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Finding true fulfillment: healthy dopamine levels
Karissa Winkel
Karissa Winkel

In today’s world, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are like “black holes.” Bobbie Bensaid, an extension educator from Mississippi State Extension, describes these platforms as “virtual portals that suck us in!” Social media is not bad, but at some point, it can consume more of our time than we would like. We often look to these unfulfilling brain boosts, and we can forget what we enjoy doing for fun! However, when we release dopamine due to meaningful activities, we are mentally satiated and tend to be more productive and fulfilled.

What is dopamine?

Bobbie explains, “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released in the brain when we do activities that are pleasurable or that we enjoy. When we are stimulated and release large amounts of dopamine, we teach our brains to return to these activities. For example, when we do activities we enjoy, dopamine is released, and it tells our brain, “We love this! Good job! Let’s keep going!” This is why junk food, sugar, and the internet are so addictive. These things trigger the release of large amounts of dopamine into our brains and make us want to repeat these experiences.”

Why is dopamine important?

Motivation, alertness, and focus often accompany healthy dopamine levels. However, we may feel tired, burnt out, and unhappy if our dopamine levels are low or unbalanced. We may also experience memory loss, mood swings, sleeplessness, and concentration issues. Having unhealthy amounts of dopamine, whether those levels are too high or too low, can take a toll on mental health.

What can we do?

Bobbie suggests making a ‘Dopamine Menu’ to remind ourselves what it is that brings us true satisfaction and to be intentional about engaging in those activities.

Using the template of an actual menu, she describes different sources of dopamine production that lead to happiness:

“First let’s think of Starters or appetizers. These are quick boosts of joy that can be done in under 10 minutes. What are those things you like to do that don’t take much time?”

Some examples are making a grocery list for the week, playing a game with your child, spending a few minutes in prayer or meditation, going for a walk, or writing a note and sticking it in the mail.

“Next, we have Mains. These are the big passions we have that take up a considerable amount of time.”

Mains or entrees might include playing a sport, volunteering, cooking dinner for a loved one, gardening, sewing, learning a new language, or reading a book.

“Our next section on our Dopamine Menu is Sides, and these are activities you can do while doing something else. These are activities we can do that make unpleasant things a bit more pleasant.”

Sides can include listening to music while exercising, talking on the phone, singing during a long car ride, or drinking your favorite coffee in a meeting.

“Desserts are next on the menu. These are things that are tasty in moderation but make us feel yucky if we have them too much. Examples of dopamine desserts are scrolling through social media, eating actual dessert, playing video games, or binging tv shows.”

“Finally, we have Specials. These are like specials at a restaurant. They are not always available, and typically they cost a bit more than others. So, these are the activities we love but we cannot have or do all the time.” 

For example, vacations, attending a concert, or going on a shopping spree are specials.

Using your personalized Dopamine Menu can be a useful tool to help you find true happiness and a sense of purpose. I challenge you to make a conscious effort to do things that bring authentic fulfillment rather than binging on “brain desserts” that tend to give a false sense of satisfaction. 

Karissa Winkel is the family and community wellness agent with K-State Research and Extension – Cottonwood District. Contact her at 620-793-1910