I’d define a compulsion as an act which your brain chemistry compelled you to do, but then did not reward you for

You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff...
You get it? Because dopamine makes you, like, want stuff…

Still pondering The Willpower Instinct. For me, the most revelatory chapter was the one on how when we want something, we assume it’ll make us happy (or at least bring us pleasure), even though that’s often not the case. In this chapter, the author explains that dopamine is the brain chemical that mediates how much we want something, however it has nothing to do with how much we enjoy it. Thus, when we do things, we’re trying to stimulate the release of dopamine in our brain…but that release does not correspond to a feeling of pleasure. The only subjective emotion that we experience is a cessation of wanting.

Now, I sort of already knew that, but I had mostly heard about it in the context of smoking cigarettes. I know from personal experience that the magnitude of the compulsion to smoke is in no way mirrored by the pleasure that a cigarette brings. I wanted to smoke much more than I actually enjoyed the act of smoking.

However, dopamine is also the culprit in lots of compulsive behaviors. For instance, internet browsing–the compulsion to click on another link or open another tab or go to another webpage or check your email one more time–is all based on this desire: this implicit promise that if we do these things, then there’s a chance of pleasure. But, actually, the compulsion is far greater than the desire. The maximum joy I’m going to get from reading an article on the web is much less than the need that I feel to go and find one to click on.

There’s also a corollary to this, which is that some things bring us pleasure but only carry a very weak desire. For instance, now that I’ve started regularly exercising, I can finally attest: exercising does make you happy. It’s a remarkably good and robust feeling. I know that after I exercise I’m going to feel much better–oftentimes for a good 3-6 hours–than I did before it. Nonetheless, I still feel very little desire to exercise.

It’s just a quirk of our neurochemistry. Possibly there’s something evolutionary involved here. Maybe our brain gains some evolutionary advantage tofromrewarding us for exertion, but little evolutionary advantage from encouraging us to engage in unnecessary exertion? I don’t know.

But this information has had pretty profound implications for my world view. You see, I had always more-or-less seen life as a trade-off between momentary pleasure and attaining lasting goals (like being productive and maintaining my health). I think this comes from drinking. For me, drinking heavily was really fun. When I stopped drinking, I lost that pleasure. And this is a pretty classic framework that influences lots of human beings: the idea that life is a choice between sense-pleasure and a deeper, more spiritual sense of joy.

But I think I was ignoring the fact that lots of things aren’t really like drinking. I do (or did) so many things that don’t really bring me much pleasure. Watching the day’s seventh episode of Law and Order isn’t pleasurable. Browsing the internet for three hours isn’t pleasurable. Checking my email twenty times a day isn’t pleasurable. Buying a gadget isn’t really pleasurable (or, actually, browsing for new gadgets is pleasurable…actually spending money on them is not that pleasurable).

But I was constrained by my worldview. I assumed that because I wanted to do these things, then there must be some value in them.

Now I feel very liberated.

This has mainly made itself clear to me in my attitude while I am reading. Normally, when I am reading, I feel a constant desire to interrupt myself and look something up on Wikipedia or check my email or see what happened on Facebook. And I not-infrequently give in to these desires. When I do, I assume (in some unconscious way) that Facebook was just more interesting to me than the book was.

But that’s not true at all. Reading is actually far more pleasurable than browsing the internet, but it doesn’t carry a strong compulsion in the way that Facebook does. I think that’s because reading isn’t fast and colorful and unpredictable. Anyway, now I’ve learned to recognize that compulsion for what it is and to tell myself, “No. The Facebook actually isn’t a more pleasurable activity than reading Our Mutual Friend.”

And that feels really good. The world makes much more sense now.

2 thoughts on “I’d define a compulsion as an act which your brain chemistry compelled you to do, but then did not reward you for

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, towards the end of my drinking career it got like that too. Some nights I could tell that I just wasn’t going to get euphoric–I was going to skip right to feeling miserable–but I kept drinking anyway.

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