Dopamine, Motivation and The Pursuit of More

Here are three experiments that are free, fun and ridiculously simple to run…yet have the potential to change your life.

If combined, these might just transform your motivation and your lived experience (as The Kidz say):

1. Start your day outside
2. Have one month off your drug of choice
3. Get daily cold water exposure (e.g. cold showers / natural swimming)

The theme that links all three is DOPAMINE, one of the main neurotransmitter chemicals that determines how you experience your life.

Experiment #1 : Get out!

All you do is get outside each morning within the first hour of waking and get some sunshine into your eyes (no sunglasses). Ideally, on a sunny morning, you will get some direct sunlight onto your face (it doesn’t work if you’re inside or behind glass).

In summer, you can just go outside and sit in the morning sunshine 🌤️ in the first hour after waking up with a cup of coffee (caffeine up-regulates dopamine receptors apparently).

As with any lifestyle change, consistency is important. So I’m doing it everyday if possible. In the winter, we are probably going to want to wrap up and combine this with a walk!

The benefits aggregate and “stack” with other lifestyle changes. I’ve been combining this with 3 months off alcohol plus daily cold water exposure for maximum effect on baseline dopamine and a natural high.

How it works

Morning exposure to natural light (low angle sunlight) works by resetting and rebooting your internal body clock that governs your circadian rhythm.

The natural light entering your eyes prompts the release of dopamine (and also a small amount of cortisol, the stress hormone…an amount just enough to fire you up).

This is your bio-chemical signal to fire up for the day and “get after it”.  So this helps you get going in the morning.

And, because your body clock works as a timer, it means that some 16-18 hours later, you should get to sleep more quickly and easily.  This is important because without enough good quality sleep, everything goes to shit pretty quickly.

I’m not a doctor but I do have an internet connection. My new best friend Andrew Huberman (Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford University) explains in more detail how this works here and here.

Dopamine is the molecule of more

People often think of dopamine as just a pleasure chemical (so people talk about getting dopamine hits from short term pleasures).

This is not wrong but it’s incomplete. Dopamine is the molecule of more. Dopamine is the molecule of pursuit, it’s what drives you to go out and get things done. Dopamine is the fuel for ambition, work and achievement.

Virtually all pleasure seeking activities (sex, drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, shopping, the internet) engage the dopamine pathway in the brain. But too much dopamine starts a downward spiral towards misery.

The body is always seeking homeostasis (balance). It’s true that chocolate, nicotine, alcohol, cocaine and amphetamines etc all spike your dopamine level up briefly. But after the spike, dopamine then drops below baseline. All you’ve done is borrow happiness from the future for a short period of time. The bill always falls due.

What matters is your baseline level of dopamine. Healthy baseline levels of dopamine are essential for motivation. With low baseline dopamine, we feel listless, burnt out and apathetic.

The problem with the modern world

The modern world is a dopamine disaster area.

Over-consumption is everywhere. Shopping, fast food, sugar, alcohol, gambling, and the illusory pleasures of social media all have the effect of overwhelming our dopamine circuits.

Each temporary dopamine spike is followed by a crash and a slightly lowered baseline level of dopamine. You are now on a hedonic treadmill where you more of your stimulant to get the same effect.

We evolved in an environment where food and entertainment were only available intermittently (this is why intermittent fasting works so well). Yet the modern world has overwhelmed us with abundance.

Big Food and Social media companies figured out how to weaponise our dopamine systems and how to keep us addicted consuming more and more of their products. I’m not saying we should ban this stuff. I’m just saying that, over the long term, the combined effect is more dangerous than most people realise.

Whilst harmless in small doses, the damage adds up over time. This is a bit like The Aggregation of Marginal Gains but in reverse. Eventually your health reaches a tipping point (the most important health concept you’ve never heard of is Allostatic Load.)  You either learn how to navigate this new world or you get destroyed by it.

The modern world is full of people who burnt out their dopamine circuits.  They became progressively de-sensitised to these stimuli.  They depleted their baseline dopamine level. At some point, their get-up-and-go got up and went.

Experiment #2 : Take one month off your drug of choice

The problem with hedonic adaptation is that you develop tolerance: where you need a bigger dose of your faviourite vice to get the same dopamine reward.

The cure is a reboot of your dopamine system. To do this you need to go cold turkey and undergo at least one month without your favourite drug, stimulant or addictive behaviour.

I have just gone over 3 months without alcohol: my previous dopamine-stimulating drug of choice. This may have been longer than strictly necessary (Huberman recommends one month as the minimum effective dose) but it has reset my dopamine circuits and changed my relationship with alcohol.

The result of a dopamine fast (e.g. >1 month without your drug of choice) is that you raise your baseline dopamine and feel better all the time. You appreciate life more and you worry less.

Can I prove that?

What with this being the internet, I know you’re going to be sceptical.

But, like all geeks, I come bearing data. I got a male hormone panel blood test before my 3 months off booze and my blood prolactin came in at a frankly unacceptable level of 539 miu/L (the normal range is 45 – 375 miu / L).

Guess what?…alcohol consumption is associated with elevated prolactin levels in studies.

3m off alcohol saw my blood prolactin level come down by 67% (holy shit!) to 150 miu / L, nicely in the lower half of the laboratory reference range.

Prolactin works in balance with dopamine. Imagine a see saw…when one is up, the other is down. If you get your prolactin down into the optimal range, your dopamine goes up. Result: more motivation, more oomph, more va-va-voom.

I can also see the results in the mirror: I have visible abz (if not quite a full six pack) at 52 years of age. I don’t expect you to believe that but photographic proof is available on Instaglam for the sceptics.

Experiment #3 : Cold water exposure

Your gateway to cold water exposure could just be turning your shower cold for 30 seconds at the end…and then progressively building up for longer periods. Or you can fill a tub with cold water (if it’s too warm outside, you could add some ice to the water or go natural swimming).

Cold water exposure is the reverse of drinking alcohol. It’s a natural high where you take the initial pain shock of the cold upfront and then get a slow release buzz for the rest of the morning…like a hangover in reverse.

Here’s the irony. If I could bottle this feeling and sell it as a pill, I would be a gazillionaire. And yet, it is available to everyone who is able to put down their screens / sugar / booze / pills / social media / whatever…and it’s free.

You can’t cure money worries with more money alone

Don’t get me wrong…it’s good to have financial security.

But ~17 years to financial independence at a 50% savings rate is too long to wait to feel better.

And if you want to worry less, achieve more and feel happier, it’s not enough just to have cash in the bank. We have to get our bodies involved and our bio-chemistry (hormones, neurotransmitters etc) optimised. As I may have mentioned before, bio-chemistry is upstream of everything.

You can fix money worries by 1) by getting more money 2) wanting less stuff and 3) by improving your bio-chemistry. Doing only one or two of these is like trying to sit on a one or two legged stool.

I know this because every week in my financial coaching I talk to people who are in the top 5% of the population by financial literacy / income / net worth for their age cohort.

More is good

The pursuit of MORE is fundamental to a good life.

The problem with traditional retirement is that you are no longer pursuing more…it’s typically associated with shrinking / slowing down / doing less.

For me, the idea of never working again is just the initial “hook” of financial independence.

Everything in nature is either growing or dying. I’ve come to believe that people who make it to financial independence generally need to keep growing and keep pushing for more…even if not more physical stuff. This is a growth mindset.

More could mean more health, love, wisdom, strength, money, creativity…anything really…but the active pursuit of life has to continue. Does your plan reflect this?

I did an interview with the This Is Money Podcast:

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  1. Great read. Midway through the FIRE journey it gets very tedious and long. Always trying to optimize some aspect of your life is necessary to continue to keep you motivated indirectly and your mind sound.

  2. […] Dopamine, Motivation, And The Pursuit of More – The Escape Artist […]

  3. Since reading your blog I have been starting my day with a cold shower followed by stretching exercises in the great outdoors.
    I did this because I always felt ‘sluggish’ in the mornings.
    Results so far: definitely feel more awake after the cold shower and more vibrant. Don’t know how I’ll feel when winter arrives, but the added benefit of saving electricity!
    Taking on 20 minutes of stretching in the morning sun whilst listening to music also gives me a more positive start to the day.
    So overall I’m pleased with the results and looking forward to future blogs

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