Home > Natasha Josefowitz > Looking for the Feel-Good Hormone

Looking for the Feel-Good Hormone

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California– This will be a bit complicated, but I think it’s an important insight, and it helped me. I recently received an award as “the most outstanding resident” from SCPH (Southern California Presbyterian Homes) at their annual meeting. Several SCPH communities sent in names of residents, and I was thrilled to be selected by White Sands. But that’s not the whole story. It was bittersweet, because when I came home there was no one to celebrate with me, no one to tell who would be happy for me. I really missed my husband, who would have been thrilled. I e-mailed my children, and they responded with perfunctory “That’s great, mom.”

So I worried that I’m a narcissist, always needing validation. I called a psychologist friend of mine who said something that really hit home. She said it is human to need validation, because every time we are noticed for some accomplishment we get a surge of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Dopamine is a chemical compound found in the brain that transmits nerve impulses. It is part of the reward system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment. It rewards good experiences, thus regulating emotion. Having had continuous surges of dopamine for the thirty-five years I was married to Herman, my brain misses that hormone.

I wonder whether one can be addicted to dopamine. If so, then I am in withdrawal, and withdrawal accentuates feelings of depression, looking for a fix that is not forthcoming and not understanding and underestimating the hormonal impact on our brains and our bodies. Conversely, when bad things happen, we get a hit of cortisol, the stress hormone, and it too impacts our brains and bodies.

The lesson to be learned here is the importance of noticing, of congratulating, of showing appreciation to our family, friends, and colleagues for their achievements, and of letting them do the same for us by sharing our triumphs and accepting their praise.

A few columns ago, I wrote that all children wear an invisible sign that says “admire me.” I did not realize that what it really said was “please give me a bit of dopamine,” and that we still wear that sign as adults.

When I used to give talks on male and female differences, I used to say that men think they’re OK unless criticized, but women think they’re not OK unless praised. Do women then need more dopamine to feel good than men do? Or are men in denial of their needs for dopamine? Or perhaps many women just have a harder time accepting the subtle acknowledgements given by those around us and therefore don’t hear the praise unless it is spoken clearly.

Many of us have had pets that died, and we mourned as if it were a person. Non-pet owners did not commiserate and did not understand the extent of the grief. I now think that what pets give us are surges of dopamine every time they greet us, happily bark or purr, every time we pet our furry friends. So when they die, we miss not only their presence, their constant companionship, but also the dopamine that they provided.

What is interesting to me is also the fact that we can get a surge of dopamine not only when we receive an accolade, a gift, a hug, but also when we give it. In other words, whenever I tell someone how well they look or how clever their remark was, I not only give dopamine, I also receive it.

So what this insight does for me. It makes me realize that I can look for ways of getting more dopamine, and it is not by sitting home alone and moping, but by actively reentering like with its pitfalls and rewards. I can get a surge of dopamine when I write, see a good play or movie, listen to music, read a book, talk to a friend, go for a walk.

What gives you pleasure, i.e., dopamine? Look for it, make it happen. Now I understand why volunteering increases our immune system—it gives us a fix of the reward hormone, why living in a community is healthy—it gives us the possibility of getting some of this feel-good hormone through constant interaction.

We can all try to look for ways to get some dopamine into our lives. By writing this, I just did.

Josefowitz is a freelance writer based in La Jolla. This article appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.

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