Molineaux is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
More and more of us are becoming political junkies looking for our next dopamine hit.
Dopamine, that pleasure reward in our brain, is offered as encouragement for most people when we do good things and is the reason our addictions are so hard to give up. For me, it’s the chips and cookies I reach for when I’m stressed. For others it’s gaining political power, opiods, alcohol, tobacco, video games, pornography, winning an argument, “being right” and more.
Every time we watch media that confirms our beliefs, we get a little bit of dopamine. That’s why it feels like torture when we expose ourselves to news that doesn’t conform with our beliefs. There is no pleasure hit with dopamine to support widening our views. This is why facts don’t matter to people who have different beliefs. Most people don’t have a good enough reason to build the stamina to withstand the feeling of torture. No, it’s not really torture. It’s healthy civic behavior without an obvious reward.
As a nation, we are looking for our next dopamine fix. This has led us to the doorways of at least two different realities. One leads to corruption and greed everywhere. And the other … wait. The other reality offers corruption and greed, too. Where we diverge is over the cause of corruption and greed. There’s plenty of blame to go around; the opposing party, “those people,” giant corporations, and Wall Street among too many to name. And guess what? When we assign blame “over there,” we get a dopamine hit. Because it’s not me. Righteous or self-righteous feelings arise.
As a nation, we have short-circuited our collective chemistry. And like all addictive behavior, ruin will follow unless we stop looking for our next fix and start addressing the pain, the trauma, the reality that we are all responsible. The United States will not be healthy until we reset our national chemistry – including normal amounts of dopamine for healthy behavior.
Why have we succumbed to an addiction-fueled culture where we would sacrifice our country?
Social media algorithms have made our fixes easier to get. Count the reactions on our own posts. Over 50? Dopamine hit. Like or “angry face” another’s post? Dopamine. Share a post to find your people? Dopamine and more dopamine. Video games likely deliver dopamine even faster. (I’m not a gamer, but have read some articles about it.)
At an ever increasing pace, Americans go for the dopamine fix, before anything else. It might be the news, our mobile devices and social media, it might be the next election or campaign. It might be the next battle in the Senate. Dopamine rules us as political junkies.
How might we start breaking our addiction to political junkie dopamine? We might start with a personal inventory of which behaviors lead to a healthy or unhealthy nation.
Unhealthy civic behavior:
- Watching or listening to conflict entrepreneurs who hook us to enrich themselves.
- “Stirring the pot” like a conflict entrepreneur just to get a reaction.
- Yelling at anyone because you are frustrated. This includes ranting on social media.
- Retweeting some outrageous misbehavior.
- Sharing disinformation.
Healthy civic behavior:
- Adopt a “do no harm” attitude.
- Engage only when you can contribute in a healthy way.
- When you are triggered, take a break and walk away. Manage yourself.
- Amplify the positive on social media 10x more than negative or angry content. Or resolve to not air or engage in grievances on social media.
- If pointing out injustice, ask for accountability and avoid blaming others.
- Shun the conflict entrepreneurs and do not honor them with your time.
- Attending local meetings with elected officials and honoring the dignity of others, regardless of your agreement or disagreement with their views.
- Be willing to change your mind when new information warrants it.
When I’m challenged by friends who watch conflict entrepreneurs and engage in the blame game, I ask what they want to happen and how it might impact their life. I remember that most people want to live a safe and meaningful life in community with others. We want to leave the world a better place than we found it, and have some material comfort.
This is how I get my dopamine hits; through connecting around our shared humanity. Not an absence of tension, but seeing others’ fears and hopes as connected to mine. I see our shared journey towards a just society.
Healthy dopamine comes from deep connection, exercising our (civic) muscles and knowing we make a positive impact on those around us.
Let’s get healthy together. One day at a time.
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