The mesolimbic dopamine system is old from an evolutionary point of view, and no doubt has played an important role in the survival of our species. Our brains were rewarded for choosing life-sustaining behaviors, which helped the species thrive. You get hungry and eat food? Here’s a boost of dopamine. You play nice with the other members of your tribe so together you survive against mother nature? More dopamine. You have sex to create offspring? ALL.THE.DOPAMINE.
The problem is that dopamine isn’t specific to our survival – it rewards unhealthy behaviors, too. One of the most well studied is of course the relationship with addiction, specifically cocaine, but other drugs and non-drugs can be involved.
Our fascination with “stuff” stems from this same pathway. At many points in our evolutionary history it has been beneficial to have material possessions – tools serve important purposes, clothing and housing help protect us from the elements – and once we became wealthier as a society it was no doubt useful to have extras in case something broke.
So how did we get off track? I’m not sure where to exactly draw the line – I like for my “stuff” to be utilitarian, but I also like pretty things. Much as Marie Kondo has you ask yourself, “does it spark joy,” I don’t think it’s wrong per se to own things simply because they make you happy. But the problem is that this specific form of happiness is fleeting. A new shirt brings instant joy (cue dopamine), but after a few days or weeks it ceases. A new car or a new house may bring longer joy, but again begins to fade.
If you succumb to the dopamine pathway, much like an addict you are soon searching for your next, bigger, hit. Newer clothes, nicer car, bigger house. However, thanks to tolerance, even those bigger purchases may cease to bring the same level of joy. From Where’s My Dopamine:
Not only does the brain quickly develop tolerance by decreasing the sensitivity and availability of dopamine receptors…but after so many months, in fact years, of over-stimulation, the bar is set too high. Your threshold for reward is far out of reach for the simpler pleasures in life.
Our society doesn’t help matters. The marketing industry exists to sell us things, and accomplishes that by convincing us our lives will be perfect and happy if we only buy this one item. Of course they then come out with a newer item a year later and tell you your old version is garbage. And we listen.
We end up drowning in stuff, which leads to stress. The clutter is stressful. The choices are stressful. The maintenance and upkeep are stressful.
I don’t think the answer is to sell all my possessions and sleep on a dirt floor somewhere with only the clothes on my back. Certainly some people have tried that strategy and perhaps found a sustaining happiness, but I can’t go to that extreme. There are other ways to find peace without thinking that you must give up every last thing. That form of extremism can lead to new stress as you’re back in literal survival mode, which seems unnecessary given the wealth of our society. I’m aiming for some sort of balance, exact parameters to be determined…to slowly untangle myself from the web of our consumer culture and the dopamine addiction it fuels.
It can be difficult to undo that neurologic dopamine-reward hardwiring. I don’t pretend to have accomplished that, yet. I really like this quote from William Morris, which captures the essence of what I’m striving toward.
Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?