When feeling good is bad for you

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  • How to trigger, dopamine, your body’s natural happiness machine
  • When feeling good can be bad for you
  • Why this activity can help you live a longer, happier life

Don’t judge me on this…

Because I realise that, technically, it is gambling.

But we went to Margate at the weekend, to stay with a couple of my wife’s old friends who have moved there.

On Saturday afternoon I took the kids out on a Dad-only outing. (In my opinion, far superior to the Mum-only outings, but I’m clearly biased).

We went into the arcade…

It’s the seaside after all.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve always loved seaside arcades. The garish lights, the cheesy music, the dazzling mirrors, the pub-style carpets.

I remember a holiday in Blackpool as a kid in which my parents had to forcibly remove me from a Star Wars games machine after an hour.

But in this arcade, my children and I hit the 2p slot machines.

You know those things with the moving trays of 2ps, with little prizes riding on the back the coins?

Well, we were slotting in the coins – trying to time the shelf movement – yelling with joy when 2ps came out, and watching a giant Minions keyring moving every closer to the edge.

I had a keen eye on how much we were spending – I’d put a cap on how much money we were going to put in to get the prize.

But the good thing about (most) 2p machines is that you’re pretty much guaranteed a prize between about £1 worth and £4 worth of 2ps you put it.

The toys, of course are RUBBISH.

But here’s the point I’m trying to make.

The happiness machine at work!

I was watching the kids react with absolute delight throughout the process. It wasn’t just the potential to win of the prize that was making them happy….

It was the tiny little rewards they got every time a 2p nudged another 2p of the top ledge…

And then the little rewards they got every time a 2pm fell into the shoot…

And then the final pay-off – a keyring!

It was a living example of the science of feeling good.

As reported in the news last week, three British neuroscientists have won a prize for locating the human brain’s “feel good” system.

And it’s all about the chemicals of reward…

Little rewards are what motivate us to try and achieve better things… from working to get a promotion, to scouring the internet for a great place to eat, to cutting down on sugar.

When we get the reward for our efforts, a chemical called dopamine triggers a set of brain cells to react, making us feel pleasure and satisfaction.

But here’s the thing…

Even ANTICIPATING the reward makes us happy.

So my kids, grinning with joy as they put 2ps in, were feeling good even before the reward.

This is how someone who spends all weekend fixing up their vintage car can feel good… or someone who stays late at work every night can feel good… because the anticipation of the eventual reward stimulates dopamine, the body’s “feelgood” drug, making them feel happy with life.

Professor Wolfram Schulz from the University of Cambridge said that the stimulation of dopamine “Makes us go for more reward and individuals that have more reward have a higher chance of survival.”

In other words, taking a little bit of risk, and putting a bit of effort into something for a specific outcome, can not only make you happier, it’s a survival mechanism that can help you live longer.

In a sense the cycle of action/reward becomes a machine that drives us forward, helping us achieve great things in our lives, from finding new friends, to going on adventures, to trying hard at work or saving for a new house.

Of course, there’s a downside.

When feeling good is bad

While I take my children for an occasional treat to play on the 2pm machines (don’t judge me!), I would never let them go on their own to play on fruit machines.

Because the same dopamine rush can turn people into gambling addicts. They become addicted to both the rush of anticipation, as well as that rush of joy when they win. And the cycle of action/reward drives them deeper into addiction until they lose everything.

The same goes for compulsive shopping or compulsive eating. Victims find it almost impossible to change their habit because they’re addicted to the dopamine rush their own brains are giving them.

So here we have something that’s both an essential survival mechanism that helps you live a longer, happier life…

And one that is potentially a disaster.

However in most people, the ‘feel good’ system in your brain works as it should pushing us to take controlled risks in order to get a reward – and feeling happy not just with the reward but the process itself.

A safe way to boost your dopamine

An example of this is where someone takes up a hobby like vegetable gardening. It’s not only the reward of fresh, free, homegrown organic vegetables that makes them happy, it’s the process. It’s the potential for a better life. It’s the little things you do every day to move towards that goal.

The anticipation – that’s as much the rush as the outcome.

Another example are those people who always send in the coupons, prize draws or brain teasers on the backs of food packaging or in magazines and supplements.

They’re not going to lose anything more than a stamp – so it’s not reckless gambling. What they’re doing is anticipating prizes, carrying out little actions that lead toward a goal which could bring them a massive reward, like a holiday, new car, tickets to a show, dinner for two.

The more coupons (or clicks and ‘likes’ these days thanks to the internet) the more chance of getting prizes.

These are safe ways of triggering the brain’s feel-good system. Bringing a bit of optimism into your life. Offering Hope of treats, surprises and rewards in the future.

Talking of which…

Please look out for this Saturday’s People’s Doctor in which I’ll share one of the simplest, most fun ways to get your reward-loving brain juices flowing – and potentially get a free holiday of a lifetime out of it!

Until then…

Stay healthy (and hopeful)

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