Dopamine got the nickname “the pleasure molecule” based on experiments with addictive drugs.
The drugs lit up dopamine circuits, and test participants experienced euphoria. It seemed simple until studies done with natural rewards food, for example found that only unexpected rewards triggered dopamine release.
Dopamine responded not to reward, but to reward prediction error: the actual reward minus the expected reward. That’s why falling in love doesn’t last forever. When we fall in love, we look to a future made perfect by the presence of our beloved. It’s a future built on a fevered imagination that falls to pieces when reality reasserts itself twelve to eighteen months later. Then what? In many cases it’s over. The relationship comes to an end, and the search for a dopaminergic thrill begins all over again.
Alternatively, the passionate love can be transformed into something more enduring. It can become companionate love, which may not thrill the way dopamine does, but has the power to deliver happiness, long-term happiness based on H&N neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, vasopressin, and endorphin. It’s like our favorite old haunts, restaurants, shops, even cities.
Our affection for them comes from taking pleasure in the familiar ambience: the real, physical nature of the place.
We enjoy the familiar not for what it could become, but for what it is. That is the only stable basis for a long-term, satisfying relationship.
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter whose purpose is to maximize future rewards, starts us down the road to love. It revs our desires, illuminates our imagination, and draws us into a relationship on an incandescent promise. But when it comes to love, dopamine is a place to begin, not to finish. It can never be satisfied.
Dopamine can only say, “More.”