How hedonism is making anxiety the norm

The prevalence of anxiety is growing every year. And I know why.

That's because I grew up with anxiety, then spent seven years obsessively researching and self-experimenting to fix it. And I did. Without any pills or therapy.

It turns out that there wasn't anything wrong with my brain. The root causes were my incorrect assumptions about life that were causing me to fail with work, women, and health.

Those six incorrect assumptions are what I call the "modern delusions" - false truths about life and health that are taught ubiquitously across the western world. This article is going to explore one of them: the mistaken belief that pleasure-seeking behaviours are healthy.

If you'd rather watch instead of reading, I cover this alongside two more modern delusions in my 17-minute case study, here.

Pleasure comes with a price

I come from a family of winemakers. On top of that, all of my best memories from my early twenties were made at festivals. So it's been a shift to barely touch a drop of alcohol for three years. But - would you believe it - it's been easy.

All it took was learning from Stanford's Dr. Anne Lembke about the non-negotiable price tag that comes with dopamine-spiking experiences like drinking alcohol, smoking a joint, eating sugar, and checking social media.

Dopamine is both the carrot and the stick

As I covered in my case study, our reward systems are optimised for us to fulfil the function at the heart of being a human: setting a purpose and dedicating a lifetime to it.

Our brains do this by using the neurotransmitter dopamine to encourage us to set goals, reach them, then set new ones:

  • When we're at our normal baseline level of dopamine, we're calm and at peace
  • When the system is flooded with lots of dopamine, we feel euphoric
  • When it drops below the baseline level, we feel low - most commonly expressed as a state of anxiety

What's important to understand is that the system is built on a mechanism called homeostasis: The body wants to maintain a consistent, baseline level of dopamine at all times and will either increase or decrease production to do so.

Here's how it's all designed to work

Achieving a goal releases a large amount of dopamine, making us feel excellent. But then, to maintain homeostasis, the body temporarily holds back on production. During this time of deficit, we feel worse than normal, and this is what inspires us to set another goal and aim for a sense of euphoria again.

But our modern world has normalised experiences that interfere with that process.

Daily life puts us in a constant state of dopamine deficit

We release dopamine every time we drink a beer, smoke a joint, eat sugar, or look at our social media notifications. And because our bodies are set on maintaining homeostasis, these dopamine spikes must be followed by time spent in a dopamine deficit state afterwards - AKA, anxiety.

The solution is simple: cut the behaviours that toy with our reward systems. As hard as it may feel to leave these behaviours behind, the benefits are real.

In addition to a consistent sense of calm, the most profound change is an increased sensitivity to pleasure. Without the large dopamine releases triggered by substances, minor releases that come with experiences like great views, great company, and exercise are far more noticeable.

It's also important to mention that this change makes you feel worse before you feel better. When your body is habituated to regular dopamine spikes from external sources, it will typically be producing less of its own and needs to reset itself. This phase goes by the name of withdrawal.

–––

This is just one of the six root causes of anxiety. If you'd like to learn about the others, this video of mine is the way to go.

Further reading

Dr. Anne Lembke - Dopamine Nation

Prof. Dick Swaab - We Are Our Brains