As lockdown loomed, the introverts quietly clapped in the dark, as the extraverts froze as if the sun decided not to rise again. Instagram flooded with memes of people welcoming the forced isolation, finally providing a genuine excuse to be a homebody. It was an unprecedented time for the bulk of humanity, and most of us were utterly ill-equipped to handle the isolation. As the days rolled into weeks rolled into months, the smiles that once donned our faces faded, replaced by the harsh reality that life will never be the same again, and maybe that friend who always asked you out wasn’t so bad after all.
Taking life for granted is almost inextricable from being a human. It’s the blessing and curse of being able to map out our future – it often makes us forget about all we have in the present. But all that we’ve lost in this pandemic has been far greater than a romantic reminder of a life that once was, as for many of us, we are awakening to the truth that our careers, our communities, our social circles, our people, our adventures, bring so much more meaning than we once anticipated.
When stepping into a life stripped of meaning, our brains seek out the most expedient sources of stimulation to replicate meaning. These sources are driven by dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays an essential role in motivating behaviour. Its mechanism is a literal call to action, which is incredibly helpful when deployed into an environment that constrains and isolates you, but also devastatingly dangerous when aimed at the wrong sources.
When a person loses their job, is isolated from their communities and loved ones, and bombarded by messages of fear from the media, the feeling of meaningless is inevitable. These are the key areas in which we as humans create meaning. So, the brain kicks into gear, pushing us towards anything that can help release dopamine as quickly as possible – social media, shopping, news, anything with a high stimulus that excites the brain. We consume, dopamine is released, it quickly drops, and we need more. And more. And more. Soon, we are stuck in a dopamine dependant cycle, abusing an important neurotransmitter simply to survive.
This isn’t a dissertation on fixing your dopamine dependency, this is a signpost reminding you of the areas that we as humans need to find meaning. When we lose sight of the importance of community, the healing power of physical touch, the deeply fulfilling role of a career and a calling, we turn to consumerism. We consume to get our fix, and the cycle repeats indefinitely. Your drug might be shopping and mine jiujitsu, either way, dopamine, the neurotransmitter calling you to action, is trying to tell you something.
Listen to it. Even more important than breaking the dopamine cycle, is having a meaning system in your life to replace it. Meaning is found in being, not doing. Be in community, even online. Be open to new job opportunities. Be within a physical bodily practice of exercise. Be in nature. Life will never be the same, and thank God because this is the wakeup call to the meaning crisis many of us needed. Don’t waste it.