a comic strip with two cats and a box

#86: The biochemistry of motivation

Bob Ewing
September 16, 2022
a comic strip with two cats and a box

Talking Big Ideas.

“It’s not that I’m lazy. It’s that I just don’t care.”
~ Peter Gibbons, Office Space

Last weekend, Maryrose and I packed our Jeep with camping gear, some food, our dog Ollie, and headed for the mountains. Just north of our house is a wilderness area nearly the size of Rhode Island called the Weminuche. 

On our first day, we trekked through Ponderosa Pine trees along huge mountain cliffs. We set up camp near a river and kept hiking to a pristine alpine lake at over 10,000 feet elevation. 

Known as Durango’s Best Kept Secret, Emerald Lake is tucked deep in the Rocky Mountains. We sat on its shores enjoying the views and sunshine before jumping in the cold water. On our hike back down to camp, we hunted for wild raspberries. 

The experience was so fun because it triggered our brains to release four chemicals: Dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin. 

Chances are one or more of these chemicals is involved whenever people feel good. They make us happy because they motivate us. Specifically, they get us to act in ways that promote our health and survival. 

Consider them our four primary motivators

  • Dopamine: Accomplish goals.
  • Endorphin: Ignore pain.
  • Oxytocin: Build relationships.
  • Serotonin: Elevate status.

For example, on our hike to Emerald Lake, the progress we made with each step, and the anticipation of being at the lake, was exciting – as was the hunt for wild berries (dopamine). Our backpacks were heavy and our bodies ached, but the rush of the adventure dulled the pain (endorphin).

Maryrose and I had deep conversations in a beautiful setting that made us feel connected, while Ollie generously shared his excitement and love with us (oxytocin). Trekking uphill to 10,000 feet in such an amazing place made us feel strong and special (serotonin).

Maryrose, Ollie, and me at Emerald Lake in the Weminuche Wilderness

These chemical motivators affect us in countless ways. 

Say you have an important speech coming up. The moment you step on stage the rush is exhilarating (endorphin). You’ll likely form a connection with the audience (oxytocin) and feel high status being the center of attention (serotonin)

This sounds awesome, but there’s a problem. Public speaking is scary. You may try to avoid the experience altogether – or at least put off preparing for it as long as possible. And without that preparation, you’re less likely to experience the happy chemicals from crushing the talk. 

How can you get motivated to put in the hard work needed to succeed? 

Optimize your dopamine. 

While endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin help us enjoy the present moment – they are pleasure chemicals – dopamine gets us excited to build a better future. It’s an anticipation chemical. 

Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman, author of The Molecule of More, puts it this way: “From dopamine’s point of view, having things is uninteresting. It’s only getting things that matters.” Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman writes in a recent newsletter

It is hard to overstate how much dopamine levels shape our perception of life, our emotions, and how capable we perceive ourselves to be — when dopamine levels are low, we feel unmotivated, derive less pleasure from pursuits and feel physically tired.

By contrast, when our dopamine levels are healthy, we are excited to achieve our goals. We work hard to accomplish them. 

In a nutshell, dopamine motivates us to get things done. Whether it’s forging ahead in the wilderness, preparing for an upcoming talk, or simply getting moving in the morning. A vital key to living a productive and fulfilling life is having our dopamine work for us rather than against us. 

We each have a dopamine baseline that is affected by everything from our genetics to our environment to our thoughts. While we have little control over our genes, here are a dozen scientifically proven ways to naturally elevate dopamine levels: 

1. Get morning sunlight. At least 10 minutes, ideally longer. Don’t stare into the sun, but don’t wear sunglasses either. Just enjoy a morning walk outside. 

2. Take cold showers. Start with a few seconds of cold water at the end of your shower. Gradually increase how long you spend in the cold. This has a dramatic effect on your dopamine – a 2.5 fold increase (the same as cocaine!) and it lasts for several hours. 

3. Breathe deeply. Sit tall and straight. Inhale through your nose until your lungs are completely full. Exhale slowly and draw your stomach in so all your air is expelled. Go slow. Do at least 10 rounds. See this post for more. 

4. Eat tyrosine. An amino acid that forms the building blocks of dopamine. It’s found in meat, tofu, nuts, cheese, and rice. Here are the ten foods highest in tyrosine. 

5. Exercise. Focus on doing a little bit every day to build the habit. Exercise elevates dopamine and serotonin, which is why it feels so good. 

6. Take little steps towards big goals. What’s the smallest thing you can do to make progress on a daunting project? As Dr. Huberman says, “Telling yourself you are moving toward your goals is a huge stimulator of dopamine release — and under your control.”

7. Celebrate small victories. Every day find some success, it doesn’t matter how small, and celebrate it. This elevates dopamine more than waiting to celebrate big wins. 

8. Adjust the bar. Dr. Loretta Breuning says in her book Habits of a Happy Brain that good feelings from dopamine “flow when the level of challenge is ‘just right.’” Try lowering the bar on unmet goals while raising it in places you no longer feel a reward. 

9. Embrace intermittent rewards. This is how casinos and social media apps hijack our brains. Celebrate some wins but not all wins. Dr. Huberman calls it “the holy grail of dopamine management for success.” 

10. Listen to good music. Make time to enjoy your favorite relaxing music. Ideally every day. This has such a powerful effect on your dopamine that it is used as therapy for patients with low dopamine, including Parkinson’s disease.

11. Dim evening lights. Bright lights in the evening destroy dopamine levels. Keep all glowing rectangles out of sight for an hour before bed. Consider reading at night by a dim red light. (This is what I use.)

12. Get enough quality sleep. We all understand that sleep deprivation is terrible for us. A major reason why is the negative impact it has on our dopamine. 

Consider these useful tactics that will help you crush any tough project – especially that big upcoming talk! 



Elevate your dopamine to build your motivation.

Test one of the suggestions above. Ask yourself, what’s the simplest thing you can do right now to help build your motivation for an important project?

BONUS: Experiment with cold showers. Start small. At the end of your next shower, turn the water cold for about five seconds. Then bring it back to the original temperature. Notice how it makes you feel. 


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