Desire vs Happiness

Books Comments

In 1953, two scientists at McGill University in Montreal were puzzled by the behavior of a rat in one of their lab experiments. In this experiment, they had placed an electrode in the rat’s brain to activate an area of the brain that other scientists had discovered would create a fear response in rats. While the other experiments showed that the rat hated the shocks (and anything associated with it), the two scientists discovered something different - The rat kept returning to the corner of the cage where it was shocked. It was as if it was expecting another shock. To confirm what they were seeing, they followed it with another experiment. Every time, the rat moved to the other side of the cage, they rewarded it with a mild shock. Soon, the rat was found all the way on the other side of the cage.


It turned out that the scientists had placed the electrode in the wrong area of the brain and it seemed that they had found an area of the brain that would produce happiness. However, the scientists soon discovered that the area of the brain they were stimulating wasn’t rewarding the rats with the experience of pleasure, but simply promising them. It was as if their brains were telling them that that something wonderful was going to happen if they get shocked the next time. The scientists had discovered the area of the brain that produces Dopamine which is responsible for Desire or Craving.

Our brains mistake the promise of reward for a guarantee of happiness, so we chase satisfaction from things that do not deliver.

Dopamine in our Everyday life

  1. Grocery stores want you to shop under the influence of Dopamine - this would explain the free samples at the Bakery section and also the most tempting items kept at the front and center of the store.

  2. Starbucks keep changing their coffee menu as the dopamine levels are higher for new items. While I don’t get excited about seeing Hot Chocolate, the New Salted Caramel Macchiato is exciting! This is also why clothing brands introduce new collection every season.

  3. The next time you walk by a fast-food restaurant and are tempted by the smell of French Fries or Coffee or even fresh bread, it’s a safe bet you’re not smelling the food inside, but a carefully manufactured scent being piped onto the sidewalk through special vents. This makes sure that you enter the restaurant under the influence of Dopamine.

  4. Bloomingdale’s, an upscale apparel and cosmetics store, takes it to another level - they vary the scents by the department. For example, they had Baby Powder to trigger warm and fuzzy feelings in the maternity department and Coconut in the swimsuit department.

  5. The entire lottery and the gambling industries exist due to Dopamine - the possibility of reward. Even after losing $200 in a Casino, we believe that the next round of Poker could win the money that we had lost.

  6. Studies have shown that playing video games led to dopamine increase. The video game designers intentionally manipulate the reward system to keep the players hooked. The promise that the next level or big win could happen at any time is what makes a game compelling. It’s also what makes a game hard to quit.

  7. Finally, there’s of-course the Internet - the desire to constantly check for notifications on Facebook and Instagram, the hope that the next YouTube video is going to make us laugh or the next Quora answer is going to make us more knowledgeable and the craving to buy shoes when we see a 50% off on Amazon. Our smart phones and laptops have a direct line into our brains, giving us constant jolt of dopamine.

Just like the rats which repeatedly ran to the corner of the cage to get shocked, we keep hitting refresh, clicking the next link, and checking our devices compulsively.

The promise of reward is so powerful that we continue to pursue things that don’t make us happy, and consume things that bring us more misery than satisfaction. Because the pursuit of reward is dopamine’s main goal, it is never going to give you a “stop” signal—even when the experience does not live up to the promise.


Action Items

So, what do we take away from all this. I hope you’re not thinking that the goal is to eliminate desire or wanting. A life without wants may not require as much self-control — but it’s also not a life worth living. Here are my 3 take-aways -

  1. Dopaminize a boring chore - One way to make this work in our favor is to try to have rewards for boring tasks - like saving for retirement or doing our taxes. For example, I keep fantasizing about all the travel and sports tournament I could watch with my retirement money :D

  2. Avoid Dopamine when possible - Change your walking route back home if it involves walking past the Bakery store that always has the smell of fresh bread. Avoid eating at restaurants that have buffet. Have a cheat day once a month where you’re allowed to eat what you want without feeling guilty. This gives you something to look forward to after you’ve successfully avoided the free samples at the grocery store.

  3. Be more mindful - We can train our brain to not get confused between the promise of reward and happiness. We can remind our brain that we felt bad for overeating the next time we stop at a bakery store.

Willpower Instinct

We live in a world of technology, advertisements where we’re constantly surrounded by opportunities that leave us always wanting and rarely satisfied. If we are to have any self-control, we need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted.

Source - The WillPower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Kaushik Rangadurai

Code. Learn. Explore

Share this post