Keeping a Dopamine Diary Can Make You Happier, Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser

by Charles Lyell on February 19, 2013

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."  – Alvin Toffler

If you're ready, willing, and able to keep a dopamine diary for six months you can dramatically improve your life. A few minutes a day is all it takes to learn why people waste valuable time scrambling to score the same neurotransmitter that keeps chimpanzees doing what they do. Time that you can use to make yourself happier, healthier, wealthier, and wiser.

Like humans, chimpanzees obsess over, what Abraham Maslow called, deficiency needs for food, sex, safety/power, acceptance/approval/attention, and esteem/status. Maslow's deficiency needs correlate with the dopamine-induced survival behaviors that helped our predecessors survive and reproduce. Unlike chimpanzees, our forebears figured out how to score gratuitous dopamine by using drugs, gambling, religion, delusions, deceptions, and money. Money is especially popular because it can be easily converted into drugs, food, sex, power, acceptance, attention, status symbols, wagers, and other dopamine triggers.

For the first time in history it's possible to outsmart a brain chemical that continues to help ‘dumb’ animals survive but turned primitive Homo sapiens into dopamine puppets. Deprogramming thousands of years of inherited, unconscious, and irrational behaviors starts with noticing, acknowledging, and questioning dopamine-induced deceptions. That's where keeping a dopamine diary comes in.


"The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty."   
      – John Steinbeck

The only requirements are that the diary be written and that the keeper be mindful of a handful of dopamine basics.

  • Everything we believe or dismiss, like or dislike, love or hate, embrace or reject, do or avoid involves protecting and/or increasing dopamine flow.
  • Anything that increases dopamine flow (e.g., expectations associated with certain foods, sex, safety, power, acceptance, esteem, money, gambling, drugs, beliefs, distractions, and convenient deceptions) = pleasing, tempting, enticing = like, love, believe, crave, do again and again and again.
  • Anything that reduces dopamine flow (e.g., expectations of real and imagined threats to safety, power, acceptance, esteem, wealth, beliefs, and inconvenient truths) = annoying, distressing, disturbing = dislike, hate, dismiss, reject, avoid, and/or eliminate. We swat distressing information about how dopamine manipulates behavior for the same reason we swat annoying mosquitoes = dopamine deprivation.
  • Dopamine influences different people in different ways. Dopamine is the reason the members of some cultures pamper dogs while others eat them, why teens idolize pop stars that parents mock, why millions can't get enough Kim Kardashian while millions more can't stand her, and why esteem addicts use status symbols to trigger the same dopamine junkies trigger with heroin.
  • There are two reasons why people lie to themselves and others — to protect dopamine flow or/and to increase dopamine flow.

Assignment 1

For the first month, record one or more random acts of deception each day. While it's OK to start with other people's deceptions, the more honest you are about your deceptions the more helpful the insights.

Enter one description of an observed deception at the top of each page. It can be a few words or highly detailed. Under the description draw a line and add your evaluation(s), conclusion(s), and/or questions. It doesn't matter if your evaluations are correct or if you end up with more questions than answers. What matters is that you keep the diary long enough to hone your observational and evaluating skills so you'll be able to revisit, reinterpret, reevaluate, improve, and learn from both new and old entries.

To evaluate deceptions, answer the following questions:

  • Was the deception an attempt to protect dopamine flow, trigger dopamine flow, or do both?
  • Did the deception involve food, sex, safety, power, acceptance, approval, attention, esteem, status, money, drugs, religion, beliefs, and/or any other dopamine-trigger(s)?
  • What insights does the deception provide into the deceiver’s dopamine-induced psychological needs and issues?

Example A
Deception: John J. insists that he never deceives himself.

Evaluation: Protecting dopamine flow against threats to safety and esteem AND triggering dopamine by elevating esteem with deception that he is "superior" to lesser, weaker types who lie about their self-deceptions.

Conclusion: John has dopamine-induced safety and esteem issues.

Example B
Deception: Caught myself exaggerating salary with wealthy casual acquaintance.
Evaluation: Protecting dopamine flow by protecting against being looked down on by someone I admire.

Conclusion: Possible dopamine-induced acceptance, approval, security issues. 

Example C
Deception: Caught myself exaggerating salary with friend who has crummy job. 
Evaluation: Triggering dopamine by trying to elevate status by putting down friend.

Conclusion: Possible esteem (and insecurity) issues. Will do better.

Example D
Bob’s been drunk the last five times we were together. Insists he doesn’t have drinking problem.

Evaluation: Protecting dopamine flow (i.e. adverse to giving up dopamine-triggering booze) by denying drinking problem. 

Conclusion: Bob using alcohol to deal with multiple dopamine-induced issues. 

Example E
Sally highly insulted by my referring to the two of us as dopamine puppets.

Evaluation: Protecting dopamine flow from esteem threatening information.

Conclusion: Sally would rather live life denying she’s a dopamine puppet than risk momentary discomfort / dopamine withdrawal associated with admitting that dopamine is pulling her strings.


One keen observation each day is better than a dozen obtuse entries.

By the end of the first week, if not the first day, you should be noticing patterns that help you understand how dopamine manipulates behavior. In future posts I'll be adding nuances, influences, and combinations that explain why seemingly inexplicable and complex human behaviors are actually decipherable dopamine-induced animal behaviors.

While waiting for the next assignment, you can improve your evaluating skills by learning about Dopamine Games.

Now that you now what you know, what will you do?

Start a diary that can help make you happier, healthier, wealthier, and wiser.


Click to another site and try to forget what you just read.


2 Responses to “Keeping a Dopamine Diary Can Make You Happier, Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser”

  1. What a brilliant idea for everyone facing depression and for every addict, which is my own specialty. Food, alcohol, drugs and other addictions decimate dopamine neural transmitters and it is the job of professionals to restore the decimated parts of the brain.

    Science now shows through new tools like PET and MRI brain scans the addiction-related organic changes that take place in the reward system and the prefrontal cortex. This occurs across all additions, from drugs and alcohol to the newly discovered food addiction. This new pioneering research is also helping us to appreciate a holistic and integrative approach to addiction. I was first senior research fellow in the NIH Office of Complementary Medicine. Using food addiction as template, THE HUNGER FIX addiction plan integrates personal empowerment, spirituality, along with whole food nutrition and restorative physical activity. Shame, blame and guilt must be neutralized with compassion, empathy and then the tools of self-empowerment.

    I’ll be sharing this post with my readers and patients.

    Posted by Pam Peeke, MD | January 16, 2013, 9:43 pm

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