Your phone is ringing. It's dopamine calling.
Professor Anna Lembke recently published the book, Dopamine Nation, and the main points from it have been featured on NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and various other media outlets in recent days. You might have also seen her on the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.
One of her key arguments boils down to this: You are addicted to your smartphone. Well, not exactly your phone, but the apps on the phone that give you a pleasurable distraction from everyday life—the likes on your feed, the funny clips from TikTok, the number of people who viewed your photo.
Each of these small things releases dopamine to your brain, the chemical that stimulates the feeling of pleasure. Once you have a dopamine hit, you want another one, and you start to look forward to the next. Just the thought of checking Instagram releases dopamine as your body anticipates that next pleasurable feeling. That’s why so many of us spend too much time staring at our screens. Trying to stop is like trying to quit any addiction—difficult to the point of impossible.
Why quit? Dopamine isn’t bad; on the contrary, it’s one of our main neurotransmitters. Way too much dopamine can be a real problem, which our family learned the hard way. My wife’s dopamine levels skyrocketed over ten years ago for no apparent reason. She became abruptly psychotic, and it took us years to successfully manage her health. But should we worry about the small dopamine hits received from social media?
According to Professor Lembke, the answer is an overwhelming yes. Research has shown that the part of the brain that controls pleasure also controls pain, and our brains strive for balance. What that means is that if you are continually receiving hits of dopamine, your body will compensate by making you feel worse overall. You’ll be distressed, unhappy, and down. In other words, you’ll be depressed.
“I'm going down, down, down, down." -- Bruce Springsteen
It becomes a vicious cycle. The worse you feel, the more you’ll turn to your phone for that little feeling of joy. But the more dopamine you receive, the more your brain will seek balance. And in seeking that balance, your brain will cause you to become even more depressed. Many of us are already trapped, lying awake at night anticipating the next TikTok video. Just one more and then I’ll turn it off!
So how do we break the cycle? Professor Lembke advocates spending less time pursuing the easy enjoyment of social media and more time struggling with challenge. “Doing things that are hard is one of the best ways to pursue a life worth living, because the pleasure we get afterwards is more enduring,” she says. Go for a run. Lift some weights. Study something new. Although these might not seem fun in the moment, you’ll feel much better afterwards. Why? Remember that balance. Your brain will improve your overall mood as it fights to maintain equilibrium between the pain and the pleasure.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Decades of research have shown exercise to be one of the most effective antidepressant medications. A healthy diet full of whole foods leads to much higher levels of happiness than processed junk and sugar. Therefore, it seems intuitive that a life without constant Twitter feeds would result in feeling more consistently content. But it’s just so hard to achieve.
As a spouse and parent, I feel the need to always be reachable. Although Professor Lembke suggests starting by taking a day away from your smartphone, this strikes me as risky. What if my loved ones need me? But then I think back to the days before cell phones—I could still be reached, even without this device in my pocket. Maybe I should try turning the ringer on and putting my phone on the kitchen counter, where I could still hear it from every room?
Still, for some reason, the thought of not having it actually with me is unsettling. Am I already so hooked on its dopamine drip that I can’t contemplate going without? I’ll have to work my way into it. But I’m all for taking the steps to improve my brain health, and it’s hard to argue with Professor Lembke’s logic. Check back in a month or two for a progress update. Until then, remember what she says: