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Desire, Deals and Dopamine

Are you looking forward to grabbing a great deal on Black Friday and imagining how good you will feel when its yours? Will it live up to expectations, or after a brief moment of pleasure, will you be left feeling just a little empty and searching for the next thing?

As we hurtle towards the holidays and the frenzy of buying that accompanies our annual winter festivities, I want to invite you to take a moment and look at what is happening in your brain when you experience desire. What happens when you acquire what you were craving and why it may not quite live up to expectations.

Dopamine fuels desire

The primary job of your brain is to keep your body alive. It does this by passing chemical and electrical signals through neural pathways made up of approximately 86 billion specialist cells called neurons. In response to a stimulus signals are released which result in action (or inaction). These stimuli can originate from within us such as feeling hungry or from outside our body such as hearing our name called out. Our body and brain are in constant communication as one coherent system with a shared purpose.

For us to remain alive we need energy, that means we need to find and eat food. When our brains were first evolving food wasn’t readily available, as it is for most of us today. To motivate our body to actively seek out food there needed to be desire. A desire to both acquire food and relieve the discomfort of hunger. Enter dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that circulates in our brain, (a neurotransmitter). Its role is to create desire and excitement, which motivates us toward a goal. It is triggered not by genuine need but by the presence or idea of something attractive to us like food or other resources.

When we see a delicious dessert, even though we may not be hungry at that moment, dopamine is released, generating desire and we crave those sweet empty calories, even if we have just enjoyed a large meal.

Dopamine evolved in response to scarcity. If we don’t have a plentiful supply of the resources we need to live and reproduce then we will not exist and our species will die out. Dopamine by default drives us to crave more; it is not influenced by whether or not we actually need something. It creates anticipation and excitement which is the fuel that moves us to acquire and achieve.

Dopamine Downer

Dopamine is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a reward and people talk about getting a dopamine fix. However, it would be more accurate to think of dopamine as the thing that drives us towards the reward, not the reward itself.

And, here is the kicker: when you have been motivated by dopamine release to achieve your goal the level of dopamine available is depleted so you experience a let down or empty feeling soon after the euphoria of achievement. You can even feel worse than before you started your mission to acquire, as dopamine actually falls temporarily to a lower base level as the brain resets. This is a critical point, as it feels unpleasant we reach for anything that will take that feeling away and the cycle begins again.

Using insight to gain control

So how does this relate to all those Black Friday deals? Advertisers are experts at manipulating the desire cycle by creating an image of how much better life will be when you have their product. This creates a gap, between your current reality and the idea of a new and better version of you; this creates dissatisfaction and discomfort which triggers dopamine to fuel you towards acquiring this new thing so you can feel better. Now you are aware of how this works you can interrupt the cycle and create time to reflect before you rush to spend your money. Use this time to look at all your thoughts about this purchase then decide what feels right about it and what maybe doesn’t. Then you can consider what thoughts are coming from true internal needs and what are coming from a need for external validation by others.

For example, if I desire a new outfit, I will imagine wearing it, how I will look, how it will feel, how I will feel when I wear it, where I will wear it, what will I wear it with. Most of that I can make an assessment about because I am at the center of the thought. However, I might also fantasize about, what other people think when I wear this, what assumptions and judgements will they make; will they like me more; will they be jealous? Ideas about other people’s thoughts and feelings are firmly in the realm of imagination and are generally not the best basis for deciding what to buy. So get clear on your intentions and expectations about the purchase and be sure you like your reasons.

What will you do differently this Black Friday?

So, with that understanding of how dopamine both fuels our desire and leaves us feeling depleted you can take a fresh look at this season of deals and consider how to be more intentional and take care of your real needs. You have the power to stop substituting with things that give just a momentary high and instead, make choices that feel truly satisfying and nurturing.

Let me know in the comments below if you approach the sales differently this Black Friday because of something you read here.

As always, if you are interested in understanding how coaching or therapy can help you to create the life you want please connect with me at

Recommended Resources

If I have sparked your interest and you would like to read more about dopamine and its affects here are the resources I drew from: Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke, MD and The Molecule of More by Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD and Michael E. Long. If you prefer a podcast then check out one of my favorites - The Huberman Lab - for a wonderful dive into Neuroscience for non-neuroscientists:

This Holiday Season I am thankful for...

Technology and the people who keep it working so that I can continue to share my thoughts with you and hear your stories.

3 comentarios

Being someone who chases one dopamine high after the next at the slightest whiff of a crash, this may prove useful. Going through the experience of owning the item without having to buy it? Genius. Thanks Claire, will be giving it a go

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You just stopped me ordering yet another jumper for my collection and instead, measuring the window for the blinds I need for my new house. Satisfying solution substituted for temporary high. Thank you Guru Claire. And hello from Bristol, Uk.

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Claire Hornsby
Claire Hornsby
23 nov 2021
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Thank you for sharing Sian, I hope you are enjoying your new home and get pleasure every time you look at your blinds once they are installed.

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