Dopamine, Expectations, and HappinessA few years ago, David Rock wrote a fantastic article called “(Not So Great) Expectations: Use Them or Be Used By Them”. The article cites research from Wolfram Schultz (who serves as a science advisor to Posit Science) on how expectations affect dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn affects happiness. The gist of it goes like this: when we have low or no expectations, and something good happens, we get a rewarding burst of dopamine in the brain, which leads to a feeling of happiness. Conversely, when we have high expectations then don’t get what we expect, dopamine levels fall- making us unhappy and potentially feeling threatened. Rock cites further research done by Barbara Frederickson that showed that “happy people perceive a wider range of data, solve more problems and come up with more new ideas for actions to take in a situation.” With this in mind, the Posit Science programs utilize rewards in the exercises to stimulate dopamine production, which aids in learning.

Rock suggests some practical ways to control your expectations–and therefore, your dopamine response–to maximize happiness and reduce the prevalence of dopamine lulls. Specifically, he advises that “it makes sense to minimize one’s expectations of positive rewards in most situations. Keeping an even keel about potential wins pays off. As well as making sure you keep your expectations low, another way to boost your mood is to pay additional attention to positive expectations you know will be met for sure,” like a holiday coming up in the future. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend reading the article. Of course, if you have low expectations about the content you just might get a dopamine burst…