Nicky's Corner

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Years ago, I began to experience a nagging feeling that something was off. Bouts of mental lethargy and anxiety were commonplace. I responded by attempting to pay my way into a better mood via retail remedies – vitamin drips, electric stim, massage, stem cell infusions, LED therapy, and much, much more. The result was the same… initial relief, thanks to the placebo effect, followed by the reemergence of initial symptoms. Was I simply getting older? No, that thinking felt lazy and defeated. Surely I overlooked something. 

I decided a deeper dive into nutrition would be a good place to reexamine things. Of the books I read, the most promising was by Dr. Robert Lusting, titled Fat Chance. It was nothing short of a masterclass on the negative consequences of excessive sugar consumption on health and society. I was so impressed that, once I finished it, I purchased his other book, The Hacking of the American Mind. This is where I found my answer. 

I learned the human brain experiences a sort of balancing act between two important neurotransmitters: dopamine and serotonin. Although these neurotransmitters serve many functions, dopamine can be thought of as our pleasure-seeking hormone while serotonin facilitates happiness, or that feeling of contentment with one’s life. Dr. Lustig’s key finding illustrates how a surplus of dopamine resulting from chronic activation can have negative consequences, initiating what he calls a “downward spiral toward misery.” Over time, the brain downregulates the activation of dopamine receptors. This causes tolerance, whereby greater stimulation is required for the same reward. As this happens, serotonin production falls, driving you toward a general feeling of dissatisfaction. Symptoms include depression, anxiety, and irritability, to name a few. The worst part? You don’t need to be a drug addict to experience these changes (although being one will certainly hasten the process). Compulsive consumption of seemingly innocuous things like Netflix, social media, and caffeine can all induce a similar effect.

In response to what I had learned, I took a few days to observe the areas of my life where excessive dopamine could be robbing me of long-term happiness. Writing my observations down, I quickly realized I had grossly underestimated the degree of dopamine triggers in my life. Actions characterized by a combination of low cognitive effort and moderate to high reward almost always spelled trouble. Overconsumption of sugar, television, coffee, YouTube, online shopping, constant phone checking… these were daily occurrences, entrenched as bad habits.

Although I call them “bad habits,” a more accurate description is necessary. These are behavioral addictions, and they have consequences. They lead to unhappiness if left unchecked. Here I was, failing to consider the long-term repercussions of my actions in favor of the pleasure associated with dopamine release. No wonder I was feeling jaded. 

My solution was to borrow the framework people used for fasting. I felt that if I regularly refrained from these behaviors for set intervals, I would spare myself the issues associated with them. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. I found it difficult to stick to a schedule. Sometimes I would forget, other times it was impractical. After a few unsuccessful months, I switched tactics.

My next approach was to look at each trigger individually and design rules to be followed regardless of location or day of the week. This is what I came up with:

  • Processed food/added sugars – complete abstinence at home and no eating out during the work week 
  • Alcohol – complete abstinence with exception for special occasions
  • Caffeine – allowed only on weekends
  • Shopping – purchases must be for essential goods and services (see forthcoming blog on minimalism)
  • Digital entertainment – no more than 2 hours per day (includes TV, social media, phone games, etc.)
  • Phone use – no pure entertainment-based apps, plus other restrictions (see forthcoming blog on phone use)

Within days I noticed my sleep quality, mood, and ability to focus improve. I began to experience pleasure from relatively mundane things. Even my work, which I love doing, excited me more. Was I completely free of lethargy, feeling like a superhero every day? No, but the fluctuations of normal biological processes operated at a much more forgiving baseline than before. In other words, the lows of my week were but short and shallow periods. 

Keep in mind that everyone is different. What worked for me may not be the best paradigm for you to follow. However, with honesty, boundaries and discipline, you too can create a more balanced model for happier living.