Tag Archives: psychology

Meet Your Happy Chemicals (Part 2/5) — Dopamine

This is Part 2 of my series on the HAPPY CHEMICALS inside our brains.  For Part 1, click here.

The first happy chemical I’m going to look at is Dopamine.  Dopamine is the chemical that our brain produces when we’re about to accomplish something.  We don’t get Dopamine AFTER we’ve accomplished something – we get it RIGHT BEFORE.

So for example, say your asshole boss hands you a really annoying work project.  You slog through the BS, massaging your temples to avoid getting a migraine.  Then, just as you’re about to finish, you get a jolt of energy.

You’re almost done!  Just a few more clicks…


That jolt of energy is Dopamine.

Your brain has evolved over time to give you that jolt, so you actually accomplish your goals and don’t end up like this…


Dopamine is what pushes us to finish the task at hand and complete our goals.  It’s NOT that feeling of accomplishment you get after you’ve completed something.  That’s just a feeling – an emotion.  Dopamine is a chemical jolt dolled out by your brain with the express purpose of getting you to reach the finish line.

There are plenty of ways to boost your Dopamine levels on a regular basis.  One way is to constantly make small lists – like 3 or 4 things you need to do, then start checking those things off.  For example, say you set up 3 small tasks for yourself – picking up dry cleaning, emailing your friend back, and Tindering while taking a dump.


Those are small, easy tasks.  But if you do them thoughtlessly you might miss out on a Dopamine boost.  Instead, make a list of those 3, then check them off one by one as you accomplish each.  As you’re accomplishing your 3rd task, you should get a small – but not insignificant – Dopamine boost.

Make a habit of this, and your Dopamine levels should rise significantly over time.

Another option is to be like this guy…


Cocaine actually boosts your Dopamine levels (probably a bit higher than they should be boosted).  That jolt of energy you get when you do blow – or, um… so I’ve heard – is akin to a massive Dopamine boost.

It’s not the healthiest long-term strategy, since massive Dopamine boosts lead to huge drop-offs directly afterwards, but if you’d like to know what a big-time Dopamine jolt feels like, and you don’t have the work ethic to accomplish a major life goal, then follow the coke-clown’s lead…

Just, whatever you do, try not to end up like this…


The Gratitude Challenge

Everyone wants to be happy. But few of us ever put any thought into what actually makes us happy.  We all think if we get more money, more success, more love, more sex, and less annoying family members, we’ll be happy.  Or, as British author Henry James once said:

“When [a man] has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives, I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.”

It makes sense to think that way, doesn’t it?  I mean, if I get more of the stuff that I really want, and less of the stuff I don’t want… then I’ll be happy.  A + B = C.

There’s just one problem:  Happiness is an emotion.  And emotions don’t work like math equations.  You can’t just add up components and have them create your desired effect.  If we humans could do that, we’d all be happy all of the time (and life would probably be super duper boring).

Instead, happiness – like all emotion – needs a trigger; something that sparks the emotion itself.  Every emotion has multiple triggers.  For example, fear can be triggered by a strange man in your home, a giant dog, or the thought of Bruce Jenner’s upcoming reality show.  Likewise, happiness can have multiple triggers.  But there is one trigger in particular that scientists have discovered is nearly universal in generating happiness.

That trigger is GRATITUDE.

Dr. Martin Seligman was my psych professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  He’s also the founder of Positive Psychology and one of the most prominent psychologists ever.  Positive Psychology turned all psychology on its head (Silicon Valley people would use the term ‘disrupted’) by positing that psychology should actively try to amplify people’s well being, rather than simply aim to cure what ails them.  It was pretty revolutionary in its time.  Now it’s standard practice.

Anyway, Dr. Seligman has crated what he terms ‘The Gratitude Challenge.’  Before I explain what that is, I want to point out that I am NOT one of those uber-hippy-green-mantra-vegan-zen-Buddha-people.  So when I throw out something like The Gratitude Challenge, I do it because I know its legit.  This comes from years of scientific research by an actual innovative psychologist, not some chick who handles people’s chakras for a living.

That being said, here’s The Gratitude Challenge, as explained by Dr. Seligman himself:

For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.

That’s it!  That’s all.  That’s the entire challenge.  Just write down 3 good things that happened today and why they happened.  Do that every night before you go to bed.

The reason The Gratitude Challenge works so well is because it’s so freaking simple.  The whole thing takes maybe a minute or two.  And its genius is that it gets your brain into the habit of thinking positively, which, as Dr. Seligman points out, is against our evolutionary nature.

I come from a family of cynical intellectual New York Jews, so trust me when I say that I am one SUPER NEGATIVE MOFO.  But after just a few days of taking The Gratitude Challenge, I can honestly say that I began actually BEING MORE GRATEFUL during the course of my day!  Positive things would happen, and I’d start to notice them instead of brush them aside.  I’d APPRECIATE LIFE more.  Simply because i trained my brain to get into the habit of doing so.

And gratitude is the key ingredient – the secret sauce – of happiness.  The more gratitude I feel for the things I have, the less I dwell on the things I don’t have.  That equals more happiness, less unhappiness, and an overall better quality of life.

Batman vs. Supersmartman



In case you missed it, this past Friday on ‘Real Time with Bill Maher,’ Batman squared off against his greatest nemesis yet: A smart atheist.

Yup, Ben Affleck got into a heated exchange with neuroscientist and author Sam Harris, whose works criticize religion – all religion – but especially Islam, which Harris regards as “the motherlode of bad ideas.” Well it turns out Batman doesn’t much care for that characterization, and he let Harris know it on Bill Maher’s show (even though he was supposed to keep quiet and let Maher interview Harris. But hey, he’s Batman, so he gets a pass for being a dick).

Basically the argument boils down to this: Harris and Maher were saying that liberals need to chill the fuck out when it comes to criticizing Islam, and not scream ‘racism’ every time someone points out how large percentages of Muslims support things like subjugating women, imprisoning gays, killing apostates, and rioting over cartoon pictures of Allah. Of course in response to that, Batman… well, he screamed ‘racism.’

Actually what he said was: “That’s gross, it’s racist.  It’s like saying you’re a shifty Jew…”

Except it’s nothing like that, because Maher and Harris weren’t insulting people based on a stereotypical character trait, they were insulting people based on what those people actually believe and value and do. Kind of a huge difference there. People should be judged on their values and beliefs and actions, not on stereotypical character traits, right?

But more to the point, Harris and Maher weren’t just insulting the Muslim religion, they were pointing out how hypocritical some liberals are in their refusal to insult the Muslim religion. After all, liberals like Batman are willing to make fun of all those dumbasses in the Christian world who picket funerals, bomb abortion clinics, and spot Jesus in their chicken salad.  So why are all the dumbasses in the Muslim world exempt?


You know how there are ten million memes and articles and posters and bumper stickers telling you not to worry about what other people think of you? Know why there are ten million of those? Because THAT IS WHAT WE ALL WORRY ABOUT!!

In psychology there are a whole bunch of terms like groupthink, herd mentality, bandwagon effect, and contingent self-esteem; all of which break down to the same basic principle: We care about what others think. Simple as that. Very very very few people actually go through life never caring what the world thinks of them; people like this guy or this chick or this gentleman here. The rest of us have to learn to deal with being judged.

That concern that we all share over what others might think of us can cause us to change our behavior. That is the point that Maher and Harris were making. Their argument is that liberals – who live and die by progressive values – are changing their behavior (in this case, their willingness to criticize religion), out of a very basic fear of how they will be judged.

Ironically, when Batman threw a level-5 hissy fit, he ended up making Maher’s and Harris’ point for them. If he had just acted more like the Michael Keaton Batman – you know, calm, thoughtful, intelligent – he could have made his point and engaged in a serious debate. Instead he acted like the Christian Bale Batman… well actually, he acted more like Christian Bale.  And in so doing, Batman proved Supersmartman’s point that all those liberals who defend Islam aren’t doing so out of a genuine belief that Islam is on par with every other religion when it comes to being socially regressive, they’re doing it out of a fear of being seen as… well, to use Batman’s own words… ‘gross’ and ‘racist’ (Even though Islam is a religion not a race. But hey, he’s Batman, so he gets a pass for being a douche).


Contingent self-esteem, or self-esteem that is contingent on external factors (like success, looks, money, what others think of us), will always be with us.  You’re never going to live a life 100% free of contingent self-esteem.  But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing!  We all need external barometers to help judge the quality of our lives.  But problems arise when we grow so concerned about those barometers that we allow them to govern how we think and act.  In other words, it’s okay to worry about what others think of you, just not to the point where you compromise your integrity.  That’s the point that Batman failed to spot.  He was so focused on the super-villain of Racism, that he forgot all about the superhero of being Anti-religion.

PS — I highly recommend checking out Sam Harris’ brilliant recap of all this, which includes a clip of the epic battle itself.

Apple + U2 = Major Public Freakout


            THE POP CULTURE

Just when you thought the music industry was deader than that guy Aaron Hernandez shot, it goes and gets itself mouth-to-mouth resuscitated by Tim Cook. For those of you who don’t know who Tim Cook is, he’s Steve Jobs’ replacement at Apple, which means he’s stuck in the shadow of one of the most innovative minds in modern history (played by Ashton Kutcher in the movie. Thanks, Hollywood). So can you really blame Cook for taking a chance on a highly original, albeit radically invasive marketing strategy?

Of course you can. You’re the internet. Spew away…

Just to be clear, these people are engaging in some hardcore outrage porn simply because a company – Apple – gave them a free U2 album without their consent.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that U2 isn’t exactly the most modern band Apple could have chosen, but they’re not Hootie and the Blowfish either. I mean, who doesn’t at least mildly enjoy a U2 song? Sure, Bono can be a little preachy— okay a lot preachy— okay he’s kind of a dick, but most of his songs are catchy and upbeat, which is more than I can say for basically every other band in existence.

So why all the hate? Is it because people don’t like U2? Is it because we resent having our iTunes playlists tampered with (even if the tampering is done by the very company that gave us the playlist in the first place)? Or could it be that all this invasive technology reminds us a bit too much of The Terminator and The Matrix and 1984? (For those of you who don’t read, 1984 is a book by George Orwell. It’s actually one of the best books ever written—ah Christ, never mind).

The answer is, it’s none of those things. Those are all the superficial arguments people make in 140 characters or less. To find out the real source of the problem, we have to dig a little deeper…


Here’s something I bet you already know: Lots of people are control freaks.   There’s even a term in psychology called Control Theory, because shrinks need to have terminology for everything, right? Basically, Control Theory says that people need to have a sense of control and order in their lives, and if that sense of control is violated, the person will respond negatively. Sort of like how your roommate gets pissed when you take a dump in her bathroom. It’s not the fact that you used all her toilet paper or didn’t flush properly that bothers her – even if those are the surface arguments she makes to you while you’re trying to watch football – the real reason she’s angry is because you invaded her private space without her consent. In other words, you violated her sense of control (and you stank up the place).

If only little Timmy Cook had understood Control Theory prior to his “biggest album release ever in history” (douche), he just might have saved himself a massive PR headache. All Apple had to do was give its customers THE OPTION to download the U2 album. Imagine that. Imagine if everyone woke up one day to find a little message on their iTunes that said ‘click here if you’d like to download the latest U2 album free of charge. Just a little gift from your friends at Apple. Happy Ramadan!’

Okay that last line is unnecessary. But the point is, had Apple used this delivery method, its customers wouldn’t have felt so violated on such a deeply personal level. But instead Apple went ahead and downloaded the album onto everyone’s iTunes without their permission. And to a lot of folks, that’s the hi-tech equivalent of Freddy Kruger ass-raping their grandmother with the lights on.

In other words, it’s disturbing.

            THE POPCORN

Half a billion people got the U2 album. I’m willing to bet most of their reactions were somewhere along the lines of: “Oh look, a U2 album. Okay. Whatever.”   But a very vocal minority went into full-on I’ve just been touched in the naughty place mode. It’s temping to dismiss such people as a bunch of hypersensitive d-wads (which of course, they are), but if we do that we risk losing sight of an important principle – one that states that if you violate the average person’s sense of control, regardless of your intentions, that person is going to resent you for it.  

You might want to remember that the next time you borrow your friend’s car without asking, or cheat on your girlfriend, or take a dump in your female roommate’s bathroom while she’s out having Sunday brunch with her friends (who are all very attractive by the way, and now think of you as a total creep). You might even think you’re doing someone a favor – like, say, gifting them a free U2 album – but if you don’t find some way to safeguard the fragile sense of control that most people desperately cling to in this world, they might just end up posting shit like this about you on Twitter: