How to Be Healthy in a Dopamine-Seeking Culture
Our basic biology can steer us toward bad habits and compulsive behavior. Overcoming these pitfalls requires effort and discipline.
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Let’s start with a simple question: If you are hungry, distracted, and rushed, and someone places two bowls in front of you, one of brown rice and baked potatoes, the other of peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish, which would you choose? If you’re like most people, you’d probably pick the candy.
This is by no fault of your own. The candy is engineered—from the flavor to the texture to the bright colors—to appeal to your brain far more than the brown rice and potatoes. For over 99 percent of our species’ history, we lived amid scarcity. Thus you, dear reader, like me and everyone else, evolved to seek out high-reward, low-energy-needed-to-acquire goods. This strategy worked well for hundreds of thousands of years. But now, in modern times of abundance, it’s backfiring. Like so many things, what works, works—until it gets in your way.
The above analogy of brown rice and potatoes versus peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish is one that I used in my book, The Practice of Groundedness, to discuss the challenge of choosing deep-focus work and connection over superficial distraction and stimulation. But since the book came out late last year, I’ve realized that the analogy extends far beyond just that.
In many areas of our lives, things that are not as satisfying now tend to be more satisfying and leave us better off later. If living a good life in ancient times of scarcity was about seeking fast-reward, lower-effort goods, then living a good life in modern times of abundance is about seeking slow-reward, higher-effort goods. Scientists call this the evolutionary mismatch—when strategies that were once adaptive to a species become harmful.
A 1995 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated the diet of most people in developed countries. The lead researcher, Susanna Holt, concluded that “the results therefore suggest that ‘modern’ Western diets which are based on highly palatable, low fiber convenience foods are likely to be much less satiating than the diets of the past.” I suspect this has only gotten worse in the past 25 years. Today many people focus on hustle culture, so-called optimization, and short-term profits, leaving less time, energy, and incentive for producing and consuming more nourishing foods. And it is no longer just the food manufacturers and engineers who are taking advantage of our hardwiring, but also social media designers, cable news channels, and even politicians. Cheap and superficial hits of feel-good vibes are everywhere in our society.
Here are just a few examples of the trade-off between brown rice and potatoes versus peanut M&Ms and Swedish fish that most people face every day: junk food versus nourishing food; deep-focus work versus distraction; scrolling social media versus reading a book; porn versus intimate relationships; retweets and likes versus building a strong community; heavy drinking versus abstinence (or at least drinking in moderation); day-trading speculative assets versus slow and steady investing in stable funds; immediate and cheap consumption of nearly everything versus living on a habitable planet.
What all of these examples have in common is that the former require less activation energy—the initial self-discipline and oomph to start something—and feel good immediately but crappy later on. The latter require more work up front and don’t feel great immediately but feel wonderful in the future.
Once you become aware of the evolutionary mismatch, you start to see it everywhere. Overcoming it is key to being grounded in an increasingly frantic and frenetic world.
The challenge is choosing the brown-rice-and-potato activities when doing so requires overriding basic biology that has evolved over millennia. This is compounded by the fact that Western economies are set up for short-term profits, not long-term fulfillment. As a result, we are bombarded with products, services, and marketing aimed directly at the part of our brains that crave immediate-reward products, services, and experiences. Consumerism feeds off the evolutionary mismatch and traps us in a cycle of seeking shallow pleasures that have short half-lives. This may be good for the bottom line but not for our health and happiness.
The big question, of course, is what can we do about it? How can we live a good, healthy, and wholesome life amid so much junk and candy?
Simply being aware of the evolutionary mismatch is a good start. When you can identify and name something, it gives you a certain kind of power over it. Next, you can take an inventory of your own work and life and begin sorting activities into the brown-rice-and-potato bucket or the peanut-M&M-and-Swedish-fish bucket. The goal is to increasingly shift your time and energy into more nourishing activities.
Another important thing to be mindful of is that in-the-moment willpower is rarely, if ever, enough. Trying to choose brown rice over peanut M&Ms is especially challenging if you’ve always got an open bag of peanut M&Ms in your pocket—and for many of us, an app-loaded smartphone is just that. Rather than try to overcome the evolutionary mismatch in the moment, it’s better to anticipate it and avoid putting your brain in the position to consume the equivalent of candy all day. The more you can design your environment to favor brown-rice-and-potato activities, the better. (This is precisely why I have no social media apps or internet on my phone. This simple change—though quite hard at first—has had an enormous impact on my life.)
Unfortunately, choosing brown rice and potatoes over candy is made even harder because evolution also programmed us to experience fear of missing out (FOMO), especially in social situations.
Thousands of years ago, FOMO worked to our advantage, ensuring we’d always be in the know and never miss an opportunity to share a meal with our tribe or hear about lurking predators or a warring faction nearby. Now, however, FOMO keeps us glued to our screens, addicted to news, relevance, retweets, and likes—all of which, when consumed heavily, have little (if any) marginal benefit and cause anxiety and restlessness.
Fortunately, the brain is good at learning. Once we start to shift more of our time and energy toward brown-rice-and-potato activities, especially if we can make it through the first month or so, we start to feel pretty good. This effect is compounded if we undertake the journey with others, perhaps by agreeing as a group to limit social media consumption or by organizing a group hike. This is a big part of why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are so effective. The mix of gradually feeling good and socially supported—which counters FOMO—makes it easier to overcome the evolutionary mismatches that are all around us. Just as doing shallow and superficial activities can create a vicious cycle, doing deep and meaningful activities can create a virtuous one.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul and cofounder of The Growth Equation.