Updated: Aug 4
What do you do that makes you feel pleasure? Enjoying your favorite meal? Toes in the sand, cold drink in the hand? Music? Sex?
We are wired to navigate life by making decisions that maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Humans are pleasure seekers, but pleasure, reward and happiness are complicated. Unfortunately, we’re kind of clueless to how and why rewards and pleasure make us happy.
The brain regions tied to reward and pleasure circuitry are difficult to accurately describe, partly, because we can trigger feelings of pleasure in many different ways. Sex, chocolate, exercise, accomplishment, drugs, and service to others – there are countless sources of pleasure depending upon the person and the situation.
It turns out that sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll can all affect you in the same way: By flooding your brain with the pleasure chemical dopamine.
The three primary functions of rewards are their capacity to:
1. generate associative learning (i.e., classical conditioning, reinforcement);
2. motivate us toward or away from a particular outcome;
3. elicit positively-valenced emotions, particularly pleasure.
Dopamine is one of the four “pleasure chemicals” the brain releases when we experience positive emotions. A key target of dopamine is the nucleus accumbens located in the ventral striatum. The nucleus accumbens controls reward, motivation, and addiction. Dopamine also enhances reward-related memories as it strengthens synapses in the hippocampus, the brain’s learning and memory center. Dopamine release tells the brain when to expect something rewarding, modulates how rewarding it will be and drives us to seek rewarding things.
Reward and pleasure are intricately defined by anticipation, expectation, and motivation.
But here is the big misconception about dopamine and pleasure. Many people believe we get dopamine when we get the reward. In fact, neurons that release dopamine are activated when we anticipate the reward. Anticipation requires learning. If I do this, then I’ll get that. However, the more certain the reward, the less rewarding it becomes. For example, if I reward myself with my favorite milkshake every day at lunch, it gradually becomes less pleasurable. But if I reward myself with a milkshake on Fridays, the ramp up throughout the week increases the pleasure.
In addition to certainty, there is habituation. The first time is always better. Give your dog a treat every time he does a trick, and his pleasure center will light up with dopamine. Do that over and over again and the dopamine production will gradually decline as he learns to expect the certain reward. Now, surprise him with two treats and the dopamine increases significantly. Continue to give him two treats for every trick and the dopamine will decrease to what it was when he only received one treat. Now cut the reward back to one treat and the dopamine will decrease far below the original one treat dopamine level.
To understand how reward, pleasure and happiness work in the brain, you have to understand pleasure quirks: an intricate dance between the chase, the chance, and the choice.
The chase – From a neurological perspective, pleasure climbs with anticipation of a reward, peaks just before we get it, and then begins to diminish right after we get it.
The brain is wired that way as a survival mechanism. Many things that give us pleasure – food, sex, etc. – are vital to our survival. But the moment satisfaction is reached, the pleasure from that experience begins to diminish and we’re off searching for the next source of pleasure. If we were content, we wouldn’t be motivated to seek out more. We are always driven to anticipate the next pleasure.
“Happiness is a handmaiden to evolution’s purposes functioning not so much as an actual reward but as an imaginary goal that gives us direction and purpose. Thomas Jefferson’s fundamental right, after all, was not happiness itself, but the pursuit of happiness.” – David Nettle, The Science of Happiness
Robert Sapolsky, author of “Behave,” conducted an experiment where he monitored brain activity in a monkey. When the monkey saw a light (signal) come on in his cage, he pressed the lever (work/task) to receive the food (reward). Sapolsky discovered that the biggest shot of dopamine wasn’t released at the end when the monkey receives the reward, but rather when he anticipates or expects the reward.
Additional research shows that the anticipation of a future reward is sometimes more pleasurable than the actual experience, for instance thinking about an upcoming vacation versus the actual vacation. This notion is known as the utility of anticipation.
The chance - As much as we like what is familiar to us, pleasure is intensified when we are surprised by it.
Sapolsky expanded his monkey experiment to find out how uncertainty would affect the production of dopamine. Instead of dispensing the food every single time (100% certainty), the monkey only received a reward half of the time (50% certainty). He found that adding uncertainty to receiving the reward significantly increased the amount of dopamine produced.
In 2001, neuroscientists Greg Burns looked at how predictability influences our experience of pleasure using fMRI. The set up was simple. Participants were connected to the fMRI and they received small pleasurable bursts of juice through a tube in their mouths. They found that activity in the nucleus accumbens was significantly higher when the juice was dispensed randomly. Their pleasure response was decreased significantly when the juice was dispensed in a predictable pattern.
When you know the reward is coming and when, the pleasure is diminished while unpredictability intensifies it. For example, the excitement of watching live sports comes from the fact that we do not who will win. And the closer it is, the more intense the excitement, the more rewarding the win, and the more devastating the loss. Getting flowers on your birthday is really nice but getting them on a random Tuesday will light up your pleasure center.
It’s also why surprise and delight marketing strategies are so effective. Most people are more likely to make purchase decisions if they have a chance at receiving a random, unexpected reward. For example, given the choice between 50% off one item or drawing a ticket to get a random discount between 20% off and 80% off, most people will choose the random discount over the sure thing.
The choice – The brain likes choice, but it’s complicated. Choices make us feel more in control, but too many options can result in “choice paralysis,” and reduce satisfaction with decisions.
Known as “paradox of choice,” this finding was made famous by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper in a 2000 study. On one day, shoppers at an upscale food market saw a display table with 24 varieties of gourmet jam. Those who sampled the spreads received a coupon for $1 off any jam. On another day, shoppers saw a similar table, except that only six varieties of the jam were on display. The large display attracted more interest than the small one. But when the time came to purchase, people who saw the large display were one-tenth as likely to buy as people who saw the small display.
The human brain is constantly conducting cost-benefit analyses on our choices and actions. In an effort to maximize efficiency when we are hard at work, we subconsciously evaluate whether it’s worth it to keep trying or do something else. When presented with the choice of two cognitive tasks, our natural tendency is to do the easier one. In fact, a 2020 study found that at higher levels of cognitive demand people preferred to accept a physically painful stimulus rather than exert cognitive effort.
But this is where things get complicated. The brain also loves challenges. Neuroimaging shows that the reward and pleasure center is more strongly activated when we achieve something through higher effort than lower effort. (The Goldilocks Rule) The brain produces cortisol if the task is too hard or frustrating. But tasks that are challenging and achievable give us a nice boost of dopamine.
So, yeah… it’s complicated. The brain is wired to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But the way we experience them is pretty quirky.