What does dopamine do? Well, at the most basic level, everything you think, do, and are is basically part of one big chemical reaction. That's not an altogether comfortable thought for some people - but it's the science. It's hard to deny when you start looking into incredible brain chemicals and neurotransmitters like dopamine.
Most people have heard of dopamine; in pop culture, it's generally considered "your brain's natural heroin." That kind of trivia stuff is both true and... not quite true. It's true in the sense that heroin and many other drugs increase the dopamine levels in your brain, and that's a big part of the high. But the fact is, in its natural setting, this amazing molecule is responsible for far, far more than inspiring all the best Stone Temple Pilot albums. The dopamine facts below will explain.Dopamine inspires a lot of things we do; it's the reward our brain gives us when we're doing something useful, like learning a bunch of dopamine trivia! See if you can feel that little chemical hit yourself while you're learning about one of the most important biological chemicals in your body.
You Can Only Stay SO Happy
It's true: happiness truly is fleeting, and you do build up a tolerance to it. In fact, dopamine is actually poisonous to its own receptors. Meaning, if you get too much of it in your synapses, the receptors "die" (or "down-regulate), which reduces the amount of dopamine absorbed.Then you aren't as happy, dopamine levels go down, and the receptors grow back ("up-regulate"). In the end, this means that all the money and stuff in the world can never make you happier than your first chocolate chip cookie.
It's NOT Your Body's "Natural Morphine"
Contrary to popular belief, Dopamine is not an endorphin (natural opiates produced by your pituitary gland). Endorphins trigger the release of dopamine (among other things), which is part of where the feel-good comes from. But dopamine itself is a neurochemical, which stays in your brain instead of floating around the body.
Emotions Only Last About Two Months
Just as it only takes two months to kick a habit, emotional highs and lows last about the same length of time. Because your brain maintains a more or less set balance of dopamine and receptor cells (through up-regulation and down-regulation), the highs and lows of emotion can only last so long.This (along with oxytocin levels) is responsible for that blissfully happy, two to three month "Honeymoon Period" new couples usually get. It's also the reason why it takes us about two months to get over the constant sadness of a breakup.
It's the Dope of Hope, Not Happiness
Technically speaking, dopamine doesn't actually make you "happy." Dopamine's job is to work on your reward circuits by encouraging you to keep doing whatever you're doing. Dopamine doesn't tell you something good IS happening; it tells you something good is ABOUT to happen. It's a drug of anticipation, not reward. Dopamine is either giddy excitement on a good day, or hope to keep you going on the bad days.