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Article: Understanding Dopamine to Increase College Satisfaction

Understanding Dopamine to Increase College Satisfaction

Understanding Dopamine to Increase College Satisfaction

By Riley Yen

I want to open today’s discussion with an interesting report that came out this year.  

A highly acclaimed survey called the Healthy Minds Study showed that out of 76K college students surveyed in the United States in the 2022 - 2023 school year (slide change) 41% reported depression, 36% reported anxiety, 14% considered suicide.

Now, in the past 5 years, I’ve looked for ways to improve my mental health and I’ve found extensive research done on Blue Zones, Ikigai, and Blueprint. You might have heard of some of these but essentially, these three topics all try to explain WHY certain groups of people are able to live longer and happier lives. 

I’ve found a common theme with these, let’s see if you can notice them.

Studies on the Blue Zones, which are areas around the world of disproportionate increased life expectancy, focus on the walkability of cities being a main factor of better lives.

The book Ikigai focuses on Okinawa’s high sense of belonging in a community, leading to longer lives. Which is something we touched upon in a previous class about the Italian pilgrims.


Bryan Johnson, the man who has slowed his pace of aging by 30%, has created the perfect diet of food and supplements made by his team of in-house scientists.

Hopefully, you noticed, but all of these findings focus mainly on external factors - a lot of the factors of a better life are not up to you, but rather, highly determined by a) Where you live in the world and b) What you have access to.

Now, in today’s discussion, I am not going to talk about what has caused this mental health crisis in students or what the colleges should do to improve these outcomes; as a matter of fact, most universities already create environments that emulate the factors discussed in these aforementioned studies with walkable campuses, many student organizations to join, and access to healthy foods. 

Instead, in today’s discussion, we will be exploring how we, as college students, can leverage the LATEST scientific findings in dopamine, a chemical in our brain, to enhance our college experience beyond what can be provided by our environment.

We will be looking at 4 main areas.

First, we will talk about the main components of how dopamine works and how it is managed.

Second, we’ll look at how changing our management of dopamine affects a student’s ability to learn and perform.

Third, we will see how the understanding of these neurological processes actually improves our outlook on our studies.

Finally, I’ll give you some direct practices you can take with you that can help you achieve increases of dopamine for sustained periods of time.

So, let’s first talk about what dopamine is and how it is used in the body. Dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that acts as a currency for our motivation. We all have a baseline amount of dopamine that is always circulating in our body and determines how we feel, not just now, but an hour from now and even longer than that at times.

It controls the level of motivation, level of desire, and willingness to push through effort. And if you have more dopamine circulating in your system, you will be more willing to push through effort, and if you have less dopamine circulating, it’s harder for you to push through.

That’s the difference between a very driven person and a very lazy person.

Now, let’s quickly take a look back in time to the Stone Age to get a feel for how dopamine was used for survival purposes and see how its applications changed over time. 

Picture this: you wake up in your village and realize your family has no food or water. In your area, there are bears and poisonous plants, etc., and the chemical in your brain responsible for motivating you to get out there, despite these dangers, and to hunt the animals to bring home and eat is dopamine. 

Once you bring the deer home, your dopamine levels are peaking. And then, the dopamine levels fall right after you eat it. Not just back to the baseline that it was at before you went out and hunted, but it actually falls below what you started at. This might explain why when you eat a piece of chocolate, you end up really wanting another piece of chocolate, more than what you desired beforehand. 


And that drop below baseline is proportional to how high your levels peaked beforehand.

Today, we don’t have to hunt for our own food, but the applications still stand. When we are about to experience something pleasurable, like eating our favorite food or winning a game, dopamine acts like a cheerleader that helps us achieve goals that lead to rewards. And right after, your dopamine drops below baseline, and you will feel worse than what you started at before engaging in the activity. And if we continue engaging in that behavior while layering on more dopamine-inducing factors, the ability to feel that excitement becomes harder and harder.

So, what I want you to remember from this section is that dopamine is responsible for motivating you to do anything in life and that there is a baseline amount that is always circulating in your body. After receiving your reward, your dopamine levels will drop below baseline in proportion to how high your dopamine peaked right before. 

Now, I want to go into our second section, where I will illustrate how dopamine relates to students’ performance in the classroom.

Researchers have found that working hard at something for the sake of reward can make the hard work much more challenging and make you much less likely to lean into hard work in the future. 

This phenomenon was illustrated in a Stanford study conducted by Mark Lepper, a leading theorist in social psychology. He took a group of kindergarten children who had already shown an interest in activities such as drawing. The researchers split the kids into groups where one group would receive rewards for completing the drawings. This could be anything that small children like, such as a gold star on their report cards. And the other group of kids would receive rewards randomly.

Then, after a period of time, the researchers stopped giving the rewards. And what they noticed was that the kids in the first group showed significantly lower interest in drawing on their own than they did before the study began. Remember that drawing was an activity that they had already enjoyed prior to receiving rewards, but through the introduction of rewards and then removal of reward, the children’s motivating factors changed from intrinsic to extrinsic-focused. Thus, they stopped drawing once the rewards were removed.

So when we approach our classes and we give ourselves extrinsic rewards - anything from a new pair of shoes for an A on the exam or going out after completing an assignment, or eating ice cream while doing work, we are essentially doing 2 things to our dopaminergic circuits.

First, you change your derivation of dopamine to the reward that comes at the end, which essentially dissociates the neural circuits for dopamine reward that would have been active during the activity. And second, because all your dopamine arrives at the end, over time, your baseline dopamine drops more and more, and you have the experience of less and less pleasure from studying. You’ll need more ice cream, more caffeine, better study spots, and study buddies just to get you started on studying.

So what can we do to improve studying habits? There’s been so much popularity in study techniques such as pomodoro or personal kanban, among many others. Now, all of these productivity techniques could be good for time management, but our goals of this discussion should be to enjoy studying itself rather than just getting through it in the most time-efficient manner.

We can do this by understanding how to change our definition of pleasure. That answer lies in the idea of striving to be better. That I am currently not knowledgeable enough, but the learning itself is the end goal. 

And as I’ve taken more courses at USC, I’ve seen this same idea arise in many classes with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in my management class, where after satisfying each level of need, there will always be a next one to strive for. There’s Kierkegard’s perspective on Christianity in my philosophy class, where he believes one should always be STRIVING to be Christian rather than claiming to be Christian and design thinking in my Iovine and Young classes that emphasize testing and iterations and that failure is expected.

Each of these great thinkers and great classes seems to show us these methods to approach learning in better ways, yet its chemical nature that it’s all rooted down to hasn’t really been taught about. But it’s really just down to dopamine.

And by focusing on the striving to be better, the striving to learn more for the sake of understanding, the striving to put in more effort, these people tend to perform better as a residual effect.

Now, for this third section, I want to highlight the importance of understanding things on a deeper level.

You have to engage the prefrontal cortex of your brain to tell yourself that the effort is great and the effort is pleasureful. And you are able to do this only when you disregard the reward that comes at the end.

If you are able to access dopamine while in effort, while studying, you get to reap the benefits of dopamine that actually increases efficiency. Because dopamine increases the energy in our body, and increases our ability to focus due to the conversion of dopamine into epinephrine (adrenaline) which is adrenaline and that provides additional energy.

So, this understanding of dopamine is important. Because when you understand the why behind something. When you understand why something is good for you, and then practice that activity that is now known to be good for you, it can actually increase the effectiveness of how good it actually is for you more than if you did it just because you were told so. Take a look at placebo effects, and how when we just believe that something is good for us, whether or not it actually is, it can make a big difference. And this is linked to how the dopamine pathways are quite subjective. 

So by reminding yourself of the benefits of the activity you are engaging in, while in progress, while you are studying, that what you are learning is going to give you more knowledge, allow you to engage in more meaningful discussions with your peers, and accelerate your opportunities in the workplace, you are engaging those rewarding properties, but it happens as you’re doing the work, as opposed to it all coming at the end.

The dopamine pathways can be extremely subjective to the point where just being validated of your prior belief will actually increase dopamine release and allow you to perform better. In a study on Belief States, the findings were that the expectation of success improves motivation to engage in activities and even these mice changed their behaviors based on probabilities of reward, proving that dopamine activity is a non-monotonic function of reward size. Basically, paying attention to how confidence levels adjust non-linearly with gains in knowledge can help students fine-tune their study approach.

So just by listening to this discussion, and understanding how dopamine works and why changing your definition of pleasure to the things that are hard, you are already improving your experiences of dopamine because you understand what happens on a chemical level. 

So knowing all of this, I want you to leave with a few tools that I believe would be beneficial for any student around the world. 

First is to explain how to actually embody this growth mindset and harness the powers of dopamine with an example.

Tell yourself in those moments of intense friction while you are studying and you feel like you’re having a hard time, that what you are doing is hard and that is good because it increases your baseline levels of dopamine and second that you are studying and learning because you love it and it is the pain that you are choosing to engage in because it gives you so many rewards in the moment and in the future.

Second, I want you all to identify the things in life that are unavoidable and then lean into them. Instead of looking at other countries and how their infrastructure might evoke higher quality living, focus instead on what you currently face. It may be the upcoming finals season. Try not to think so much about your winter break and just trying to get past these last exams, because that will not only make your dopamine levels drop significantly at the beginning of the next semester because of what we learned about dropping below baseline after intense peaks, but you’re also disengaging your access to dopamine during the final weeks of this semester. Instead, lean into this idea of learning or gaining knowledge and the practical use cases you can attain from professors here.

And lastly, think about ways to convince yourself to really enjoy the painful moments by contextualizing them. I’ve realized that the professors here are all so well accomplished in their lives. They’ve reached their life goals and purpose and have come back to show us how to do it as well. In a way, this is sort of tangential, but they’re able to see mentorship as that next level of dopamine-evoking activities that are accessed in the work itself because life doesn’t end after getting that dream job. At the same time, understanding that these people hold so much life experience should make coming to class that much more valuable and rewarding in the moment.

So, to end this discussion, I want you to take this understanding of dopamine, from the chemical understandings of peaks and baselines, the functions of how dopamine motivates you through reward, and the applications of dopamine to improve performance, that you can with you to enhance your experiences in college and beyond. 

And I just want to end this off with a quote that sort of puts this all together:


“There is no pursuit of happiness, but happiness in pursuit.”



Babayan, B.M., Uchida, N. & Gershman, S.J. Belief state representation in the dopamine system. Nat Commun 9, 1891 (2018).

Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones: Lessons From the World's Longest Lived. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 10(5), 318-321.

Healthy Minds Network. (2023). Healthy Minds Study: National Report 2022-2023. Retrieved from

Huberman, AH. Sep 27, 2021. Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction | Huberman Lab Podcast #39. YouTube.

Johnson, B. (n.d.). Blueprint Starter Guide. Retrieved from

Mitsuhashi, Y. (2018). Ikigai. Kyle Books.

University of Michigan. (n.d.). College students' anxiety and depression higher than ever but so are efforts to receive care. Retrieved from

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