Cheap dopamine and dreaming


A golden fish is caught by an old man and speaks to him in a human voice, saying: “As long as you have desires, I will fulfill them all, but once you have no more desires, I will set you free and you will become free.” Jokes aside, scientific research shows that fantasies and desires do not increase the likelihood of achieving a goal, but also decrease it. When you visualize yourself achieving a goal, feel a pleasant pleasure, joy of success, and get a dopamine rush for free, it actually leads to failure. The brain perceives it as achieved, and the free dopamine reduces energy. It is easy to get hooked on cheap dopamine, which is why the industry of “motivation” or “desires” and media like “The Secret” thrive.

Research shows that fantasies lower motivation, reduce activity toward achieving a goal, and decrease the likelihood of achieving it. Students who dream of passing an exam do worse on it. Those who dream of losing weight lose less. Those who dream of their dream job receive fewer job offers and earn less. In fact, intrusive daydreaming is a problem, not an exercise. Intrusive fantasizing increases dissatisfaction with what you have and reduces the quality of life and can lead to impulsive actions (such as intrusive sexual fantasies provoking harassment).

Productive ways of thinking about the future include positive expectations (what you expect from yourself, how you will act in a particular situation), simulating the process (when you visualize the process of achieving a goal realistically and probabilistically), and negative fantasy (when we imagine what could go wrong on the path to achieving a goal and think of ways to overcome all possible obstacles).

Focusing on the process and thinking about obstacles is undoubtedly more difficult and less pleasant. However, by reducing impulsive desires and decreasing fantasies, you will act more rationally and effectively. As Buddha wrote, “Whoever in this world overcomes this unhappy, hard-to-conquer desire, to him sorrows end, like water drops slipping from a lotus leaf.” Or, to put it simply, cheap pleasure kills motivation and joy.

Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 47, Issue 4, July 2011, Pages 719–729

Self-Regulation of Goal Setting: Turning Free Fantasies About the Future Into Binding Goals Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2001, Vol. 80, №5, 736–753

Expectation, Fantasy, and Weight Loss: Is the Impact of Positive Thinking Always Positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, Vol. 15, №2, 1991

High Risk Sexual Fantasies and Sexual Offending: An Overview of Fundamentals and Interventions Sexual Offending: Theory, Research, and Prevention, 2021, Vol. 16, Article e5291,