The Dopamine Machine

I said to myself, “Let’s go for it—experiment with pleasure, have a good time!” But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke. What do I think of the fun-filled life? Insane! Inane! My verdict on the pursuit of happiness? Who needs it? With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster, I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. I wanted to get a handle on anything useful we mortals might do during the years we spend on this earth               Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 (The Message)

I read an interesting article this morning by Ross Douthat about the legalization of marijuana and the possible unintended consequences of that. He used a phrase that caught my attention. He called the legalization of gambling and marijuana in recent years a response to the “dopamine machine”. He also noted the exponential rise of the use of social media, especially with our youth, as another example of feeding the “dopamine machine”.

I began to think of how dopamine works. It is the brain chemical that seems to shout “I want this again!” once stimulated by a substance or emotional trigger of some sort. Once we start the dopamine cycle, it wants the stimulus again, and the sooner the better.

Gambling, food, sex, drugs, sugar, social recognition- anything that makes us feel good right away- stimulates dopamine. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle unless we become aware of it and put in some controls. If we do not control it, it controls us.

Then I began to think of the social effect of the dopamine cycle. Society too responds to this cycle by becoming more permissive of the things that feel good. Extended legalization of gambling and marijuana are some examples of this rewarding of the “dopamine machine”.

I recognize that gambling can be addictive, and it can also be a benign entertainment, as long as one realizes that it has a high potential to become addictive. Legal medical marijuana can be a helpful therapy when used correctly and under guidance.

The idea that we as a society are drifting toward the rewards of the “dopamine machine” gives me pause. We need to consider the directions we are heading, and we need to be having discussions about that direction in light of how we have become an addicted society.

Prayer: Lord, you have given us good gifts. Help us to use them wisely, Amen

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