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Centr Team

How to harness dopamine and level up your life

Centr Team

It’s 2am. You’re in bed and your body is craving sleep, but something is compelling you to pick up your phone and start scrolling.

If we asked you to explain this behavior, you’d probably say you were scrolling for fun. You might even mention that you’re on the hunt for a little rush of dopamine as a reward after a long day.

But what if we told you the dopamine high you’re chasing doesn’t really exist?

Dopamine is about wanting, not about having

Dr. Anna Lembke, Stanford University

Dopamine in the driver’s seat

You might know dopamine as a “pleasure chemical” – something your brain supposedly releases to make you feel good.

But there’s a growing scientific understanding that dopamine is more accurately described as the chemical behind your drive and motivation. As Dr. Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, says: ‘Dopamine is about wanting, not about having.’

Our brains are wired to keep us alive and kicking, which means dopamine pushes us toward survival activities like eating, socializing and sex. This system worked pretty great when our choices were limited to hunting, gathering and hanging out around the fire. But now our modern world is filled with things like social media and hyperpalatable junk food that can hijack our brain's reward system.

Who hasn’t put down their phone after a few lost hours and thought, “Why am I even doing this?”

Even though the dopamine drive is powerful, understanding why you’re reaching for your phone or that packet of chips can help you to break the dopamine-seeking cycle. Armed with this knowledge, you can take back control. Here’s how.

1. Hit pause & ride the wave

Dopamine surges may be powerful but they’re also short-lived.

A photo from the entrance to an ocean wave tubing over.

Learn to surf the dopamine urge through this guided meditation.

When you’re craving something you know you don’t need, take a moment to pause, breathe and remind yourself that the overwhelming desire to pick up your phone isn’t really a matter of life or death.

The more you learn to ride these dopamine surges using mindfulness, the more you strengthen your prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that helps with making decisions and impulse control.

2. Out of sight, out of mind

Willpower is overrated. Given how powerful dopamine can be, we want to remove willpower from the equation as much as possible.

Even seeing the thing you crave – like your phone or a half-eaten packet of cookies – can lead to automatic dopamine release, so be smart about it and put some distance between you and your trigger. This might mean keeping your phone in a drawer, hiding the snacks at the back of the cupboard or turning off your Wi-Fi if you’re trying to do deep creative work.

3. Find your campground activities

Ever been camping? You may have heard of the “campground rule” – that’s the idea that you should leave your campsite better than you found it. We think the same principle works for choosing how to spend your free time.

Campground activities are the things that leave you feeling refreshed and satisfied instead of drained and guilty. Good examples of campground activities include:

  • making art

  • reading (think novels and non-fiction, not status updates)

  • volunteering for a worthy cause

  • learning another language

  • exercising

Find your campground activities and build them into your routine. If you set times for these activities, there’ll be fewer opportunities for bad habits to sneak into your day.

4. Make the swap

A phone is nothing more than a tool, one that we can use in either a productive or unproductive way.

By swapping the distracting apps in our phones for ones that leave us feeling good about ourselves – think language learning or brain games – we can make sure that even if we do succumb to our cravings, it won’t have an overly negative effect.

The same goes for food: swap your pantry’s junk food for healthier options, so if you do find yourself seeking out a snack to satisfy your dopamine-hunting brain, you’ll be happier with the outcome.

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