?”
I’ll tell you why we should care.
Have you ever heard of a “Jar of Awesome?” It’s an idea that I got from Tim Ferriss and I’ve been doing it since 2017. The concept behind it is simple. Every time something that makes you feel good happens, you write it down and put it in the jar. The reason this is great is that we have a natural human tendency to focus on the bad things that happen to us, but the good times, the compliments, the wonderful moments – those tend to slip from the forefront of our brains unless we’re prompted. If you’re not careful, this can give you a skewed view of life.
So, what kind of good things are in my jar?
Really cool things I’ve seen and done while I’m traveling. Fantastic things that have happened with girlfriends or other women. Amazing meals. Great compliments. Personal lifting records. Terrific moments while practicing martial arts. Reaching new career milestones. Many of them are small. But there are bigger things I value as well. Looking at the Grand Canyon. Running a Spartan race. Going inside the head of the Statue of Liberty. Eating the best Calimari of my life in a restaurant in Vegas. Having Rush Limbaugh talk about my website on air.
Do you know what you’ll notice about all of these things in my life and probably in your life if you spend some time thinking about it?
None of them involve “cheap dopamine.”
No one’s “great moment” involves eating a bunch of Twinkies on their couch or meeting the love of their life while they were binge-watching, “The Office” at home.
Worse yet, we like to tell ourselves that we’re giving ourselves “rewards” or just “blowing off some steam” with cheap dopamine, but a lot of the time, it’s just a way to distract ourselves from our discomfort with other parts of our lives. It’s easier to edge away your night looking at pornography than to put in the difficult, real-world work it would take to fix your relationship with your wife or to sit in a filthy house for yet another day while telling yourself, “I’ll play Candy Crush today, but tomorrow, I’ll finally clean up this pig sty.”
The problem is that it’s a self-defeating cycle. The more cheap dopamine we take in, the more tempted we become to go to it when we’re disappointed or frustrated. As Anna Lembke says in her excellent book, "Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence":
“With prolonged and repeated exposure to pleasurable stimuli, our capacity to tolerate pain decreases, and our threshold for experiencing pleasure increases. ...The reason we’re all so miserable may be because we’re working so hard to avoid being miserable.”
Meanwhile, as an extra added bonus, we get to see other people doing all the cool things we could have done if we didn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by all that cheap dopamine. If you spent as much time at the gym as you do playing God of War, you might have a physique like the guy in the game. If you put the same amount of time into a 2nd job as you do into social media, you could afford to take an extra vacation this year instead of looking at someone else taking a vacation on Instagram. If you actually went out and met people instead of staying at home to binge-read romance novels, you might be in a romance yourself.
We only get so long to live. How much of it do you want to spend chasing cheap dopamine instead of doing the things you’ll be proud of one day?