Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects your mood, focus, energy, and behavior. Often termed the “feel good” chemical in your brain, it impacts your feelings, internal motivation, memory, attention, and even body movement.
It may be the scientific way to find happiness.
Your friends may believe happiness comes from healthy relationships or having a job you love. But isn’t it more interesting to find out what neuroscientists say? After all, they’re the ones studying our brains.
Neuroscientists have found that happiness is actually tied to a tiny chemical in your brain – dopamine.
It can help you:
- Lose Weight
- Fight Depression
- Increase Motivation
- Improve Memory
- Feel Happier
- Improve Self-regulation
- Can Help Avoid Parkinson’s Disease
- Improve Motor Control
- Reduce Compulsive Behaviors & Thought Patterns
- Increase Feelings of Satisfaction
Here is Psychology Today’s definition of dopamine:
“Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional response, and it enables us to not only see rewards, but to take action and move toward them.”
How Dopamine Impacts Your Body
Research has found that dopamine could be the most significant factor in whether you experience positive emotions and motivation. Your brain creates dopamine through a complicated process that involves two areas of your brain. One area affects motor control and physical movement; while the other signals our brain when we receive a reward.
When you feel cravings for chocolate or pizza, that is a result of your neurons firing away creating dopamine. Your body has learned that these experiences temporarily increase your dopamine production which propels you to continue seeking out these pleasurable experiences again and again.
On the negative side, drugs like cocaine and heroin can cause huge boosts in dopamine production and these “highs” can leave an individual craving another “hit,” leading to drug abuse and addiction.
Alternately, without the brain cells that produce dopamine, a person would experience significant challenges in initiating even simple body movements and feeling pleasure from any activities in their life. Individuals who have reduced dopamine production can struggle with depression, obesity, and a number of other health conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease (source).
Dopamine is also tied to your productivity levels as it is what propels you to want to accomplish a goal, and to find the motivation to get up and get after it (source).
So, how can you increase your levels of dopamine in the brain?
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to increase dopamine naturally to stay motivated, productive, and happy.
How to Increase Dopamine Naturally
1) Avoid Sugar & Sweeteners
Sugar activates your brain’s signal to release dopamine. Once in a while, this is not problematic. However, consistent ingestion of sugary foods can change your neurological response to sugar. You begin to crave even greater levels of sugar as your dopamine response has adapted and now demands a higher amount of sugar in order to activate your dopamine production. What this means is that in order to feel happy when you eat food, you will need to increase your consumption of sugar (source). This can cause problems like stress-eating and sugar addictions, both of which have a similar effect on your brain as a drug addiction.
Cutting sugar from your diet returns your dopamine production to normal after a short time. Expect anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks for your body to adjust. Eventually, you will find your body stops craving sugar as intensely once you’ve eliminated it from your diet. This helps your body produce dopamine responses that are not tied to sugar, giving you the motivation to do things that are good for you instead of propelling you to eat sugary food.
2) Turn Your Phone Off
Have you ever watched a movie on your phone and then felt oddly empty or unmotivated afterward? Maybe you’ve spent an afternoon browsing facebook and no longer feel like doing anything afterward. If this sounds familiar, there is a scientific reason behind it. According to a recent study, the electromagnetic radiation from your cell phone can actually interrupt and inhibit your dopamine production.
One way to help your dopamine production is to get off your phone and electronic devices.
Turn your phone off, go enjoy some sunshine, exercise, or simply do anything away from an electronic gadget. You may be amazed at how quickly your dopamine kicks in after setting the phone down and doing something that helps provide a dopamine boost.
3) Enjoy the Sunshine
Not only does putting down your phone improve your dopamine levels, but soaking up some sunshine increases your dopamine production as well. If you are feeling unmotivated, lethargic, and wanting to increase dopamine naturally, it may be time to take a walk and allow natural light and a little exercise to have its effect.
Just getting outdoors can have wonderful health benefits, dopamine production being one. In a study conducted on 68 healthy individuals, it was found that those who had the most sunlight exposure had the highest density of dopamine receptors in both the reward and movement regions of their brains.
Even if you live in a cold environment, grab a jacket, go for a walk, and drink in the sun. Your brain will thank you.
We’ve all heard this. Not only can exercise help you lose weight, but it can make you less stressed and more productive. Specifically, it boosts dopamine, endorphins and serotonin – a beautiful cocktail of neurotransmitters that will make you feel a lot better.
The best bit?
The exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous. Simply taking a walk or climbing some stairs will achieve a good dopamine hit.
Recent studies have even begun to suggest that exercise may restore mental health by boosting critical neurotransmitters. Not only does exercise increase dopamine naturally, but it can have a profound impact on your neural circuitry and mental health. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki gave a TED talk on the mental health benefits of exercise and stated,
“A single workout that you do will immediately increase levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. That is going to increase your mood right after that workout … My lab showed that a single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention, and that focused improvement will last for at least two hours.”
5) Take Supplements to Increase Dopamine Production
Like many functions of our body, we can help it along naturally with supplements. In the same way we can take vitamins to assist our body’s natural function, there are some natural supplements that boost will boost your dopamine levels.
Here’s a list of some of the supplements that increase dopamine levels naturally.
Of all the chemicals that affect dopamine production, the most important is tyrosine. Tyrosine is considered the building block of dopamine. If you want to start by supplementing your diet with one thing, begin with adding foods rich in tyrosine.
Fortunately, there are a long list of foods that increase Tyrosine, including:
- Green Tea
6) Get Some Sleep
After a night of tossing and turning, you likely feel grumpy and unmotivated. A lack of sleep can dramatically impact our mood and productivity. In reverse, a good night’s sleep will boost your dopamine production and give you extra motivation to tackle the tasks in the day ahead.
Try hitting the hay a little earlier and establishing a set sleeping schedule. If you struggle to fall asleep or are restless at night, you may need to consider investing in a comfortable bed and light blocking curtains. You may also want to try these breathing techniques to help fall asleep in 30 seconds or less.
7) Eat More Protein & Less Saturated Fats
Have you ever heard that you are what you eat? Well, in some cases, it’s true. Protein-rich foods (like beef, eggs, and legumes) are high in tyrosine which is a necessary nutrient for your body to produce dopamine.
However, studies have shown that saturated fats like those found in butter and animal fat may disrupt your body’s production of dopamine. One study even found a reduced ability to experience pleasure from reward (a dopamine response and a feature of depression) was found in rats with a diet high in saturated fats. They also found that the same correlation in a study of women with obesity.
A healthy diet is a key factor in your emotional health. There are a number of diets that can have a positive impact on your health and which are designed to improve your well-being.
8) Checklist small tasks
Dopamine is released whenever we complete a goal.
The best bit?
It doesn’t matter how big or small that goal was!
So, write down all the tasks that you need to complete by the end of day, no matter how small. Every time you check them off, you’ll trigger a release of dopamine in the brain.
Research has shown that more dopamine is released when we physically check a task off our to-do list. So get checking!
If you have a large project to accomplish, break it up into small micro-goals. Each task that you complete will help your brain recognize a micro-reward and, in turn, will create a future dopamine response before you even achieve a goal. This will propel you through those long projects that seem unending by giving your brain a kick of dopamine to push you from micro-goal to micro-goal!
9) Get focused on something you enjoy
Have you ever noticed that you become hyper-focused when you’re doing something you’re passionate about? Psychologists say that during these times we enter a psychological state called “flow”. Journalist, Steven Kotler has created a video series that dives into the neurochemical changes that occur during these “flow” states. His conclusion is that in a flow state your “brain produces a giant cascade of neurochemistry. You get norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. All five of these are performance enhancing neurochemicals.”
What does this mean in practical language? It means that when you are doing something you love, your brain is producing a myriad of chemicals that not only increase your enjoyment while doing the activity, but also provide ongoing motivation to engage in other activities in the future.
If all the science talk doesn’t get you excited, then just remember that doing an activity that you love will produce happy chemicals in your body that make you more productive and happier in all of life.
So go ahead and get passionate and focused on something you enjoy. Your brain will thank you for it.
10) Plan Your Life
While some people enjoy planning, others are more spontaneous. Whether you are a planner or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of person, planning your life a little in advance and then following through with it, will create a dopamine response that will encourage you to continue making and keeping plans.
Maybe this sounds like poking your eye with a sharp stick right now, but over time, you’ll develop a consistent dopamine response that creates a feeling of happiness and accomplishment whenever you make plans. It is interesting to note that many people fight the desire to plan their life, but in making plans for your future and working towards those plans with micro-goals, you can increase your dopamine naturally while achieving the life you really want.
If this just sounds like an excuse to do what you already love to do, then you’re on the right track! Keep making plans and following through, and you’ll find your body loves to create a dopamine response to help you on your way.
Plenty of research studies are finding benefits to meditation.
One of the worst ways to get yourself down and reduce your dopamine levels is by overthinking.
Meditation helps you quiet your mind so you can relax and let life be. It can help you develop new neural pathways and entirely new mental circuitry. It allows your brain to rewire and can increase your dopamine production while you aren’t doing anything. Taking the time to slow down and allow your brain this space will create a happier, healthier, and more productive you.
If you want to be more productive and increase dopamine naturally, you need to slow down and create space for meditation, prayer, or silent contemplation and reflection.
This is not a time to allow every worry and thought to invade your mind and overthink every life decision. This is a time to focus on your breathing, quiet your mind, and reflect introspectively on your life and the world around you. If you need a place to start, begin by listening to your breath and body and then expand your listening to the sounds around you. Remove thoughts and worries and simply inhale and exhale.
There are a hundred recommendations on how to meditate, but I’ve found the best place to start is by listening quietly and not allowing your own mind and thoughts to invade. This listening posture has a calming effect and proven neurological dopamine response.
The Bottom Line
Dopamine is produced by a neurological process that involves reward and motivation. It is not necessarily what makes you feel happy, as much as it is what motivates you to do something that will make you feel happy.
Dopamine is tied up in the wanting versus the enjoying. When you experience desire for something, you are experiencing the effect of dopamine at work in your body. It is possible to train your body to produce dopamine in new ways by doing things you love and accomplishing goals, small or large.
If are struggling to find motivation to live life fully, remember that you can train your dopamine response to help you out. Life is meant to be really lived and your body is designed to help you live it fully. Take advantage of your neurological processes and help it out by engaging in activities that will increase your dopamine naturally. You may be amazed to find that you are happier, healthier, and more productive when you begin to work with your body and its natural processes.