Dopamine fasting is to detox from that feel-good high, when dopamine is released into your system with food, sex, drugs, alcohol, social media, TV, technology and other sources of pleasure you identify with, as a reward.
Dopamine fasting doesn’t mean the absence of dopamine, as the chemical is needed for natural and healthy processes in the body. It’s a motivational chemical, which is both hormone and neurotransmitter, and is an important part of the reward system of the brain. Too much dopamine is associated with longing and craving, overuse of our pleasure centres and eventually with addictive behaviour, as we are enslaved to greater and greater doses of reward to feel good.
In neuroscience, this anticipation of reward is called “wanting,” often activated by triggers. For example, a smoker may have quit, but when circumstances are right, like taking a coffee break, the brain’s reward system is triggered; there’s a strong urge to light up. Not succumbing to cigarettes, social media or chocolate, doesn’t reduce the level of dopamine in the brain, because dopamine is needed for everyday functioning. The brain is re-educated to break the cycle of habit.
When we become used to rewards, releasing more dopamine into our system, our gratification becomes ineffective through overuse, like blunt scissors.
We need larger and more frequent doses than before. A lot more energy is invested for the same reward; we become saturated easily.
There’s a flipside – we avoid pain and suffering, so our “pain scissors” are underused and extremely sharp. We become highly sensitive, and cannot deal with pain when we encounter it. Our level of resilience becomes less.
This whole cycle affects our happiness. If we think of happiness as the satisfaction of desires, or in the terminology of neuroscience the satisfaction of “wanting,” then both the number and magnitude of our desires matter. If five out of ten desires are fulfilled, there is 50% happiness. If all are fulfilled, there is 100% happiness. The more the desires, the harder they are to fulfill. Happiness is inversely related to the number of desires. Also, the magnitude of each desire matters: perhaps my desire for social media was half an hour a day, thrice a week, two years ago, but now it is four hours every day.
In a desire-less state there is no “wanting,” — the ultimate happiness. But it’s not possible to live without desires. We could minimize desires, and dopamine fasting is one way to do this. We recalibrate our system by reducing the amount of stimulation to dopamine neurons. Then we are less dependent on rewards.
How to live with desires and not let them affect us? The answer is to achieve inner contentment. In Yoga, inner contentment is one of the Niyamas of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. And it is this state of contentment that most of us are searching for, the reason we try to fill the void with “wanting.” We search for contentment in rewards, but even when we have those rewards, we will not be happy until we experience real inner contentment. The reward for external things is temporary and potentially addictive, whereas inner contentment is permanent.
The author is president-guide of Heartfulness Institute.