Dopamine, Process Orientation and Rocky Balboa

How to make your life more enjoyable and make hard things easier.

Dec 28, 2021

I’ve always wondered how to make things which seem difficult, easy. Tactics include: deliberate practice, inversion, reducing the problem space, and many more. Instead of tactics, today, I’m going to focus on how we can use neurobiology to rewire your brain to make the process of achieving goals easier and more enjoyable, whether they be in the workplace or in my personal life.

In my early life I was lucky to enjoy striving, and the reward at the end had always seemed secondary (process intended). I set out goals solely so I could have a reason to execute and improve. As the content of life became more difficult, and enticing distractions were popularised (e.g. Instagram), I realised I’d need to actively strengthen this behavior. This led me to understand how this phenomenon works, and begins with a basic understanding of dopamine.

Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting. If your brain doesn’t release enough dopamine during or before an activity, you’ll likely feel like you’re lacking the motivation to do it. This is one of the reasons we shouldn’t solely rely on motivation to achieve things, but include other mechanisms (like habits), although that's a topic for another article.

When achieving something, your brain will flood your system with dopamine. This release of dopamine acts as a signal to the brain telling it that it should rewire, so in the future it has a higher probability of getting back to that same experience/situation. This is how animals (including humans) learn how to find water and food.

So if you overly focus on the goal, and attach all that plasticity (brain rewiring) to the celebration, you erase a lot of your brains ability to enjoy the process. So next time you’re faced with a difficult challenge, you’re less likely to be able to enjoy the process enough to make it through. This is useful as most great things happen through millions of tiny steps forward, and enjoying those tiny steps will make it a hell of a lot easier to make it through, and you’ll be significantly happier as a result.

Rocky I is a fantastic example of how to practice this. At the end of the film he ended up losing the fight, but we all still feel extremely positive about the outcome. This is because the focus of the movie is the striving, and through not ending with a massive climax, we’re left with associating the reward with the striving.

There’s a story of an old Spanish sailor who took part in a race around the world in seven weeks; a feat few people in the world had ever achieved. This man who was set to be the winner, almost got to the finish line, but instead of crossing the finish line he turned sideways and decided he’d rather just keep sailing.

How do you actually practice this?

  • Re-route the positive feelings. Next time you’re faced with an accomplishment, pause, and reflect on all the small steps you took to get there, and the parts you found enjoyable.
  • Don’t over celebrate. This may not be something you want to do, but by doing so, you’ll experience more pleasure in aggregation. It’s okay to enjoy the moment, but don’t focus on it too much. By doing this, you’re retaining your existing wiring to allow you to enjoy the process.
  • Give away the gold star. Let go of your hard-earned gold star once you reach the end, so you don’t have the chance to over-fixate on it. You also train your brain that it’s not important enough to cling to. A lot of high performers frequently do this. A huge motivation why entrepreneurs give away large amounts of money is so they can set themselves up for the next big win.

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