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You Don't Need To Climb A Mountain To Feel On Top of The World

It's easy to avoid prolonged dopamine hangovers in your life. Find a big, hairy, audacious goal, break it down into bite-size chunks, and celebrate your wins.
Businessman leaping on steps
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Businessman leaping on steps

It's Monday morning. The alarm barks at me and I flap around blindly trying to mute it. My eyes are glued shut with sleep and I'm feeling groggy and sluggish. I dig deep into the rubbish bin of yesterday's thoughts searching for a reason to drag myself from the warm cocoon of my doona.

I've just returned from the adventure of a lifetime -- climbed Mt Fuji and trekked the ancient pilgrim trails of the Kii Mountains in Japan with a gorgeous bunch of women. Awesome fun. But today, nothing even vaguely interests me. No dopamine dosing meeting, no adrenaline inducing presentation, no endorphin sparking workout, and no lover to hold me in an oxytocin hug. I might as well slip back under my doona and escape back to my dreams.

Have you ever done something amazing and then, after it's over, felt like there's no good reason to get out of bed? Do you feel down in the dumps if there's nothing new to look forward to in your day?

Welcome to the dopamine hangover.

My daughter struggled with it post-HSC. She took years to rekindle the sparkle she'd experienced through the challenge and success of Year 12. After I won the Australian Gymnastics championships at 16 I felt lost and hollow, like a profiterole minus the custard cream. That emptiness lasted for a decade.

And it's not uncommon to see friends moping around after the high of an exciting holiday, or when the thrill of a job promotion wains, or after a family wedding is done and dusted, or when life returns to normal after a big adventure.

My mate, after her trip to Machu Picchu said, "I feel like I'm stuck in a rut since I got back. Life's just not as much fun anymore."

So, what causes this mood slump after we've achieved our goals; after our 'something to look forward to' is history?

Apparently, its dopamine; or lack of it.

Science tells us that when we lack dopamine, we lack motivation -- we're just not interested in going out and working for things. Dopamine is the happy hormone that motivates us to take action. And when we go and do the thing, we get that feelgood sensation, the pleasure that makes us want to do it some more. But after we achieve the goal, our dopamine drops and we're filled with self-doubt, procrastination and lethargy.

Research from the University of California shows that rats with low dopamine will grab a small bowl of scraps because it's easy to reach, while rats with high levels of dopamine will climb a spikey fence for the gourmet feast because they're highly motivated to get a really substantial reward.

But since we can't just go off and climb a mountain every day, or get married, or have a big adventure holiday, how do we get ourselves on a daily dopamine drip?

1) Start planning your next goal before you've finished your current one.

2) Break your big goals down into mini and micro goals so you've got little challenges regularly.

3) Recognise and celebrate the small achievements you have along the way.

To ward off that dopamine hangover, try creating new mini goals before you've even achieved your current maxi goal. For example, I've got plans to do a handstand on an icy knife edge of the summit of Mt Alpamayo in Peru next July, but to keep get my dopamine fix in the meantime, I've planned a bunch of other small challenges.

I'm taking my family for a wild weekend in the Snowy Mountains. Then I've got daily micro-adventures like my morning ocean swim or Thursday night indoor rock climbing for a dopamine dose in between.

But they don't have to be wild adventures. Any goals work. Think school -- all those little tests and assessments leading to your end of year exams. Believe it or not, this works with your hormones. We need to have lots of little goals along the way, but also recognise and celebrate these achievements regularly.

It's easy to avoid prolonged dopamine hangovers in your life. Find a big, hairy, audacious goal, break it down into bite-size chunks, and celebrate your wins.

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