The Science of Self-Control

Do you know how many articles I have started and abandoned on this topic over the last few weeks?

I would be hard pressed to count them all. But I’m glad I waited.

The topic at hand touches on four points from my 22 in 22: First, learning to escape Dopamine Loop, second, the Hedonic Treadmill, learning something fascinating about human psychology every week and lastly, reading my hardcover Bible every day.

So obviously, if I can get on my high horse about something that seems to be at a relatively central point on my quasi-sacred 22 circle Venn Diagram, I then will not abandon it so quickly. I just had to wait for the pieces to fall into places.

The Dopamine Feedback Loop

First off, let’s talk about the Dopamine Loop. I had, until recently, understood Dopamine to be the chemical in our brain that causes us to feel pleasure. So the Dopamine Loop, according to what I understood, was that the little chemical in our brain became a kind of pleasure addiction.

This chemical has been hijacked by our modern-day communications methods. I mean, who doesn’t get excited when they see the little red dot telling us we have a new text message. Social media takes this to a whole new level…notifications for everything abound. There’s a little hit of pleasure when we see that we have a notification, and from what I understood, this was Dopamine related.

It is Dopamine related, but it’s not so simple as just a chemical that causes us to feel pleasure.

What Dopamine causes is our pleasure seeking behaviors. If the notification is the “pleasure” then, Dopamine is what causes us to go looking for that pleasure.

In the same way as we get urges for sex or food, which go back to our ever-so-exciting (audible eye roll) discussion on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we have urges for human connection…Maslow calls that Belonging. And those notifications feed that urge to belong.

But it’s not just the basic needs that can serve as Dopamine triggers. A desire for information (like googling random Elvis facts at the grocery store, anyone? Anyone?) can be a trigger. Seeking out new experiences. Dopamine causes us to go seeking.

There is another chemical system in our body called the Opioid System (sound familiar? Yup. Like that kind of opioid, only this one is produced naturally in our bodies.) This system causes us to feel satiated. Happy. Full. It is what puts a stop to the pleasure seeking behaviors.

These two systems together: Dopamine and Opioid are like our body’s natural “Self-Control” system. One causes us to go seeking for something we need, the other tells us when to stop seeking.

The only problem is, the more we activate the system, the more it increases our Dopamine production.

More Dopamine production = more seeking behaviors. And that’s how we get into the Dopamine Feedback Loop.

Okay, so that was the science stuff. Now let’s get to the application portion of the program: All last year I gave up buying new things–thus, I for all intents and purposes gave up shopping. And what is shopping other than a…go ahead…guess! That’s right! Shopping is a seeking behavior.

The urge to shop is just like any other urge. The urge for sexual pleasure. The urge to binge on peanut butter M&Ms. The urge to know who currently owns the outfit Elvis was wearing the first time he appeared on television (anyone? Anyone?)

The “Opioid Effect”, the satiated feeling of shopping doesn’t last very long.

What had become tremendously obvious to me after going a certain amount of time without shopping was that as the seeking behaviors stopped (out of tremendous self-control and motivation) slowly, the urges became less urgent. This was simply fact.

Yes, it’s painful. But if I waited long enough without feeding the Dopamine loop, the urge faded. Therefore, I discovered, it is possible to escape the Dopamine Loop.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic Treadmill is the escalation in seeking behaviors to satisfy an urge (Dopamine System)–only to find that we do not remain satisfied (Opioid System) for long. The bar for satisfaction gets raised with each time it is met. So our tiny little desire for one itty-bitty peanut butter M&M quickly turns into an impulse to devour an entire bag of those little temptresses in the bat of an eye.

Not everyone gets pulled onto the Hedonic Treadmill (see Gretchen Rubin‘s discussion of the Abstainer or Moderator tendencies.) The Hedonic Treadmill is a great risk to those of us who do not moderate our behaviors well…for those of us who are not wise enough to recognize when it is time to stop or, because we have lived so long in this Dopamine Loop, that we have impaired our ability to experience satiety (evidence that perhaps our natural Opioid System is out of whack.)

So the urges and the goals keep getting loftier and difficult to satiate. More resources: time, talent, financial resources are required to attain it. Then our desire becomes more dangerous to us, either because the process of obtaining it is dangerous or expensive or time consuming, or because the increasingly lofty object itself is dangerous.

It is at this point that many creative types, according to Living With A Creative Mind, the psychological handbook by Jeff and Julie Crabtree for living with artists, musicians and writers, turn to drugs, alcohol, sex and other addictions, in order to continually be experiencing something new. Something bigger.

Practical Application

These last few weeks have been another one of those roller coasters…the kind I always wish I could avoid. The highs were incredibly high. The lows gave me whiplash and left me disappointed and feeling empty.

In many ways, it has been a roller coaster of my own doing. I mean, I was very caught up in the relative “success” of my new endeavor. Seeking confirmation of success became addictive—checking statistics hourly (although they only update every 24 hours!) led to other checking behaviors, and then what had to happen happened…I very much stepped onto the Hedonic Treadmill.

When I get into that “mode” of constantly seeking approbation, without fail, I get to a point of wishing that I had no desires at all. All the wanting, all the seeking–it takes a toll eventually. Eventually, the emptiness takes over and drives this particular creative person to question everything and to want to quit everything.

And yet, by some small mercy, 22 in 22 oblige, I have been reading the Songs of Ascent, the Psalms in the 120-130 range.

Do you know what some themes of the songs of Ascent are? Waiting. Expectancy. Hope. This means that there is desire. There is something being hoped for.

As I struggled through the darkness that comes with the emptiness created by the Dopamine Feedback Loop and the Hedonic Treadmill, there was one three-word passage in those Songs of Ascent that spoke to my heart:

I will wait.

What I know about myself is that the minute I start hoping for something, my seeking behaviors get triggered. And that innocent hoping, for me, can become toxic. So any perspective on hoping is welcome.

Contentment and Seeking Behaviors

I wrote myself a scribbled little note on my to-do list while out and about this week: The secret to contentment is to first learn how to wait.

As I put the Dopamine Loop and the Opioid System and the Hedonic Treadmill into perspective with my year of no shopping, I realized that, when I am inclined to control the “seeking behaviors”, I can cut the wanting off at the knee.

And how exactly does one control the “seeking behaviors?” I mean, we can’t live our lives going one year without doing this, or one year without doing that.

I’m so glad you asked. By waiting. Waiting longer than we want to. Waiting longer than we think we should.

It’s such a small thing, to wait. It seems so insignificant. But its opposite, seeking, is a surefire way to get into the Dopamine Loop, and to step back onto the Hedonic Treadmill.

So how do you wait? How do you wait? I repeat thoughtfully.

I mean, waiting stinks. There is no immediate reward to waiting. By definition

In French, there is an expression that says, “La nuit porte conseil,” which means “Night counsels us.” Or, “Sleep on it.” So…how do we wait? Well to start with, we sleep on it. Whatever it is.

It’s not always easy to stop ourselves “mid-seek”. But doing so is still better than getting caught up in that horrible cycle of craving and wanting more. It’s a different kind of “this stinks.”

I have discovered, over these last few weeks, how insidious the “seeking behaviors” can be. As simple as looking someone up on social media to see what they’re up to. Or opening the Amazon app. Or saying, “Hey Siri…”

Our modern conveniences have made “seeking behaviors” easier to accomplish and seemingly more innocent. Unfortunately, our (my!) ability to control those behaviors has not adapted at the same rate.

One simple thing I have been trying to do lately is to simply ask myself, “What are you seeking?” and then, once I have an answer, simply tell myself “I think you can wait on that one.”

For the chronic overthinker I am, to know that there is actual science to backup my lack of self-control and seeming inability to stop anything, it gives me back a tiny bit of power. Knowledge is power. What’s more, to have an example from my own experience to prove that I can, that I am strong enough to hack the chemical systems at the origin of what seems to be the single greatest creator of dissatisfaction in my life, means I have motivation to try again.

What this means is that there is science to the virtue of Self-Control. And therefore, one of the virtues in which I am greatly lacking is one that I can measurably increase through the Scientific Method. In which case, the Philosopher Princess, that nosy, annoying woman who loves to talk about virtue all the time, will be very very pleased that I have finally hit on this.

I would go wake her up to tell her, but I guess I would just be seeking her approval.

So I will wait.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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