What Your Body Already Knows

What does dopamine feel like?

Posted Mar 01, 2011

Reward and Reinforcement

Anyone who’s been within 50 yards of a clinical psychologist has heard the terms reward and reinforcement. And it’s fairly common knowledge that the neurotransmitter which supports the experience of reward is dopamine. But what’s the subjective human experience of dopamine? What does dopamine feel like?

Here’s a remarkable summary of an emerging understanding of dopamine as not only the neurotransmitter of reward, but also of motivation. You are “wired” for motivation. You’re not wired for stagnant, sedentary languor. But your way of being motivated and passionate and engaged and happy is particular to you alone. Your motivational blueprint lies in your neurology – your brain and your memory – and your body already knows this.

Notice we aren’t inquiring here into what motivates your siblings, or the people in your zip code. Nor are we particularly concerned with the business of organizing your activities and commitments around the fantasy self in your head, or somebody else’s head, nor some other concept of what you “should” enjoy. We’re asking a simple question that calls for an honest self-assessment:  What do you really like to feel?

If everyone around you seems motivated by a wind-in-their-hair, living-on-the-edge adventurous kind of state, but you thrive on predictable comfortable routines, then I could probably offer some general advice on how to structure your weekends and free time. Less bungee jumping and more Saturday morning breakfasts with a regular crowd of friends at your local cozy diner.  And if you enjoy the flirtatious energetic buzz of serial- or simultaneous dating, then settling down at a young age is likely a poor choice.

I cannot tell you whether getting married at age 21, or a weekend of white water rafting, or an accelerated MBA program is the right use of your time and energy. The criteria we’re pointing to here are internal, and specific to your body and neurology.

Your "Preferred States"

I encourage workshop attendees and individual clients to conduct a “preferred states inventory.” A journaling and discussion exercise to make sure they are directly in touch with their body-based motivational strategy. It’s a great start to know that you like needlework or scuba diving, but the self-knowledge we’re encouraging here is the discernment of “what about all of that do I enjoy?” And “where exactly, in my body, do I feel that?”

This journaling process takes a bit of time and tolerance for self-examination, but it is not difficult or complicated. You could do it now with just a pen and paper. You start by sketching out a list (maybe 15 or 20) of really great experiences. Winning the spelling bee in 7th grade, a camping trip last summer, a great hug from your sister, or a really juicy peach you ate last night. These don’t have to be earth-shaking events, just stuff that made you glad to be alive and glad to be in your body.

Next, we’ll drill down to the one best moment in each of those experiences. If your wedding day was a great experience, the challenge here is to pick one moment from that experience that captures the best thing about all of that.

Finally, in each of these 15-20 key moments, can you identify the feeling of it? Literally, where did you feel that in your body? And what did it feel like? Once you’ve considered your personal history of best moments, we’ve got some idea of what dopamine “feels like” in your body and nervous system. The changes you notice in your stomach or chest, any observable speeding up or slowing down you notice in your breathing, what sounds or pictures show up for you.

And when you have this knowledge about yourself, you’re in a better position to execute that most important of morning practices – reviewing your calendar and to-do list. Are most of your commitments and obligations directly related to your core motivations? How likely is it that your schedule today will bring about those changes in your brain and body that let you know you are engaged and on-task? On the other hand, how many of your activities and tasks work against your own neurology – making you feel listless, irritated, disengaged?

If you’re a busy single parent, or a caregiver, or you work two jobs to make ends meet – then you of all people will want to take seriously the bits of unstructured time still available to you. How will you spend them? Who and what gets those bits of your life?

Planning Your Day with Motivation in Mind

Thinking about your schedule in this way positions the humble calendar in a whole new light. Your planner or Google calendar is not, primarily, to make sure you get to veterinarian appointments on time. Rather, your schedule is your #1 way of making sure you’re living the life you’re here to live. Having the experiences and connections which link you with your body’s definition of “motivation.”

If you have this depth of understanding of the students or young people you guide (teach, parent, or coach), you’ve got a huge advantage when it comes to “motivating them.” The way you motivate me may have little to do with the strategies for motivating the student next to me, or my coworker, or sister. Figure out what I love, and figure out exactly why and how I love that, and you’ve got pure motivational gold on your hands.

Now, there is an alternative to this person-specific approach to motivation and reward. We can decide in advance what you “should” do, what you ought to enjoy. We can base that expectation on cultural norms or rules like “that’s what people in our family do.” Me, I like the genuinely curious and solution-focused approach that spurns easy, flaccid responses like “she’s lazy,” or “she’s bad.” I’d rather spend some time with her (this process does take time) and her family in order to understand what dopamine feels like and looks like. For her. What’s she crazy about? What does she stay up late doing? What’s she really good at? We can start there.

How to Motivate Me

And with that knowledge, we are in a better position to problem-solve a motivational strategy unique to that student/client. Until she’s 18 or so, it’s up to the adults who teach or coach or parent her to make the important decisions about what developmental and academic tasks are next at bat. At some point after that, she will begin to take on this weighty responsibility herself. What will she do with this hour? What’s the next most important thing? If you’re over 18 and reading this, then you’re doing this already. Out of the vast number of options, what should you give your attention to? What relationships merit your energy? What obligations are the right ones for you, right now? There are, in fact, good and better and best answers to these questions. There is a way of setting up your day, and the next day, which is most likely to create deep sustainable motivation and happiness.

But your body already knew that.

photo:  twice the power

About the Author

David D. Nowell, Ph.D.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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