Dopamine: Why We Always Want What We Don’t Have

Dopamine is commonly thought of as the “pleasure” chemical in our brain, but the reality is that dopamine makes us want things—and often inhibits our ability to enjoy them. A fascinating new book by Daniel Lieberman and Michael Long called The Molecule of More describes how dopamine drives us to succeed and create, allows us to become addicted, and has helped the human race survive. At least, until now.

The subtitle of Lieberman and Long’s book is How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. At first it might sound like an overstatement to say that a single neurotransmitter could determine the future of humanity. But once you understand how dopamine drives our choices and behavior, its role in our survival—or potential demise—is clear.

In this post I’ll explain what dopamine is, what it makes us feel and do, what happens when the balance is off, and how dopamine will affect our future.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is an organic chemical that acts as both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. In our brain, dopamine is released by dopamine-producing neurons in order to send signals to other neurons. Throughout our body, dopamine plays a role in the function of our immune system, kidneys, pancreas, digestive system, and circulatory system. Dopamine does not cross the blood-brain barrier, so the dopamine we need in our brain is produced in the brain, and dopamine we need throughout our body is for the most part synthesized near where it’s going to be used.

There are six major dopamine pathways in the brain. Two of them—the mesolimbic pathway and the mesocortical pathway—are the focus of The Molecule of More. These are the pathways in which dopamine drives our desire for more and anticipation of the future. The nigrostriatal pathway is involved in motor control; lack of dopamine in this circuit causes the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which I’ll discuss in a future post. And lack of dopamine in another pathway, the hypothalamospinal projection, is thought to contribute to restless legs syndrome.

As you can see in the diagram below, dopamine that’s used in the mesolimbic and mesocortical pathways (shown in purple) is produced in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). The dopamine is then projected to the nucleus accumbens (mesolimbic pathway) or the prefrontal cortex (mesocortical pathway).

dopamine pathways

How dopamine has helped us survive

When you’re enjoying the food on your plate and your partner by your side, neurotransmitters including serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and endocannabinoids are at work. These chemicals give you pleasure from sensation, emotion, and what you’re experiencing in the present moment.

In contrast, dopamine is future-focused. It makes you look up from your plate and around the room and wonder: Does that food taste better? Will that person make me happier?

Dopamine then sends the signal to get up and get what you want. It motivates you to pursue, possess, and control things that are currently out of your reach and might aid in your survival. So instead of being the pleasure chemical, dopamine is actually the anticipation chemical.

It’s easy to see how dopamine has played a critical role in getting us to where we are today. It spurred our ancestors to forage for plant food, hunt animals, seek shelter, and migrate to new parts of the world. Dopamine in the mesolimbic and mesocortical pathways does different things, but both pathways are focused on our future success.

The mesolimbic pathway is the desire circuit: It makes you want what you don’t have. The mesocortical pathway is the control circuit: It rationally plans out how to control the future. The dopamine control circuit takes the urges of desire dopamine and figures out how to use them to your advantage. The control circuit works with abstract concepts, imagining what might be possible in the future and calculating how to make that future happen. If you consider yourself to be a highly dopaminergic, future-focused person, you may see that your personality leans more toward desire or control.

Addicts, workaholics, creators, and liberals

Addiction occurs when the desire circuit is overstimulated and thrown into a pathological state. Alcohol, drugs, sex, and gambling trigger the release of dopamine in the desire circuit, and this is what makes these substances and behaviors addictive. A dopamine rush is euphoric, not because it’s pleasurable in a mellow, appreciating-the-present-moment kind of way, but because it feels energizing and exciting—it’s the thrill of getting something you want.

When the dopamine rush is over, the “low” is lower than it was before, making the addict crave more. And unfortunately, the desire circuit adapts over time; it releases less and less dopamine in response to continued use of a substance. This is why it takes increasingly larger doses for addicts to get high. Many addicts describe continuing to use their drug of choice not to get high, but simply to get relief from their low.

High levels of dopamine in the control circuit can be dangerous as well. People can get addicted to success, relentlessly working toward their goals while never stopping to enjoy what they’ve achieved. This is an imbalance between control dopamine and the neurotransmitters that allow us to appreciate the present moment. Dopamine release in the control circuit actually suppresses the release of those “present moment” happy chemicals. For people addicted to control circuit dopamine, chasing the dopamine rush can lead to perpetual dissatisfaction.

Creative people, like artists, inventors, philosophers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, tend to have high levels of dopamine. To create requires thinking abstractly, solving hypothetical problems, and imagining something other than your current reality. When some people go on dopaminergic medications, they experience enhanced creativity and suddenly take up a new artistic hobby.

A downside of creative genius is when people become so absorbed in their imaginary world that they lose sense of reality. Creative people are more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; in our brain function and genetics, being able to think outside the box can be on a spectrum with losing control of our emotions and experiencing delusions.

Even our political leanings can be determined by dopamine. Liberals tend to be progressive, imagining an ideal future world and inviting change. Conservatives typically prefer to maintain the best of what they already have, and can be skeptical of idealism and radical change. Which party do you think tends to have higher levels of dopamine? Scientists have even found a genetic link between higher dopamine levels and liberal ideology. And a political party map of the U.S. clearly shows how parts of the country (like California and the northeast) where highly dopaminergic people, like entrepreneurs, academics, and entertainers, congregate tend to vote blue.

Will dopamine destroy the human race?

Dopamine has served us well, but our world is changing faster than our biology can adapt. On an individual level, it’s easy to see how dopamine can negatively affect our lives. It makes us want that doughnut because it will help us stay alive in the future. It makes us want a bigger house, a nicer car, and more clothes. And it makes us want to work constantly to make more money. But for those of us in developed countries, these things rarely improve our chances of survival. When our basic needs are met, constantly wanting more only serves to worsen our health, empty our bank account, and prevent true happiness.

Lieberman and Long describe how on a larger scale our drive toward greater and greater consumption and dominance is destroying us. We’re depleting our natural resources, building nuclear weapons that can wipe us out, and developing artificial intelligence that has the potential to outsmart us.

Some of the smartest people in the world, like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, think that colonizing other planets soon is necessary for our survival. This is a great example of dopamine’s power to affect the fate of the human race. Hawking was and Musk is undeniably brilliant, and Musk and Bezos are capable of attracting many people to follow their lead. But their high levels of dopamine have led them to think that colonization of space—which so far has shown to be an inhospitable environment for human life—is a realistic short-term solution to our resource problems here on Earth and preferable to figuring out how to make this planet work for us.

Finding balance, happiness, and success

There’s no question that high levels of dopamine helped our ancestors survive. But Lieberman and Long advise us that maintaining a balance between dopamine and our “present moment” neurotransmitters is the key to being happy in our modern world and successful as a species.

Somewhat surprisingly, a 2015 survey of over 30,000 people found that the happiest employees were construction workers. Their number one reason for enjoying their work was that they “work with great people”—a very “present moment” reason. Their second reason was that they were “excited about their work and projects”—a future-focused reason.

Along those same lines, one of the best ways to engage both the future and present-focused parts of your brain is to do hands-on crafts and projects, like painting, woodworking, knitting, sewing, cooking, and gardening. These activities use dopamine to come up with an artistic vision and figure out how to make it happen, and “present moment” neurotransmitters to carry out the tasks and then enjoy the fruits of your labor. (I’ll talk more about ways to balance out your neurotransmitters in a future post.)

Finding a happy balance can feel challenging, but we’re very lucky to be at a point where our basic needs are met and we don’t need to constantly focus on the future in order to survive. Lieberman and Long eloquently sum it up: “It’s sensory reality and abstract thought working together that unlocks the brain’s full potential.” Overcoming our obsession with more allows us to experience the best way of being human—letting our ideas flow while appreciating the bounty of what we already have.