Expectations, Dopamine and Louis CK
Why everything is amazing and nobody's happy
Posted Mar 03, 2016
One of my favorite comedians, Louis CK, has a joke about how “everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.” He told this story about a new piece of technology:
I was on an airplane and there was high-speed internet on the airplane—that’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go “open up your laptop, you can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips—it’s amaz[ing]—I’m in an airplane!” And then it breaks down, and they apologize the internet’s not working. The guy next to me goes “phff, this is bulls%$^!” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.
I’ve had a similar experience with Uber. The first few times I used it I was amazed by the technology, and then very quickly I started getting upset that I might have to wait a whole four minutes before being magically whisked away at a reasonable price.
Advances in technology are not always accompanied by increases in happiness, because we often fall under the false assumption that everything should just work perfectly all the time. That assumption often gets in the way, because our happiness isn’t just based on reality, but rather on the difference between reality and our expectations. The good news is that to increase your happiness you don’t necessarily need to change what’s happening in the world, sometimes it’s enough to simply change your expectation.
Expectation actually changes the signaling of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a particular part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine gets released in the nucleus accumbens by all sorts of other fun stuff like winning money, having sex, and doing drugs (not necessarily at the same time). It’s what gives pleasure to the little joys in life.
Unfortunately, activity in the nucleus accumbens doesn’t encode rewards directly; it encodes the difference between the expectation and the reward (Abler 2006). That might sound a little dense, so I’ll explain it. If you were walking down the sidewalk and found $5, your nucleus accumbens would light up, because it was completely unexpected. And if the next day you found another $5, it would probably light up again (because what the heck are the chances?). But, if you found $5 every day for a month, then your nucleus accumbens would start to expect that reward and would stop responding. And if one day you didn’t find $5 your nucleus accumbens activity would actually go down, and you’d feel disappointed.
It is very easy for the brain to get accustomed to good things. Think back to your very first job and how exciting your first paycheck was. Then think about how unexciting your last paycheck was. Or, if every time you turn on the kitchen faucet, clean water comes out, it’s easy to not get excited (unless you live in a developing country, or even parts of this country where you have a different expectation). You probably don’t even think about it. We habituate to all the good things around us, and don’t release dopamine. We start to take things for granted. Because of your high expectations you miss out on some of the magic in life.
Fortunately, your conscious, willful prefrontal cortex can actually help modulate dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (Del Arco 2008). As I've written about it previous articles, use the power of gratitude. Take a moment to marvel at how impressive every-day technology is. Notice when you are expecting everything to be perfect, and how you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. For all those wonderful little things in life, remember how precious they are. Because while everything truly is amazing, happiness sometimes takes a little effort.
Abler B et al (2006) “Prediction error as a linear function of reward probability is coded in human nucleus accumbens” NeuroImage
Del Arco A, & Mora F. (2008) “Prefrontal cortex–nucleus accumbens interaction: In vivo modulation by dopamine and glutamate in the prefrontal cortex” Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior
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