How to Overcome Hedonic Adaptation and the Prison of Wanting
The discourse on dopamine fasting was taken to ridiculous extremes, but the underlying science was sound - and useful
Dr. Cameron Sepah, assistant clinical professor at UCSF medical school, had no idea of the media attention his idea would attract when he chose the catchy name “dopamine fasting”.
He published an article aimed at helping people kick bad habits using principles from cognitive behavioral therapy. He proposed that “fasting” from rewarding but problematic behaviors, such as overeating, smartphone use, or playing video games, may help us get a handle on them. The “fasting” schedule could be a day a month, an evening a week, or whatever works for you.
By “dopamine fasting” regularly, he argued, we might learn to find pleasure in the simple things and get back to a more natural way of life. It was a reasonable strategy, based on science.
But all people heard was “dopamine fasting”. The article went viral, and Silicon Valley started taking it to ridiculous extremes, like refusing to talk to friends they passed in the street for fear of dopamine release. A scientific strategy quickly turned into a pseudoscientific fad, and it wasn’t long before “dopamine fasting” went down in the book of “dumb things Silicon Valley bros do to try and get ahead”.
Journalists were quick to pounce on the opportunity to ridicule them. “You can’t fast from a vital neurotransmitter!” cried the experts they interviewed. It was clear that no one had read the original article.
Yet the article’s popularity suggests it addressed a deep need of humanity. Life in the 21st century is comfortable — too comfortable. Gone are the hardships of the past. Now we have Amazon Prime, Netflix, Instagram, and a serious lack of motivation to do anything that doesn’t provide immediate gratification. Previous generations had to fight invading fascist armies. We, on the other hand, must nobly battle the temptation to please ourselves. And we are losing the battle.
We fight as lone soldiers, outnumbered by shiny new products, fast food temptations, smartphone apps, and psychoactive cocktails. The enemy exploits our weaknesses with pornographic propaganda: dopamine-juicing images of food, fashion, tech, and air-brushed beauty. Our brains respond with intense desire, followed by anxiety that is briefly abated when we attain the reward.
When enjoyment in life is so fleeting, and the desire for more, so persistent, we may start to wonder if we’re part of a mass hysteria. Though we feel like free agents, with our individualist culture urging us to “just do it” then assuring us that we’re “lovin’ it”, we might be less free than we think.
The "Hedonic Treadmill"
You start Googling the iPhone 13 release date because your iPhone 12 has already lost its sparkle. You spend an hour looking for a new UberEats because your old favorite now bores you. You buy a 72-inch LCD television because 48 inches doesn’t cut it anymore. This is the “hedonic treadmill”.
Humans adapt. It’s what we do. And it’s what has allowed us to dominate an entire planet. But this ready adaptability of the brain is what turns the once exciting, into the mundane.
We pay attention to novel stimuli and tune out those we’ve “habituated” to. In the past this was essential for survival, preventing overwhelm from a never-ending barrage of incoming stimuli. We conserve brain energy by paying less attention to the familiar, leaving more energy to watch for potential threats.
The downside of this process is that we pay less attention to novel things we enjoy. “Hedonic adaptation” is the name of this phenomenon, and it’s the reason why we’re always seeking more.
We reach for junk food to give us the hit our routine, healthy meals no longer give us. We buy new things because our old purchases don’t excite us anymore. We seek new partners because we miss the high of courtship. This desensitization to life’s pleasures is the force that powers the “hedonic treadmill”.
The Prison of "Wanting"
We used to believe addiction was driven by the “liking” of a reward, but it’s now viewed as a condition of pathological “wanting”. For addicts, the “liking” component of a reward is often a faded memory, but their brain keeps “wanting” it regardless. They continue to seek the reward even though they no longer “like” it.
Similarly, when on the “hedonic treadmill” we continue to “want” things, despite knowing our “liking” of them will only be fleeting. Our brain lies each time telling us “this thing will satisfy you forever!” and we fall for it again and again.
We see the problem as not having what we “want”, but really it’s that when we get what we “want”, our “liking” of it doesn’t last. What we’d prefer is to be able to hold on to that feeling of “liking” something, and not have to keep chasing temporary highs.
To get off the “hedonic treadmill” we just need to find a way to keep liking the things we already have. By “liking” more, we may “want” less. How do we do this?
If “hedonic adaptation” leads us to pay less attention to the things we used to enjoy, then to intervene we need to start paying more attention.
If I played you loud, unpredictable noises, you’d reflexively blink in response to each noise. But soon you’d “habituate”, learning to ignore the noises and no longer blinking. This experiment was performed on advanced meditators who’d attended a three-year retreat. Despite hearing the loud noises multiple times, they kept blinking as if hearing them for the first time — they showed less “habituation”.
The theory was that these meditators were able to interrupt the process of “habituation” due to their skill in practicing focused attention. They were able to override the brain’s tendency to tune out the familiar by consciously paying attention to it.
Unfortunately, this effect was only seen in the advanced meditation practitioners, and not in the “moderate practice” group. But anecdotally, practitioners of mindfulness frequently report being able to find joy in the simplest of things. If focusing on one’s own breath can bring feelings of elation, consider the same mental process applied to all the things we’ve lost interest in.
That first bite of your favorite meal can be just as pleasant as the first time you ate it. The gorgeous view out of your apartment window can be as spectacular as the day you moved in. Your partner’s quirks can be just as adorable as the first time you noticed them. All you need to do is pay very close attention to them, focusing on all the positive aspects of the experience. You can do this through the act of “savoring”.
“Savoring” is the act of focusing all your attention on the positive emotions and sensations an experience gives you. By deeply attending to the experience, you can renew your liking of it and reduce your tendency to habituate to it. And it’s easy to do. Here’s how:
- Pick a once-pleasurable activity that you’ve habituated to. Take a moment to remember what it was like the first time you experienced it. Try and remember as vividly as possible what you enjoyed most about it.
- Engaging in the activity, now focus every last ounce of your attention on the experience. Focus on each individual sensation. Describe the sensations. Focus on what you enjoy most about the experience. What’s pleasant about it?
- Acknowledge the emotions that arise. You may feel gratitude for the experience. You may feel excited for the next time you get to experience it. Feel how gratifying the experience is when you pay close attention.
- Resolve to try and pay close attention whenever you engage in this activity in the future.
When we learn to like the things we already have, gratitude comes naturally. We train our selective attention to focus on what we have, rather than what we have not. In doing so, we may find our glass has been half full the whole time.
If our reality is the sum total of whatever we pay more attention to, then by redirecting our attention, we can change our reality. All it takes is conscious awareness. So ask yourself, would you rather live in a reality of nagging desire or pleasant gratitude?
Take the time each day to become more aware of the things you have and “like”, and less aware of the things you don’t have and “want”. You might find that “hedonic treadmill” you’ve been sprinting on for most of your life slows down enough for you to be able to hop off, freeing you to explore everything life has to offer.