A couple of weeks ago Matthew revealed he is going to explore Costa Rica partly because he felt that consumer societies based on the pursuit of money and material goods may not be the answer to happiness and wellbeing.
I wanted to write a post exploring this a bit further and look at how so many of us are tricked into blindly chasing down money and material goods.
It all starts with the release of a dopamine in the brain. This is part of our body’s natural reward system that influences our thoughts and actions more than you realise.
As marketers we use dopamine production techniques to manipulate your attention and hijack your reward systems in a cunning plan to separate you from your money.
Don’t think you are too smart to be tricked. It is a biological reaction that you have no control over.
Thinking you can beat it makes you the perfect target.
Dopamine Production Is Easier Than Ever Before
Thanks to the rapid growth of technology and social media, taking advantage of dopamine in the brain through marketing is easier than ever before.
Smartphones, laptops, PCs, game consoles, Facebook & Twitter etc provide us with the things we are biologically programmed to need.
Like connecting with others socially, something that’s deeply rooted in humans. Our brains release the dopamine reward every time we use them.
Tasty food samples as you enter a supermarket get your dopamine production neurons fired up, grabbing our attention, leaving us vulnerable to temptation and impulsive behaviour.
Interestingly, dopamine neurons are less responsive to familiar rewards; hence the reason why Starbucks keep changing up their menu and why McDonald’s keeps adding new food items.
Most food is manufactured with the right combination of sugar, salt and fat to get our dopamine production running riot.
The scent marketing industry is built around using smell to release dopamine and influence peoples buying decisions.
If you take 2 groups of people and show the same product, the group subjected to the right scent in the air perceive the same item as higher quality with a higher price tag.
Lotteries use dopamine in the form of “imagine what you could do with one million dollars” – They use your own imagination to paint the picture and deliver dopamine in the brain.
The bells ringing, lights flashing, half naked women waitresses, cheap booze and all-you-can-eat buffets are also big dopamine spikers.
Stores put their most tempting items front and centre to get your dopamine levels up on arrival.
Gamification, another dopamine driven concept is the elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, leaderboards) to other areas of activity. Typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.
For years, loyalty programmes have used gamification principles to encourage use and increase engagement.
What Is Dopamine In The Brain Exactly?
Dopamine causes us to seek reward but not to reward us, it also causes frustration and anxiety.
Marketers use this feature best with “closing down specials”, “limited quantity deals” and events like black Friday.
Your primitive hunter/gatherer instinct kicks in with a rush of dopamine production and we head out to reduce this anxiety.
Matthew is a wise old (well young) bird and has a valid point in his reasoning to travel outside of capitalist/consumerist society’s.
This can be clearly illustrated by the study of our brain chemistry – specifically the neurotransmitter or brain chemical, dopamine.
This brain chemical is responsible for most social ills in capitalist countries.
When you read about “dopamine production and the false promise of reward”, you will start to appreciate how useless the quest for pleasure, happiness and satisfaction through the constant pursuit of rewards really is.
In essence your tricked into chasing your own tail in pursuit of happiness. Learn more about it here.
The Rise Of Neuromarketing
The rise of neuroscience and marketing or neuromarketing is not new, but we are getting better at it to control consumers.
It’s all about the promise of reward, linked to the release of dopamine in the brain.
Not only does it propel us to falsely desire something, but it’s so powerful we end up wanting things we don’t want or have a use for.
Ultimately it confuses us into doing things we wouldn’t normally have done had our brains not been flooded with dopamine.
You Have Been Fooled
I’ll let you in to a secret, you’ve been duped.
The brain is not actually that interested in happiness – I can hear the gasps.
It is more occupied with preserving our primal survival instincts like passing on our genes and sourcing food or taking on extra calories when the opportunity presents itself as insurance against famine or shortage.
Dopamine not only makes up part of our reward system in the brain, but it also drives us to survive and excel.
In a cruel sort of way, the brain uses the “carrot and stick” approach to achieve its primary objective i.e. survival of the species.
Confusing The “Promise of Reward” For Happiness
Consumerism has taken control of society so much that we have started to confuse the promise of reward with happiness.
We treat ‘wanting’ something like it is a guarantee of happiness when we finally get it.
For example if you want to buy a new car, most people will put themselves through great suffering either from working or servicing debt to satisfy that urge and be happy.
But once you reward yourself with that car you’re not actually any happier and the cycle begins again with something else.
We wrongly perceive that getting the objects we desire will make us happy. It is nearly impossible to separate the “promise of reward” from whatever pleasure or payoff we are seeking.
The “promise of reward” is so powerful that we continue to pursue things that don’t make us happy and consume things that bring us more misery than satisfaction; how ironic eh!
This evolutionary survival mechanism that worked so effectively for our primal ancestors, has unfortunately found its way into our modern day lives.
The temptations of modern day convenience including online shopping, gambling, on demand sex and drugs, 24 hour supermarkets & fast food that is specifically engineered with the optimum combination of salt, sugar, bad fats and chemical additives are all designed to hijack the reward circuit in our brains.
But hold on a second, surely we have a divine right as humans to pursue and feel happiness?
Of course we are wired to experience pleasure and satisfaction, which do contribute to happiness – but only when we consume in moderation and adopt meaningful lifestyles.
This is the “carrot and stick approach” the brain uses to keep you getting out of bed in the morning.
However when you exceed your brain’s “pleasure budget”, the quest for happiness backfires.
Your brain’s “pleasure budget” can be controlled by your lifestyle, which basically means you can be happy with less or more meaningful things.
“Happy with less? It sounds too good to be true”, I hear you say; well it’s TRUE.
I Learnt The Hard Way
I only learnt this two years ago at the ripe old age of 48 when I started researching for my fat loss book.
There is no better example of the relationship between “dopamine, the false promise” of reward and happiness, than with food.
The obesity crisis is linked to this relationship, due to unlimited choice and temptation.
This has allowed our primal survival instinct to develop into an unhealthy relationship with food, overeating and eating “foods” that are not real foods.
Unfortunately these “foods”, which were never intended to be consumed by humans, hijack the reward circuit in the brain, flooding our systems with dopamine giving us that euphoric feeling.
The same feeling we also get from many other modern day temptations such as gambling, drugs, shopping, alcohol, sex addiction & collecting material goods.
The only problem is that it is short lived.
Why? Because with every messenger chemical e.g. dopamine, insulin, leptin, serotonin, there is a receptor waiting to pick up the message or command.
Over time the receptors become less receptive and build up a tolerance. So you need higher levels of dopamine in the brain to achieve the same effect.
The result of this is that the “high” is never the same as the first few times you consume something in high quantities or with regularity leading to the “false promise of reward”.
It never delivers the same hit and so you are constantly looking to increase the consumption to experience that initial euphoric feeling.
Finally rewarded yourself with that new car? I bet you’ve already asked yourself which car your going to buy next.
Just ask the poor alcoholic or cocaine addict who constantly chases the “high”; it becomes elusive with regularity and excess because the dopamine receptors have down regulated or became resistant to the signal.
Is There Any Hope?
Don’t fret; there is hope my friends. As a matter of fact, we have a chunk of brain at the front of the head (see diagram below) called the pre-frontal or frontal cortex (in blue), which has developed over time to help us adapt to the challenges of modern day living.
This includes the ability to exercise willpower when we need to make important decisions that will protect us from harm or help us stay on the path to reach our long term goals.
For example, resist that chocolate cake in order to lose the excess fat and live a healthier, happier and longer life.
This part of you recognises that the cake threatens your long term goals and so it will do whatever it can to deal with this threat by helping to control intense emotions and impulses.
This is your willpower instinct.
The problem is modern day living; alcohol, drugs, stress, sleep deprivation actually impair this sensitive part of the brain to the extent where it mimics actual brain damage.
The ‘damage’ is only temporary but it impairs your ability to think rationally and make the correct decisions to reach your long term goals long enough for marketers to separate you from your money.
The Paradox Of Reward – Dopamine Production 101
There is nothing wrong with desire until we mistake the wanting for happiness; a life without wants may not require as much self-control, but it’s also a life not worth living.
The “promise of reward” doesn’t guarantee happiness, but no “promise of reward” guarantees unhappiness; listen to the “promise of reward” and we give in to temptation.
Without the “promise of reward”, we have no motivation. To this dilemma, there is no easy answer.
It’s clear that we need the “promise of reward” to keep us interested and engaged in life. If we are lucky, our reward systems won’t stop serving us in this way, but hopefully they won’t turn against us either.
We live in a world of technology, advertising and 24 hour opportunities that leave us always wanting and rarely satisfied.
If we are to have any self-control, we need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted. Learning to make this distinction may be the best we can do.
This isn’t always easy, but understanding what’s happening in the brain can make it a little easier and we may find just enough clarity in moments of temptation to not believe the brain’s “big lie”.
Desire is the brain’s strategy for action. As we have seen, it can be both a threat to self-control and a source of willpower.
When dopamine production points us to temptation, we must distinguish wanting from happiness.
In the end, desire is neither good nor bad, what matters is where we let it point us and whether we have the wisdom to know when to follow.
How To Beat The System
For all the poor souls caught up in this mass consumerism, have no fear, there is help at hand!
The best ways to achieve a stable level of happiness is to balance the amount of dopamine and dopamine receptors.
Sounds tricky but this is easily achieved with a combination of good lifestyle habits-
Limiting sugars and grains, eat good fats, meats, oily and other fish, plenty green leafy vegetables, berry fruits, nuts, seeds, minimise or eliminate processed junk foods, including most packaged foods and ready meals.
Proper exercise including high intensity like weights or sports as well as casual exercise like walking in greenery, which is great for enhancing mood and willpower.
Make sure you get enough sleep at night. If you constantly go to bed late and get up early, you are doomed and much more susceptible.
Focus On What Matters
Pursuit all of your interests, hobbies and meaningful relationships with friends, family and spirituality.
This ensures a balance of dopamine and dopamine receptors in concert with other hormones and neurotransmitters, which is what the body strives for.
It’s that simple folks! Governments should teach this in schools, but they won’t, why?
Capitalist governments rely on mass consumerism or consumption to grow the economy, which decides how important your country is. Apparently.
I sincerely hope you have found this article enlightening and empowering on your journey to find more meaning and purpose in your busy, modern lives.
“The Greatest Wealth is Health” – Virgil
Handing Over To Matt…
I thought I would experiment with a different type of guest post that introduces you to the science of what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in our brains.
If you would like to learn more about the psychological and physiological side of marketing and how we can apply that to the web let me know!
Kudos to Clark for putting such an awesome article together! Although I might have added a few images here and there ;)
Matt’s Bonus Tip
Clark missed out an important tip that anyone who is currently putting themselves through hell under false promise of happiness needs to know about.
It’s simple, cost effective and delivers the same chemical reward.
Just ‘sort yourself out’ so to speak.
You just ‘beat’ the system.