Sucess & Failure — The Dopamine & Serotonin Connection: How Brain Chemicals can determine success rates.
Have you ever noticed how some people in life seem to be more successful than others?
And not only are they successful every once in a while, but somehow, they continue to have success over and over and over again. Not matter what they do, business or otherwise
It’s enough to make anyone’s mind wonder, “how the hell is that guy (or girl) always so successful?!
On the flip side, there’s the guy who can’t seem to catch a break. No matter how hard he works or how many avenues he pursues, he never glimpses the success of the those that seem to be on a daily winning streak.
Are some people just “born lucky”, as the expression says, or could it be something deeper?
Could it be something that actually governs how, when, and why we make the decisions that we do, not only when all the chips are on the table, but even when deciding what we’re going to have for lunch?
In other words, could there be an actual difference in the neurochemistry of one person’s mind to another that ultimately determines how successful they are in life and how frequently they experience “success?”
Well, thanks to the expanding field of neuroscience and the emerging field of neuroeconomics we might begin to have an answer to those burning questions, and it’s in part due to two primetime neurotransmitters — dopamine and serotonin.
But, before we get into what makes these two neurotransmitters so pivotal in determining your success in life, let’s begin by discussing what in the world “neuroeconomics” is.
What is Neuroeconomics?
Neuroeconomics is a relatively new field of science that seeks to understand the inner workings of decision-making and establishing a “bridge” of sorts between three seemingly very diverse fields:
While these three fields may appear to not have much in common on the surface, when you look at them in regards to how they impact your ability to make choices, the link becomes significantly clearer.
Essentially, the decisions you make on a minute by minute basis are a result of your present surroundings, meaning that over time, the decisions you make can change depending on what’s going on around you and your financial situation.
For example, if you’re running late for work, you might be tempted to drive through a yellow light turning red. Whereas if you’re running on time (or even a bit early), you might stop at the yellow light as its turning red.
This is a small and rather basic example, but it drives home the point that outside factors (our environment) can very significantly impact what kind of decisions we make.
Now, let’s take a look the way dopamine and serotonin impact your decision making.
Dopamine and Decision-Making
Dopamine, as you may already know, is one of your body’s four happy hormones. Other members of the “happy hormone” family are:
- Serotonin (which we’ll talk about in a follow up article)
- Oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone that released when you feel close or intimate with another)
- Endorphins (neurochemicals released during times of pain or stress, i.e. adrenaline)
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation and experiencing the rewarding sensation that comes with success. In other words, dopamine gives you the initial spark to pursue your goals and then provides the heightened sense of satisfaction that comes with achieving your goal.
Experiments in mice have helped uncover what makes person choose to work harder in the short term, so as to realize bigger success in the long term…and it has to do with the levels of dopamine in your brain!
Research notes that individuals with high levels of dopamine worked harder to achieve a bigger goal and experience a larger reward, while those with low levels of dopamine took the easy route to get the smaller reward.
But, it gets a bit more complicated than just whether or not you have adequate levels of dopamine. It also matters what area of the brain is releasing dopamine that also impacts your ability to see a task through to completion or spend another night doing the “Netflix and chill” routine.
Keying in on Dopamine Release
Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience notes that people who tend to put in more effort (“go-getters”), even if it seems hard, showed greater dopamine response in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain critical to reward and motivation.
In contrast, those who were least likely to expend effort (“slacker”) showed a higher dopamine response in the insula, a region of the brain involved in self-awareness, perception, and social behavior.
How did researchers document this?
For the study, 25 subjects (52% female) were given a choice between a “hard task”, requiring a high level of effort, and an “easy task”, requiring considerably less effort. The task involved playing a game of sorts that required different amounts of speeded button presses.
The “easy task” required 30 button presses with the subject’s dominant-hand index finger in 7 seconds, while the “hard task” required 100 button presses in 21 seconds with the subject’s non-dominant pinky finger.
As you can see, there’s a considerable degree of difficulty and annoyance between the two.
Regarding rewards, completion of the easy task made subjects eligible to win $1.00 on each trial they successfully completed. Completion of the hard task made subjects eligible to win amounts ranging from $1.24 to $4.30.
Now, subjects were actually going to win money at the end of the study, but dollars were used as a “reward magnitude” for the games.
Additionally, just because you completed a hard or easy task didn’t guarantee that you would actually win the reward either. You were merely “eligible to win” the prize (each task had a different probability of actually winning”).
Some completed tasks resulted in “wins” with subjects earning the prize, and other completed tasks resulted in “no-win”, where the subject received no money for that completed trial.
Here’s a picture of the prompt test subjects saw during the trial:
Subjects were given 20 minutes to perform as many of these individual tasks as they could, with each task lasting for about 30 seconds at most.
All subjects chose a mix of hard and easy tasks, and to figure out the areas of dopamine release in the body, researchers used PET scans of the subjects brains to determine which regions of the brains were active.
As we mentioned up top, individuals willing to undertake more of the hard tasks (the “go-getters” as we would call them in life) had greater dopamine in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex regions of the brain.
This was particularly interesting for researchers, as it was initially believed that dopamine in general impacted whether or not you were willing to seek reward, and while that’s still a considerable factor in the equation of whether or not you get things accomplished in life, your individual neurochemistry also plays a role as well.
This study highlights the fact that if you have more dopamine in the insula than the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex you may have a reduced desire to work, even if it means that reduced work makes you less money.
What we can take away from this dive into dopamine, decision-making, and success is that it essentially boils down to whether or not you’re willing to put off the small, less potent feelings of pleasure, and be willing to endure the “grind” more often and work harder.
This trade of short term pleasure for long term success ultimately pays off though, in that you can experience the motherload of dopamine-induced reward sensations when you net “the big one.”
The Dopamine Post-Success Dip
The next question that inevitably arises after accomplishing a big goal is “what’s next?”
Are you the type of person to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your success, or do you get right back to work on the next big task.
As it turns out, dopamine plays a role in that too!
Typically after experiencing success, there’s a slump in dopamine that occurs , and it’s quite a while before you experience a similar burst of dopamine. This is when the dreaded procrastination we’ve all experienced from time to time can set in.
To get around this, and in a way “hack” your dopamine system, you can set a new goal, before your current one is complete. That way the time between your experiences with dopamine is significantly shortened.
Now, you have to be careful about too much “pie in the sky” future planning, as it can sometimes derail you from completing your initial goal. If you get too caught up in day-dreaming and planning ventures of the future, you begin to trend toward seeking these “mini bumps” in dopamine, which if you remember from our discussion about the rat studies, means you’re taking the easy road and not really getting the biggest bang for your buck.
You’re also not accomplishing much of what you’ve set out to do, and instead transformed into one of those “dreamers” who talks a big game, but doesn’t have much to show for it.
Now, we know that’s not you, because here at AZOTH we “get shit done”, and seeing as you’re here reading this, you’re ready to “get shit done” and won’t be tempted to take the easy road. But, we still felt compelled to offer the warning nonetheless!
To help you “get Sh*t done”, we’ve got some ways you can biohack your dopamine system, so you can enjoy those small spikes in dopamine more frequently, and accomplish the big goals at the same time.
Hacking Dopamine for Success
In a sense, we’re wired for success. We’re supposed to accomplish tasks on a daily basis. This in turn provides a steady release of dopamine, and in a sense, feeds the fire, where you’re using momentum from the previous day to accomplish work the next.
On the flip side, low levels of dopamine make you apathetic, which makes you not motivated to accomplish anything other than binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix. Not only does this wreck your current day, but it also sabotages your next day’s work too, potentially, as if you’re not accomplishing things daily, your dopamine deposit dwindles.
In a sense, laziness begets more laziness, and if this downward spiral uninspired, unmotivated self continues, it can seriously snowball out of control, meaning you’re going to have a hell of a time getting back on track.
But don’t worry, even if you’re a chronic procrastinator by nature, we’ve got some hacks you can do everyday to ensure success and help you net your own personal “big one”. As an added bonus, this will also work if you’re one of those people who’s predisposed to always take the “easy” road in life too!
How can I hack dopamine?
As smart and cunning as the human brain is, you can actually trick it (or train it, rather) to feed of little bursts of dopamine induced by rewarding experiences. Basically, you create the initial spark of dopamine and the brain will do the rest.
- Break your big goal into several smaller goals.
- In essence, what you’re doing here is teaching the brain to attach a dopamine burst to the task you want as a reward. By breaking your larger goal into several smaller ones, you get more frequent hits of dopamine. So after you complete your first mini task you get a “bump” of dopamine. You then use that dopamine to complete your next mini task and so on and so forth.
- Experiencing these successive dopamine busts creates a positive feedback loop resulting in a steady flow of dopamine that helps you get things done.
- In other words, get in the habit of setting deadlines for yourself and completing your goals in a timely manner. Create a daily schedule that mandates a deadline (even if one doesn’t really exist) and stick to it!
- You will condition yourself for success and a steady flow of dopamine.
- Intentionally Choose the Hard Road
- Remember back to the slacker / go-getter study that we talked about up top?
- You’ll notice that while both groups experienced releases of dopamine, the actions on their bodies was very different. It can motivate you to do more and motivate you to do less all at the same time.
- And here’s where the element of choice comes in. If you always choose the easy route, you’ll inevitably underperforming and realizing a smaller degree of success in the grand scheme of things.
- If, however, you purposefully choose the hard, more laborious route, (i.e. tasks requiring more work), you’ll stimulate dopamine release in the regions of the brain that encourage motivation and getting sh*t done.
- At the same time, you also must be willing to put in the effort to accomplish these more demanding tasks, as merely choosing to do them isn’t enough, they must be completed.
- And, harkening back to the previous point, break these more difficult tasks into more manageable ones and use the dopamine from these little “hard” tasks to accomplish one giant “hard” endeavor.
- Basically, as Nike says, “just do it.”
- There’s nothing better than good, old, hard-fashioned work ethic and determination. Set your mind to something and get it done.
- You’ll experience the feeling of success and be able to use the burst of dopamine to accomplish something even greater than you already have.
In Part I of dissecting why some people are more successful than others, we keyed in on dopamine. It’s at the crux of decision-making and motivation, two huge factors in the equation of success.
Dopamine can be a powerful ally in your quest to be the best. It can help you get the job done and catapult you onto the next great feat…if you know how to put it to use for success.
At the end of the day, don’t be tempted for short term gratification, even if it comes easy. Be willing to bear down, put in the work, and eschew distractions. If you’re lacking motivation, just roll up your sleeves and persevere as the flood of dopamine and success will more than make up for the temporary discomfort and lack of motivation.
In Part II of our look into why some people are more successful than others we’ll tackle this question from the point of view of serotonin.
- Sapra S, Beavin LE, Zak PJ. A Combination of Dopamine Genes Predicts Success by Professional Wall Street Traders. Veitia RA, ed. PLoS ONE. 2012;7(1):e30844. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030844.
- Treadway MT, Buckholtz JW, Cowan RL, et al. Dopaminergic Mechanisms of Individual Differences in Human Effort-Based Decision-Making. J Neurosci. 2012;32(18):6170 LP-6176.
- Rogers RD. The Roles of Dopamine and Serotonin in Decision Making: Evidence from Pharmacological Experiments in Humans. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011;36(1):114–132. doi:10.1038/npp.2010.165.
- Salamone JD, Correa M. The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron. 2012;76(3):470–485. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021
Why Some People Are More Successful Than Others: The Dopamine Connection was originally published in AZOTH on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.