Runner’s High

Luke Smith

I’VE RECENTLY BEEN reading and listening to health experts who study the brain chemical known as dopamine. I’m no health expert and I don’t claim any specialized knowledge on the subject, but I’ve learned dopamine is widely considered to be the “pleasure chemical.”

Think about the feeling in between bites of chocolate cake, when we know just how good that next bite is going to be. As we anticipate our reward, our dopamine spikes, and then eventually regresses toward normal.

There’s an endless number of actions that can stimulate dopamine spikes in our brains. Most are around pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Indeed, in the developed world, access to dopamine stimulants is abundant. Some would say it’s obscene. At any time, we can have almost any food we want. At any time, we can have an endless supply of any drug of choice. At any time, we can watch our favorite movie or show. At any time, we can buy anything we want—even things we can’t truly afford.

Never in human history has it been so easy to obtain short-term pleasure and so easy to avoid pain. Hot? Turn up the A/C. Cold? Turn up the heat. Need something? Buy it. Bored? Go on YouTube, Netflix or Hulu.

Just because we can obtain pleasure and avoid pain at will, should we? There’s an interesting idea that I’ve latched onto—one that’s critical to long-term happiness: We should earn our dopamine.

This idea is best demonstrated by the rising popularity of ultra-marathons, cold showers, perilous mountain hikes and long bicycle rides. These undertakings are not pleasurable. They are painful much of the time. People are looking for a way to pursue difficulty intentionally.

Why would someone choose pain and suffering? Why not kick your feet up and watch a movie instead of going for a run? It’s not that these people love pain. Rather, it’s that they love the way dopamine feels. All these difficulties release rushes of dopamine. The difference in these dopamine spikes, versus, say, scrolling through your social media feed, is that these rushes are long-lasting.

A spike in dopamine from your iPhone is typically brief. Too many short spikes and you’re left with a crash. If you’ve ever spent too long on your phone and then realized it, you know this feeling. You’re not even sure why you kept scrolling.

With arduous tasks like an ultra-marathon, our dopamine increases last, sometimes for hours. This is the feeling you get after jumping in cold water, finishing a demanding project or completing a tough workout.

All these efforts release a sustained level of dopamine that’s not followed by a crash. You find clarity. You find peace. You find bliss. Isn’t that what we’re all pursuing?

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