Suppose you’re at a vending machine and you put in a dollar. But instead of one candy, as you would expect, you receive two. You think, “This is better than I expected.” As a result, your dopamine response goes up. On the other hand, if you put a dollar into the machine and receive one candy, as expected, there is no change in the dopamine. The basic idea in this example is that neurons release dopamine in proportion to the difference between the anticipated and realized rewards of a particular event.
Our reward (dopamine) system is less about reward than about its anticipation (Schultz, 2006). Unpredictable rewards produce much larger pleasure than anticipated ones. Your reaction to situations that are either better or worse than expected is generally stronger to those you can predict. Unpredictable rewards cause more dopamine release than predictable ones and more dopamine means more pleasure (Sapolsky, 2017).
The purpose of dopamine surge is to make the brain pay attention to new and potentially important, stimuli. When the stimulus ceases to be novel we become accustomed to it (known as habituation).
Habituation is similar to tolerance to a drug. Additional material goods and services initially provide extra pleasure, but it is usually temporary. The extra pleasure wears off. Satisfaction depends on change and disappears with continued consumption. For example, when a person first moves from a small apartment to a large one, she will be happy, but with the passage of time, her satisfaction tapers off.
This helps us understand those who find themselves drawn to unpredictable romantic partners. They might be addicted to the hidden pleasure of unsteady love. In fact, gambling is designed to produce surprising rewards. The gambler is buying the prospect of positive surprise.
Evidence shows that in the financial market, when the Federal Reserve unexpectedly lower interest rates, the market reacts more sharply than on those occasions when investors expect the action (Coates, 2012).
This also explains why the anticipation of drug use can be more pleasant than the actual use. Animal studies find that dopamine is released during presentations of cues predictive of drug, food, and alcohol use (Goldstein 2001). This anticipatory release of dopamine is not seen without a history of drug use. When those cues are present at a later time, they prompt anticipation of a drug experience and drug craving.
The anticipatory release of dopamine may actually be something that’s associated with vulnerability to relapse. In other words, a cue in the environment could (ice cream shop), particularly if one is in a negative mood, produce a craving that might lead to relapse.
In sum, dopamine is more about the happiness pursuit and key to human motivation. When our goal is achieved, we feel satisfaction, fulfillment, and pleasure. The world is dull again until we find another subject to be excited about. Nothing is ever as good as that first time. As humans, we get used to things. This is the tragic quality of habituation.
The trick is to keep habituation in check so that you can continue to savor the pleasure of the activities you really enjoy. To gain happiness is to learn how to desire things we already have. Buddha once said the secret to happiness is to learn to want what you have and not want what you don’t have. The Stoic philosophers advocated negative visualization (Irvine, 2009). They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value (e.g., we lost our home). Doing so will make us value what we already have. When we say good-bye to your loved one, we silently should remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. In other words, we should live each day as if it were our last and extract every bit of joy we can from it.
Coates J. (2012). The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust. Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Goldstein, A. (2001) Addiction: From Biology to Drug Policy, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Irvine, B. William (2009) A Guide to the Good Life. Oxford University Press: New York
Schultz W (2006), “Behavioral theories and the neurophysiology of reward” Ann Rev Psychol 57:87-115
Sapolsky RM (2017) Behave: Biology of humans at our best and worst. New York: Penguin Press