On Being Dopamine Dependent

I have a shopping addiction. Not one of the ones where I’m secretly in extreme credit card debt, but certainly one of the ones where I utilize impulsive purchases and the presence of small packages on the front door to give me a dopamine boost. Wandering the isles at Ulta or Sephora to find another face mask that just might be the one or snagging a new top from Target because, “Why not? It’s just little $20 treat?”

The addiction’s never been a real problem -the hits are small and I’m fortunate to have the disposable income available -except for the fact it bothers me. One shouldn’t be bound to material things to satisfy longing. Or at least, that’s the philosophy I’d like to embody. That and to not perpetuate needless waste.

Not truly a New Year’s resolution, since January I’ve tried to stop this bad habit by replacing it with a better one which also brings me joy -budgeting. Every purchase -or lack of it- tabulated and charted against goals, each daily review a new hit of pleasure if I hit the target. Pleasure at the success of meeting commitments in place of buying stuff.

And yet, because I’ve been successful in curtailing spending, there’s less spending to track. Therefore, there are fewer pleasure hits. Therefore in being more successful, I’m getting less pleasure.

What is a girl to do but use this as an opportunity to contemplate the nature of desire?

The Nature of Desire

The word ‘desire’ in English language smacks of sexual connotation. We think of desire when we think of lust and romance -heaven knows it was when I searched for images relating to “desire”. But desire isn’t bound to feelings of love. Desire is all about the feeling of “wanting”.

Currently I’m reading “Dopamine Nation” by Anne Lembke and within the past year I’ve read Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last”. Both books discuss the nature of desire as it relates to chemical reward pathways. Dopamine pathways built when we lived in a world of scarcity to drive us towards obtaining things we needed to survive -food and shelter.

The world we live today is no longer one of scarcity, but one of abundance -Lembke argues. No longer must we wander the Sahara or tundra to survive. Instead, we’re rats in the cage where it’s all too easy to push a button and earn a reward. We’re drowning -in health, in debt, in happiness -from our ability to easily fulfill our desires.

If our world is one of desire fulfillment and our bodies still programmed to seek it, can we ever escape it? Or rather, must we instead tame it?

Can Wanting Be Eliminated?

“The only conquest that brings peace and happiness is self-conquest”

-What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

Alongside my ever present “popular culture” reading, the past few years have added Buddhist studies. Founded during the ultimate time of longing -Covid isolation, Buddhism was appealing because of it’s harsh reality. “You are unhappy because you want life to be different than it is. But it is what it is, and in accepting this, you can find happiness.” A hefty summation, but my takeaway nonetheless.

From this perspective, we’ve always been the rats earning rewards, seeking a better life than the one we currently have. Buddhism has its own set of principles for how to concur these feelings of desire. For practical applications to modern life, I’ll refer you to “Think Like a Monk” by Jay Shetty. Much comes down to mindfulness -slowing down to watch yourself reacting rather than participating in the reacting.

Buddhist teachings make it easier to see the end goal, but putting it into practice remains difficult. If I were to go to the extremes, I could take the monk approaching -denying all things to learn to live without. However, as they would also say, isolation makes it easy; it’s much harder to learn to balance life in the village.

I’m doubtful I’ll ever be able to reign it in fully, too far routed in the “Goal-Achieving” pathway. But it’s good to have aspirations.

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