Summary of Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke

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  • Post last modified:February 3, 2024


  • The first cause for addictions is product availability. The second is pain avoidance.
  • Pain and pleasure work like a balance. When the balance tilts to the side of pleasure, the body creates pain to rebalance it. When the balance tilts to the side of pain, the body creates pleasure.
  • When the balance tilts to pleasure first, the brain builds tolerance. You need more of the product to achieve an equal level of enjoyment. If you consume the product too much, the brain no longer feels any pleasure, with the balance constantly tilted to the side of pain. This is the state of anhedonia.
  • The only way to reset the balance is abstinence.
  • While most people are addicted to pleasure then pain in this order, some are also addicted to pain then pleasure.
  • All it takes to get into the pain then pleasure team is resisting the pain for the first few seconds (eg: cold showers).
  • Things like exercise, cold and heat exposure, and telling the truth, are healthy painful experiences that in the long run, give us pleasure.
  • Compulsive overconsumption of high-dopamine goods and experiences leads to isolation and indifference, breaking people and relationships.
Dopamine Nation book cover

Short Summary: 2 min

Summary: 15 min

Book reading time: 4h57

Score: 9/10

Book published in: 2021

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Table of Contents

What Dopamine Nation Talks About

Dopamine Nation is a book written by Anne Lembke. It explains how modern society highjacks the brain’s reward system to get us addicted to a constant search for easy pleasure. It further details what happens when the brain receives dopamine as a result of consumption, what happens when it receives dopamine as a result of pain, and how we can end this addiction to live a happier and more fulfilling life.

What a great book, easily in the top 10 books I have read this year!

Dopamine Nation explains:

  • Why we’re so unhappy.
  • Why we’re so disconnected.
  • Why we’re so weak.
  • Why most people are losers.
  • Why people do what they do.
  • Why we procrastinate.

I’d recommend this book 100% to anyone and will definitely include it in my “top 20 books to read in your twenties”.

Enjoy the summary!

Get the book here!

Short Summary of Dopamine Nation

In the past, we had a few dopamine hits per day. Today, we get hundreds.

This amount of dopamine changes the relationship we have with pain and pleasure.

Pain and pleasure inside the brain are two sides of the same coin and can be understood as a balance constantly seeking equilibrium.

When the balance tips on the side of pleasure (eg: after eating ice cream), the brain automatically compensates by “creating pain”. On the other hand, when the balance tips to the side of pain (exercise, cold and heat exposure, fasting, etc), the brain compensates by making you feel pleasure.

To the brain, pain is pleasure and pleasure is pain.

Drugs are characterized by the high amount of pleasure (aka dopamine) it triggers inside the brain.

When abused, the brain builds a tolerance to the drug to the point that the “balance” is stuck on the side of pain: this is anhedonia.

The only way to reset the tolerance to the product is to abstain from consuming the drug entirely. Addicts have to erect barriers between them and the drug (Eg: calling casinos to get yourself banned from them).

Fortunately, addicts can reverse the system and become happy again by seeking to do healthy and painful things that will give them pleasure (Eg: cold showers).

One of the most important things on the path toward a happier life is honesty. Honesty prevents denial of addiction and enables connection with the self and with other people. It enables the true self to get out and tackle the addiction in a pro-active and honest way.

It also helps the addict to recognize where the addiction comes from and what the addict is running away from.

Eventually, it helps you face what you fear.

And fix your problem.

Summary of Dopamine Nation Written by Anna Lembke


The Problem

We’ve transformed a world of scarcity into a world of abundance that delivers dopamine 24/7.

You should know that:

  • Dopamine is the “universal currency” to measure the addictive potential of an experience.
  • The brain processes pleasure and pain in the same place.
  • Pleasure and pain are the opposite sides of the same balance.
  • When we want a good experience to continue, the balance tips to the side of pain.

Part I: The Pursuit of Pleasure

Chapter 1: Our Masturbation Machines

Addiction broadly defined is the continued and compulsive consumption of a substance or behavior (gambling, gaming, sex) despite its harm to self and/or others.

The first cause for the development of an addiction is the availability of the addictive product. The less of it there is, the smaller the risk of getting addicted.

While alcohol thrived in the black market during the prohibition in the US, there were much fewer alcoholics than now.

When it became legal again, alcoholism increased.

In our society, technology made everything

  1. More available.
  2. More addictive.


  • Morphine, heroin, and fentanyl
  • Cigarettes
  • Weed
  • Food (fried, sweet, etc)
  • Digital products: videos, porn, games, gambling, etc.

The act of consumption itself has become a drug.

Seventy percent of global world deaths are attributable to smoking, physical inactivity, and diet.

The poor and undereducated, especially those living in rich nations, are most susceptible to the consumption of addictive products.

They have easy access to high-reward drugs whose consumption is indirectly encouraged by the lack of access to meaningful work, safe housing, quality education, and affordable health care.

Whatever the product consumed, addicted people’s stories are all similar: they just want to feel good.

Chapter 2: Running from Pain

The second factor that creates addiction is the obsession with maximizing pleasure and decreasing pain.

Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.

We mostly focus on getting pleasure while trying hard to avoid all of the pain that goes with it.

Today, parents raise kids without any willingness to put them through difficult situations that fortify them. As a result, kids become lazy and afraid every time they need to go through a tiny bit of pain.

This makes them soft.

In the past, doctors believed that pain healed patients faster (they were hence unwilling to prescribe painkillers).

While this has never been proven, the opposite has: painkillers make for a slower recovery…

Today, it’s the opposite of the past. Pain is bad and must be alleviated directly. As a result, the use of anti-depressants has exploded in recent decades.

Beyond extreme examples of running from pain, we’ve lost the ability to tolerate even minor forms of discomfort. We’re constantly seeking to distract ourselves from the present moment, to be entertained.

Eg: most people cannot eat or walk without listening to or watching some sort of entertainment.

The “pain” of boredom is too strong.

Unfortunately, avoiding being miserable is making us miserable.

Both psychological and physical pain have been rising since we have been measuring them.

Chapter 3: The Pleasure-Pain Balance

By better understanding the mechanisms that govern pain and pleasure, we can gain new insight into why and how too much pleasure leads to pain.

The brain is made out of neurons that communicate with each other by sending electric signals and neurotransmitters along cables called synapses.

An extremely basic drawing of a neuron communicating with another.
An extremely basic drawing of a neuron communicating with another.

Dopamine is one of these neurotransmitters. It’s the most important one when it comes to rewards and motivation.

In fact, it plays a bigger role in the action that leads to the reward (wanting. Eg: getting up to get an ice cream) rather than the reward itself (liking. Eg: the ice cream).

Labs mice modified not to make dopamine did not seek food and starved to death, even if the food was located right next to them…

The more dopamine the brain releases upon doing something, the more that thing becomes addictive.

Here’s how much increase in dopamine the following activities lead to for rats.

Amphetamine1000% (aka 10 orgasms)

The Pain-Pleasure Balance

Scientists discovered that pain and pleasure work like a balance.

The pain/pleasure balance.
The pain/pleasure balance.

The problem is that this balance wants to constantly remain in equilibrium.

As soon as it tips on the side of pleasure…

The pain/pleasure balance on the side of pleasure
The pain/pleasure balance, on the side of pleasure

It automatically comes back into equilibrium by manufacturing pain to do so (this principle is called homeostasis).

image 6
The pain/pleasure balance reequilibrating.

Then it further tips towards pain (of course).

The pain/pleasure balance, on the side of pain.
The pain/pleasure balance, on the side of pain.

This effect is called the opponent-process theory.

“Any prolonged or repeated departures from hedonic or affective neutrality . . . have a cost.”

That cost is an “after-reaction” that is opposite to the stimulus. “What goes up eventually comes down”.

The natural solution to avoid the pain is to repeat what initially gave pleasure.

The problem is that the brain builds tolerance to what gives it pleasure. As a result, the amount of pleasure we experience weakens, but the amount of pain increases.

image 8
The amount of pleasure we experience then gets weaker and weaker, and the amount of pain bigger and bigger.

Therefore, you need more and more of the pleasurable stimulus to achieve equal pleasure.

If you go too far in your consumption, the balance gets permanently tipped on the side of pain.

image 9
The balance gets permanently tipped on the side of pain.

Prolonged consumption of high-dopamine substances eventually leads to a dopamine deficit state.

-> nothing feels good anymore.

The pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, leads to anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind.

When addicted people reach this point, they stop feeling anything when they take their drug, which makes them feel miserable. And they feel equally miserable if they don’t take it.

Side note: the balance is a metaphor. We can experience both pleasure and pain at the same time (eg: eating spicy food). Furthermore, not everyone starts off with the same balance. For some, it’s inherently tipped to the side of pain.

Symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance are anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and dysphoria.

People who relapse into their addiction have their balance tilted to the side of pain. They suffer, so they feel the need to tip the balance the other way.

This is called dysphoria-driven relapse (avoiding pain rather than seeking pleasure).

If you wait long enough, the brain eventually resets and the balance comes back into equilibrium.

People, Places, and Things

The pleasure-pain balance (PPB) is not only triggered by the drug itself but also by cues that existed in the environment where the drug was consumed (see James Clear’s Atomic Habits).

This is Pavlov’s principle: the brain triggers dopamine when it receives the cue. Right after receiving the cue, the brain decreases the level of dopamine which compels us to seek the reward (this is how craving works).

image 14
Dopamine in the brain. Taken from Atomic Habits.

If we get the reward, dopamine increases. If we don’t, dopamine plunges even further (it’s the letdown to unmet expectations).

In gambling, players experience as much dopamine when they both lose and win. The more they lose, the stronger the urge to play, the better the reward when they win.

The same principle likely applies to social media, where both negative and positive attention is pleasurable.

The problem with some addictions (like cocaine, alcohol, opioids, or even cannabis) is that it seems you never really get rid of them.

Eg: When rats were injected with cocaine after running, they went from running a nice chilled jog to running faster every day, until sprinting.

After one year of sobriety (a long time for a rat), the scientists gave them cocaine again. They directly went back to sprinting.

The more addicted to a substance you are in general, the less pleasure you will feel in other situations.

The more addicted to a substance you are in general, the less pleasure you will feel in other situations.
The more addicted to a substance you are in general, the less pleasure you will feel in other situations.

Every pleasure exacts a price, and the pain that follows is longer lasting and more intense than the pleasure that gave rise to it.

With prolonged and repeated exposure to pleasurable stimuli, our capacity to tolerate pain decreases, and our threshold for experiencing pleasure increases.

Why is that?

Because our reward/pain neural path was adapted to a world of scarcity. It was so well adapted that we have transformed this world into a world of abundance, with the problems that we know today.

The net effect is that we now need more reward to feel pleasure, and less injury to feel pain.

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