Meditation is a Dopamine Detox
I just came across this video that explains why we have so much difficulty doing hard things while we can spend hours just looking at our phones, playing video games and watching Netflix. In a nutshell, the latter activities tend to release a high amount of dopamine in our brains, which makes us feel very good and gives us motivation to do those things more in the future. By contrast, studying, learning new things, working on projects, etc, release low amounts of dopamine.
We know that doing hard things is more beneficial to us in the long run, but because we don't get much dopamine out of those activities in comparison with looking at our phones and playing video games, we just can't find the motivation to do them. We build a tolerance to having high levels of dopamine in our brains, similar to when a person is addicted to a drug that releases such high levels of dopamine that they cannot cope with ordinary everyday life any longer. Ordinary life can't produce the same amount of dopamine as cocaine or heroin, and so a person reaches the point where they need the drug just to feel normal again.
It seems that our whole culture is now built on trying to keep up with our increased tolerance to dopamine. Because we are scrolling through countless social media posts daily, each post has to be maximally eye catching and stimulating. Same thing with the shows, movies, and video games we play. The new ones have to find a way to outdo yesterday's. There must be more action, more violence, more sex, more drama.
So what is the solution to this problem? The video I watched proposes engaging in what is called a "dopamine detox." Quite simply, we have to intentionally limit our exposure to the highly stimulating activities I've been listing. We have to give our brains time to readjust to having less dopamine. This could mean cutting down on the time you use your phone/watch TV every day, or taking a whole week and just totally eliminating those activities altogether. It really just depends on what seems to make the most sense to you/how much boredom you can tolerate.
It strikes me that this must be one of the central principles at work in meditation. When you simply sit in silence with your eyes closed and do nothing, that is a kind of sensory deprivation. As a result when you come out of it ordinary stimuli have a renewed capacity to release dopamine in your brain. You gradually become content just to watch the clouds go by.
To me this is simply another reminder of the value of meditation. Meditation is reminding us not to get caught up in a pursuit of happiness outside of ourselves. It teaches us that we don't need to check the next post, or watch the latest thing on Netflix in order to feel happy. Instead, meditation invites us to find the happiness that already resides within us. If we quiet down we discover that we do have the capacity to enjoy the simple things in life, and in the end that can be much more rewarding.