A reader from London recently asked this question: "I am taking a dopamine agonist for treatment of ADHD and wanted to know if this affects the circulating dopamine in my body and makes a difference in terms of my ability to feel happiness?"
What a great question! When I speak of dopamine, I am speaking as a neuropsychologist interested in human experience–especially goal setting and maximizing rewarding experiences. In fact, there are several known types of dopamine receptors. Some are involved in cardiac function, others support motor control or working memory, attention, and focus.
So I'm specifically interested in that narrow band of dopamine function that we experience as "Yessss!"–or as reward, after completing a small or big goal. Dopaminergic agents are used to treat a number of conditions. L-Dopa for Parkinson's for example, and bromocriptine for other conditions. The dopaminergic agents approved for ADHD appear to have their activity at locations more specific to focus, attention, memory–the functions I'm usually thinking of when I speak of dopamine.
Now let's get to happiness, which was the focus of your question. People with ADD/ADHD (and the rest of us, for that matter) often find it difficult to attend to all the dull and difficult details that make up the day to day striving towards big and important goals. We know we want a relationship, for example, or a business degree, or a larger apartment. And we know that reaching that goal will give us a huge, deep, personal "yessss!" But all the little steps and substeps might be less fascinating. So we check Instragram, have a snack, watch TV. We literally get in our own way. And again, while this is a huge deal for people with ADHD, it's true for the rest of us as well.
So yes, dopaminergic agents approved for ADHD can actually make patients "happier" if they are able to stay on-task and focus on their core, value-based, meaningful goals, and attain those goals. Research suggests that other dopaminergic agents do improve working memory and focus but not as specifically as the ones approved for treatment of ADHD.
And let's get as clear as possible about your kind of happiness. In my work with clients, we spend time clarifying what happiness really feels like, deep-down, for each of us. Sure, dopamine is behind all of that–but too much of that conversation might kind of boring for many people. But what is exciting and soul-making is the process of determining what it actually, personally, feels like in your body (I've spoken a bit more about that here). And then, we ask bold questions about how we can get even more committed to doing the next thing, and then the next thing, that we know we need to accomplish. And how we begin to say "no" to things that are fine but not as centrally related to what we are here on the planet to do, to be, to have, to share, and to learn.
Thanks for your questions! photo: flickr