Christopher L Bray MD PhD
I recently had a conversation about a topic that seems to be creating a lot of unhappiness. I feel that this is an issue that many people overlook in their lives, so I am sharing here.
Our brains have a natural reward system in place. When we achieve victory, we feel victorious. This manifests itself in many ways. When we plant a garden – at the end of the day, we can feel good about what we have built. When we have put together a meal that nourishes the family – we can feel good about building them all up for the next day. When we give some of our time to build a house for Habitat for Humanity – we can feel good that we have helped a less fortunate family with a renewed stability. When we care for a sick animal and nurture it back to health - we feel like we have given a renewed life to that creature.
I firmly believe that we have our reward systems so that when we make a goal to build something – and accomplish this goal – we are allowed to feel a reward. The building process can be anything big or small. The building can be directed towards yourself (strength, intelligence, adaptability), towards another (helping someone less fortunate or investing time and effort in the growth of children), or towards animals (raising chickens) or physical items (construction of a project).
Unfortunately, here is the problem. In today’s world, we are filled with rewards that are disconnected from the building or constructive process. How many children (or adults) are absorbed in video games – which are filled with empty rewards? After completing the challenges of a lengthy video game - what has been built in you or in your physical world? It is mostly for entertainment. Adults like to treat themselves to cruises, vacations, or escapes. While sometimes this is a stress management strategy, we are also constantly told by media that we deserve these rewards. Some people take vacations every weekend. But what in fact has been built by having a cruise to the Bahamas or a trip to Las Vegas? In some cases, there may be a building process that occurs – like better communication with a spouse or networking with new business clients. But most times these escapes are for pure entertainment and provide a strong reward disconnected from the building process.
Other hijacks of our reward system involve the obvious - sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Sex is at its root, a constructive process (something that builds a new life). This is not how it is viewed anymore in today’s world. Recreational drugs provide a very strong chemical response in the brain with absolutely nothing constructive to show for the "artificial" reward. This hijack creates such a strong short-circuit that many people who have used drugs end up with a lifetime of anxiety or depression (because nothing else is as rewarding to them). Food and alcohol can also be used to hijack the reward system. Think about how many times, your children are offered lollipops after a haircut or a doctor’s visit? How many times do you yourself treat yourself to a forbidden dessert after a stressful event? Some people like to escape into an alcohol bliss at the end of an intense workday. Unfortunately, this alcohol-induced bliss comes with a serious cost. My high-school English teacher used to say, "ignorance is bliss". And finally, loud intense music can be a hijack as well. Music is an absolutely wonderful, creative, and inspiring part of our humanity. It can stir our souls, lift us out of a depression, or inspire us to create unexpected greatness. But in some circumstances, music can falsely create passion without a grounded reality.
In short, I encourage both children and adults to avoid purposeless rewards. Instead, set goals for yourself, your family, or your community (short and long-term) that are about building, creating, and improving yourself and the world around you. Work to achieve these goals and when you do, then feel the intrinsic reward.