Another aspect of being unable to move past the present moment and plan for the future is how the neurotransmitter dopamine influences our actions. Humans abide by the pleasure principle; we seek pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible, even subconsciously. Acting self-disciplined very rarely brings you pleasure, and most of the time it actively brings some measure of pain or at least discomfort. That’s a problem. We must change the way we think about pleasure and pain, and who we want to benefit the most: in most cases, your future self.
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The Brain That Works Against You
Almost nobody will argue against the importance of self-discipline, even if they know they fall short in practicing it on a daily basis.
Anyone with some life experience under their belt knows that they can accomplish more with a healthy sense of constraint and willpower. If they haven’t always exhibited self-control themselves, at least they’ve seen examples of successful people who have – and they’ll readily admit that such people at least appear to get more done than those without self-control.
Why do we fight against our own self-interests when it comes to instilling discipline into our own lives? Is it just that we don’t want to eat our vegetables? Not quite. Unfortunately, a major reason – a more general reason that directly or indirectly causes each of the five mental hindrances – is the brain itself.
The brain is a network. It’s fundamentally composed of nerve cells, or neurons. These neurons communicate to each other through chemical reactions – an impulse in one nerve fiber gets activated, then is converted into a chemical that flies across the gap and is received by another nerve fiber. This act, multiplied by about a trillion times a day, basically controls everything we do, say, or think.
That chemical that’s flying across the gap is called a neurotransmitter, and different neurotransmitters are responsible for different communications to the brain. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that our thoughts and reactions are determined by these chemicals. Self-discipline is especially tied to a specific neurotransmitter: dopamine.
Dopamine is one of the agents that work on the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. In other words, when we experience pleasure or reward of some type, dopamine is usually at the root of it – the greater the amount of dopamine released, the greater the pleasure we feel. It happens during and after a pleasurable event – you feel it while you are eating a dozen donuts and also after you finish a great workout at the gym. However, dopamine is also released in anticipation of pleasure or reward, which ties it directly to self-discipline.
It sabotages it.
The reality of the matter is that we are all dopamine junkies. We want it right now and as soon as possible. Our brains crave it, and it plays a big part in telling us when to act or stop. This trait makes it difficult for us to ignore something that gives us instant dopamine in favor of delayed dopamine, even if it will be substantially greater at a later point. Why go to the gym when you can eat a pie right now, even if you know what’s better for you?
Dopamine is what we seek, and this causes us to be ruled by one of the most well-known theories concerning human behavior – the pleasure principle. The reason it’s so renowned is because it’s also the easiest to understand. The pleasure principle was first raised in public consciousness by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, though researchers as far back as Aristotle in ancient Greece noted how easily we could be manipulated by pleasure and pain.
The pleasure principle asserts that the human mind does everything it can to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. It doesn’t think; it doesn’t analyze; it just acts like a blind animal urgently moving in the direction that it feels more pleasure and less pain. It doesn’t have any sense of restraint. It is primal and unfiltered. It doesn’t get simpler than that. An apt comparison, in fact, is a drug addict who will stop at nothing to get another taste of narcotics.
There are a few rules that govern the pleasure principle:
Every decision we make is based on gaining pleasure or avoiding pain in some way. You may have heard about the debate that there is no truly altruistic and selfless act in the world. According to this principle, there definitely isn’t. Even giving to charity would in some way bring pleasure or avoid pain. No matter what we do in the course of our day, it all gets down to the pleasure principle. You get a haircut because you think it will make you more attractive to someone else, which will make you happy, which is pleasure.
Conversely, you wear a protective mask while you’re using a blowtorch because you want to avoid sparks flying into your face and eyes, because that will be painful. If you trace all of our decisions back, whether short-term or long-term, you’ll find that they all stem from a small set of pleasures or pains.
Self-discipline corollary: doing what we need to do is often painful and devoid of pleasure, so we don’t do it.
People work harder to avoid pain than to get pleasure. Your behaviors will skew toward pain avoidance more than pleasure-seeking. The instinct to survive a threatening situation is more immediate than eating your favorite candy bar, for instance. You would rather avoid getting punched in the face than drink your favorite whiskey.
Self-discipline corollary: giving up is often less painful than persevering. So we give up.
Our perceptions of pleasure and pain are more powerful drivers than the actual things. When our brain is judging between what will be a pleasant or painful experience, it’s working from scenarios that we think could result if we took a course of action. And sometimes those scenarios can be flawed. In fact, they are mostly flawed.
For instance, you might be deathly afraid of heights. Sky-diving would naturally be your worst nightmare. It is for me, anyway.
You might have no idea how it feels. You have probably never gone bungee-jumping or even ridden a roller-coaster. Perhaps the most you’ve tested your fear of heights is standing on the balcony of your two-story house. But the thought of jumping out of a plane makes you physically nauseous. You imagine how the feeling of weightlessness is a precursor to death. You imagine that you will indeed die.
But you haven’t actually tried it. All you have are perceptions and assumptions, and that’s enough to magnify the pain of sky-diving to extremes. Incidentally, sky-diving has an incredibly low rate of accidents and is over within a series of minutes. Your brain deals in the business of worst-case scenarios.