Dopamine, the key to happiness, or the key to motivation?

Dopamine. We have all heard of it at least in some way or another. When we do something that has a positive reinforcement upon what we as humans do, this chemical is released in troves in our brain. Previously, this was thought to be the chemical that made us happy. Now, with a certain segment of the scientific community thinking otherwise, it is thought to be the chemical released that inspires motivation. Let me ask the question though, what makes us happy other than to motivate ourselves?


The year is 2008. I have acquired a wealth of fortunes virtually unheard of for a 21 year old. Over the past three months of the year, I have won at least $50,000 per month. The money is rolling in. I have done something that only perhaps less than a few thousand people around the entire world of a few billion people have done in this time period of their lives. Life should be filled with a certain joy. I have won what most people will not see in a lifetime. I have won what most people in the first world will not see in the next five years. I have won one of two things that people in my time frame have to worry about for the next twenty years of their existence in the USA; student debt.

Am I happy? Not in the least. I had traveled North America. From San Francisco to Chicago to New York. I grew up in South Dakota, literally the middle of nowhere. I always thought, if only I had grew up in those prestige cities, my life would be so much more different than they were. If only I had the opportunity to showcase my intelligence upon these stages, I would shine. Yet, I did. And nothing really seemed to matter in my head.

Grind in. Grind out. I had been doing this odd internet poker thing for three years now. A very short lifetime for a job for a lot of individuals. The average American changes their own career seven times throughout their lives. The average white male (which I am) lives till their 75. I had at least seven more years till I was expected to change my field of a career. Yet I was bored.

Why was I so bored? There really is no reason why I should have been. I was making such extravagant sums of money that I should have been thrilled. Hell, I would have killed for that type of money even five years earlier. Yet here I was, rich as a Hollywood producer and as bored as their Hollywood therapist.

So what was the reason? It was because this was my entire life. And the life became tedious in the process. Understanding that a certain byproduct of how certain groups of people play many different flop textures (and river textures) was something that I had seen thousands of times before. It was nothing new. The novelty and joy of finding out what to do in 2005, millions of hands before, simply was boring in 2008, millions of hands and thousands of dollars later. I was joyless when others would be overjoyed.


2012 comes around.

The Mayan calendar is about to come to new front. From December 2008 (after many months of simply not playing any hands of poker) to December 2012, I made some very poor decisions with my money. Perhaps it was from the boredom of playing the same hands day in and day out. Perhaps it was that I was simply bored and wanted the easy way out. One could not say that I was one to not gamble a little in my day. For fucks sakes, I gambled for a living. I took some chances that I now realize were mistakes upon my financial constraints upon the time. I assumed that the easy money train that was poker would always work for me. Now I realize it was simply a fallacy.

Yet, if I did not make those mistakes, would I have the wherewithal to understand that they were mistakes and desire to write this post? It seems unlikely. Would I understand that what makes a person happy is not what they have accrued in life, but what they have accrued through their own hard work?


The month is September 2012. I have just had the worst month gambling of my life. I just lost $20,000 in the month of August 2012. It was certainly not the worst downswing of my life, but with online poker being gone via Black Friday (and with all that money I had trapped online), it was the most onerous to my financial situation that I had come by poker wise (lets not talk about those failed investments that I made when I won thousands every day I played).

I had made some poker friends at the time. Actually only one. The other was a byproduct of this one. I had lived with them both in another state than Nevada before, and as far as live poker goes, I ran very well while I lived with them. It was just that I sort of failed in the regards of financial constraint when I had dealt with people close to me. This was nothing new, and I really don’t blame these people for exploiting me. I came across money when I was too young to care for it. The motivation to keep money was not, nor will it ever be, one to keep me happy.

It just sucked to run bad at that time.


My poker friend, broke without a doubt, in debt to me, living with me, had taken up Omaha 8 or better. He had played it online in the pot limit version and was quite successful in it. He just never seemed to accumulate any hands in it. When we both played live, he would choose to play it over hold ’em 99 out of 100 times. It was his game of choice. And really it wasn’t hard to understand at this time of his being. He had little capital and this was a game of far less variance than hold ’em. If he had a way to get that money back without binking a tournament, this was the game to choose since it had little way in the face of a downswing when playing well.


I was sick of poker. Sick of life in general. I only had really these two friends that I lived with besides my immediate family that I would count on to do friendly activities for me. If I were to do something, these two were the ones I would do it with. Yet, I was pretty much broke at the same time. I had enough money to pay rent for six months, but anyone that gambles for a living knows that tapping into your bankroll for living expenses anywhere near nine months is an absolute no no. And here I was doing it. I didn’t know any better. Actually I did, yet what else was I do? I had no education to fall back on. No other outlet to find a job. This was it. It was either this or beg for change on the corner for change.


Remember when I said I took those six months off from poker after the three best months of my poker life? Well, there was something I did then. And I really have not admitted it yet to anyone. I was living in Tempe, AZ at the time right near Mill Avenue (the drinking street of Arizona State). During those six months, I drank every day for six months straight. I even took up smoking cigarettes. I did not care anymore.

I cared so little that it came to a point that I would see the homeless bums begging for change and invite them over to stay in my spare bedroom in the condo I was renting. Some would call me crazy, and I really was at this point. Yet, when I would describe my most fulfilling accomplishments in life, it would not be winning tens of thousands in a day. It would be would I did then. This motivated me to be a better human being. To realize that the money I had won was not just for myself, but was to be used to help those less fortunate than me. Only because I sort of knew that if things had turned out differently, I would be them.


Back to September 2012. I am a pretty competitive individual and I like a new challenge at something that I believe I am competent in. Ask me to build a mechanical engine only out of scrap aluminum and I will just laugh at you and look at for the next week. Ask me to write a well thought out three page paper on how dopamine affects the human brain upon my own experiences, and perhaps I will write it out. Only if I am quite drunk and with no sleep for the past day. You know, couldn’t make things easy on myself I if I were to do it right right?

I think that I can play Omaha 8 or better better than my roommate, even if I had not played the game before. And I did. You know, because I am actually quite good at poker (even if he won’t admit it). The thing about this process was that I realized I liked to learn something new, even it was a different variant of the same thing I had been doing for a living for a while. This new item of interest brought a new endeavor upon my life. A new thing to get better at. It brought new motivation into my stagnant life of poker playing.


So is dopamine released when we do something that makes us happy, or is it something that is released when we are motivated to do something new? I have the answer. It is both. What makes us happy is what makes us motivated. We get no satisfaction when we do the same thing over and over again. We get excited when we do something new; better, faster, and more efficient than we did the time before that.

So if you get bored with your life, try to do whatever you are doing just a little better than what you are doing now. And f you cannot do what you are doing right now any better, do something new. It doesn’t matter what it is. Donate to someone less fortunate to you, trim your grass into a diamond shaped vertical if you are looking at it a certain way, or even divorce your partner if you can’t think of something else. Just do something to motivate yourself because that is the only way I know of to make myself happier. And I think it will work for you too.

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