Motivation isn’t what it used to be.
In the past, people associated it with mythical or spiritual causes. Others through it was something you were born with or a question of using various dubious substances to alter the state of consciousness.
Although these may be true to a certain extent, recent discoveries in neurobiology have given us tremendous insight into what makes us productive and happy. This article cannot summarize the huge literature that’s published right now on this subject but we will do our best to present you the most actionable and important items.
Your motivation, productivity and self-esteem fluctuate depending on two neurotransmitters – dopamine and serotonin. (which are, technically, the only two things your brain enjoys) Let’s explore them briefly…
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter which directs your behavior, influencing your motivation towards personal rewards, meditating your learning process and keeping you full of energy and focus throughout your ordeals. It’s also called the “motivation molecule” because it’s the main neurotransmitter which mediates all your actions and behaviors when it comes to productivity.
Most people suffer from low levels of dopamine – which is also a side-effect from adapting to our comforting, numbing lifestyle lacking in challenges. Common low dopamine symptoms include fatigue, lack of motivation, inability to experience pleasure, insomnia, hard time getting going in the morning, mood swings, forgetfulness, memory loss, inability to focus and concentrate, inability to connect with others, low libido, sugar cravings, caffeine cravings, inability to handle stress, inability to lose weight and many more.
Dopamine is produced when you achieve something (even a small, immediate goal), when you are immersed in an activity that you are interested in, when you are creating something, and also while meditating and exercising. A healthy nutrition with enough protein from healthy source is also vital for providing the building blocks to produce dopamine. There are other behaviors which trigger the production of dopamine as well.
What’s very interesting to know is that most addictions correlate with low levels of dopamine as well – not just physical addictions but psychological addictions as well. This means that dopamine is also responsible for the greed for power, money, sex and social status. There are a lot of philosophical and moral implications which we will not explore for the moment – but you should know that these neurotransmitters don’t differentiate between right or wrong, morality or decadence. This is the most important point to remember – without awareness and objectivity, it is very easy to become victims of our neurobiology.
Serotonin, on the other hand, is the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling blissful, content and “having arrived”. This neurotransmitter helps you feel socially adapted, calm and peaceful. Think of it as nature’s “feel-good” reward molecule which is produced when you achieve the goals which guarantee your survival and well-being as an individual.
Common serotonin deficiency symptoms are the following – depression and anxiety, losing the capacity to feel pleasure, insomnia, anger, being unusually sensitive to pain, carbohydrate cravings and binge eating, constipation, digestive disorders, feeling glum from lack of sunlight, feeling overly dependent on others, feeling overwhelmed, hypervigilance, insomnia, joylessness, low self-esteem, migraines, poor cognitive function, tinnitus and others.
Serotonin is produced when we expose ourselves to the sun, when we eat carbohydrates, when we are having sex (or even meaningful, intimate social interactions), when meditating and taking a nap, as well as other behaviors.
Here’s the interesting part – these two neurotransmitters are antagonizing to each other. More specifically, when serotonin is produced in higher quantities, dopamine levels drop – which means that you cannot feel motivated and pumped-up while in the same time you feel blissful, chill and laid-back. This is very interesting if you think about it – nature made us in a way so that we do not mix the two states altogether, otherwise we wouldn’t get much out of either of them.
A natural balance between these two neurotransmitters is also necessary, otherwise we would not be able to be sensitive enough to our needs and to the environment. For example, if we produce too much dopamine and not enough serotonin, our dopamine receptors in the brain would get too “tired” from the excess of dopamine, hence even if you have a lot of dopamine in your brain, it will quickly become tiresome and frustrating while the benefits would recede. That’s why it is crucial that we maintain some sort of balance and moderation, which is also highly specific to every individual.
The whole picture is much more complex than it seems to be. There are a couple of hundreds of scientific studies done only on dopamine and we are still scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the complexity of the whole mechanism of how neurotransmitters work in determining our behavior. The inter-connection between dopamine and serotonin is also mind-boggling, forcing us to consider that moderation and achieving some sort of balance is the highest goal we can achieve, both as individuals and as a collective.
What we would encourage you to do is do your own research and understand the implications of these two neurotransmitters in your life. Doing so will help you become much more productive, motivated and happy while also being aware of how your behavior is influenced. A clean diet, regular exercise, good sleep and lowering stress levels also represent the basis of promoting a healthy environment in which optimal levels of dopamine and serotonin are produced.
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