Finding Flow, Dopamine Addiction, and Battling the Bobs

Are you addicted to exercise? Not in a bad, sick way, just: does your brain need a certain daily resetting to normal, via sweating and runners’ high endorphins in order to feel normal? Yeah, me too.

I’ve been thinking about this, since someone just came along and essentially stole my drug stash. I’m cold turkey. I’m cranky.

Once upon a time, I smoked cigarettes. I remember the phenomenon of addicted brain chemistry. No matter what the problem was, the solution was a cigarette.

Feeling tired? Perk up with a smoke. Need to relax? Well, what’s more relaxing than a pre-bed cigarette? Full? Hungry? Sad, celebratory? There’s only one cure! (Hint, it’s not more cowbell.)

Obviously this was a created need in my brain. I had to encourage my brain to develop this addiction in the first place, and then once it had this surge of drugs every hour or so, it stopped creating its own natural happy chemicals. So I needed nicotine to create that normal, baseline-feeling.

I guess creating an addiction to exercise endorphins is similar. But better for my health, of course. In fact, when I was 20 I purposefully started exercising to replace smoking when I decided to quit. Easy swap. I don’t think my brain makes enough endorphins/serotonin/dopamine on its own, maybe genetically, or maybe it broke somewhere along the way. I gotta have something, an outlet, or I’m pretty cranky. Sorry, everyone who knows me, ever.

I was watching this documentary a few weeks ago:

It’s called Happy, and it explores what truly makes people happy, and what research into positive psychology has found. The movie talks a lot about “flow,” a cornerstone of human happiness.

Finding flow is trickier than you think. Only the right kind of activity can elicit flow…it has to be something enjoyable, something that needs your full attention, but in a way that allows you to be “outside” of yourself. Kind of the same result we strive for in meditation, or dancing all night at a club after a few drinks, or Zen Buddhism.

We want to be outside our own self-consciousness.

I tried to think of things in my life that give, or have given me, that feeling of flow. I realized how few and far between these things are. When I was a child and teenager I loved to draw and paint. I was okay at it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the activity itself. I could put music on, and start painting and literally eight hours could fly by.

I’d realize my eyes were tired, it was quiet and dark outside, my contacts were drying onto my eyeballs, and it was 4 a.m. I had forgotten everything except how to accurately depict a certain shadow, how to delineate an iris, how to position a highlight. It was the purest flow I’ve ever felt.

In the documentary, various subject report experiencing flow from things like engaging in sports they are talented at, working with their hands, or creating something. Flow must have been the daily default for our ancestors, weaving baskets, butchering animals, building a hut. We need to feel this attentive usefulness in the world or we are unmoored, adrift in an alien occupational landscape. As much as I love my children, the bald truth is taking care of them full-time is not a flow-y job. There’s no feeling of concrete satisfaction in a job well done. There’s a lot of drudgery, and physicality, but there isn’t a lot of Flow.

I think the work many of us do (cubicle, office work, high-stakes management or performance-oriented professional work) is antithetical to flow. You’re not creating something of meaning, of substance, something you can see with your eyes. You’re not able to see your own strengths and talents at play in the world. You’re not only still in your own brain, you’re in your own brain magnified by critical eyes…your boss, the audience of that presentation, the evaluator, the critics, the Bobs.

The Bobs are never far away when you’re working without flow. As much as I love writing, it doesn’t give me flow. I’m too conscious of the eventual audience. I can’t get into a zone, I can’t leave the supervisor in my brain behind even as I dance with my Id, an Ego. It’s a Junior High dance, and the teachers are close by, making sure there’s a few inches there, some space between the truth and how the truth will sound to others, a little wiggle room to save face.

Philosophers like Freud have different names for the Bobs in your head. Superego. Learning about superego is what my three year old is doing right now at preschool. She’s learning she’s supposed to sit nicely at pre-ordained times, and not pick her nose in public, and listen to authority figures. She’s growing a mini-version of herself, which will hang out in her front cortex, ever admonishing herself about what’s right.

It’s inevitable, it’s necessary, she needs to do it (I’m not pulling her out of school to frolic in a field and be homeschooled/unschooled by me, as we visit museums and paint all day, as much as in an ideal world, I’d love to). But it’s sad. It’s a sad moment in her life, and for me as her mother. She’s no longer the free, feral little creature who knows nothing about herself beyond what she feels and experiences. Her ego grew a superego and now she’s got to grow up and find her flow.

So what about running? Does running give us flow? I don’t think it does. I think it gives us feel-good stuff like endorphins and dopamine, but there’s no process, there’s no creation, there’s no craft or skill happening. It’s just pure mood-alteration. I think many of us need both flow and pure mood alteration. Running is a better option than heroin, but what is it it’s giving me?

Serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and even epinephrine (the fight or flight stress response). It makes sense that we need an outlet for that. When your boss yells at you, you can’t either punch him out or run away. You have to swallow that stress response, and then go home and pound away at a treadmill.

It’s hard to identify the exact workings of neurotransmitters in our brain. You know you feel good, or bad, but what’s doing what is hard to say. Even scientists and pharmaceutical designers don’t really know what’s happening for sure. But I’ve had the opportunity to feel the very distinct feeling of dopamine, or at least it’s absence.

In breastfeeding there’s a thing called Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (D-MER for short). It’s a very specific feeling some women get at the moment their milk lets down. It’s a short little feeling that passes in moments or minutes. But research has shown it’s a lowering of dopamine in the brain (the hormones responsible for milk production need a suppression of dopamine to work). It’s such a weird, very specific feeling. I’ve read that women describe it as homesickness.

It feels like this song:

Not a song I particularly like, or have strong feelings about, but this is the best way I can describe the feeling. In fact, when I heard this song on the radio as a kid, it gave me that feeling. It’s a churning in the stomach, it’s a pang of sadness, or wistfulness, but stronger. It feels like everything in the world is just bad, and alien, and scary, and the opposite of Home.

I guess the inverse of dopamine is the opposite of everything I just described. So when we run, and look for dopamine happiness…we are just trying to forget Don Henley.

Or we’re just looking for a feeling of being home, with everything being just fine. Who knew a run in the woods could bring us that? I guess we all knew that. But what can you do when your life circumstances don’t allow for flow, or the regular creation of these feel-good chemicals? I’m not really sure, but I’m guessing there have to be some creative solutions to finding these essential components of happiness.