Dopamine Projects To Weather the Dark Winter

The last 5 days in Minnesota have been very gray and cold. There was a winter snow storm that blanketed us with a 5 inch layer of white down that quickly turned into alternating mush and ice. All this and the leaves have not even fallen completely from the trees yet!

Then to top it all off two of my children, spouses, and several of their young children came down with covid. Like many of you, they are working from home. You get the picture: gray and cold outside, trapped inside with young sick kids, and sick with covid, and no one can go over to give them a hand. Nice recipe for misery.

The good news is that no one has come down with a severe form of the infection, so they just have to weather the storm until everyone is better. It is a perfect opportunity to practice real acceptance of reality as it is and to downshift into a stance of patience and kindness to oneself and to others, no matter what.

The combination of their infections with the unexpected and early volcanic eruption of winter in Minnesota lends support to Joe Biden’s concern about a “dark winter” ahead. These mornings, as I stand in silence waiting for my for my coffee to brew, as I look out at the grey skies and cold and wonder what day it is, I can feel the gravitational pull of the external environment trying to draw me into despair.

No easy solutions here. It will be a hard, and at times, dark winter. But there are daily strategies that do work to bring some light to the darker times.

The first is a near daily reminder to accept reality and its pain, no matter what. Acceptance is not a state of defeat, of curling up in a ball in bed and saying screw it. Rather, it is just an acknowledgement of what reality is and, if you really accept things as they are, it produces a sense of relaxation. Tension dissipates. Acceptance, at a minimum, gives you the mental space to avoid doing anything that will make that reality worse for yourself or others. Patience and kindness, with yourself, and others, is the best way to not further pollute the emotional environment.

A perfect example is the grey cold weather. You may not like it, and you can acknowledge this, but totally accept it, don’t complain about it to yourself or others, and adapt, no matter what. Get the warm clothes out, the boots, the whatever, and get outside and walk, no matter what. Don’t fuel the resistance part of my favorite equation:

Pain X Resistance = Suffering

The next strategy is to do something that gets your brain dopamine levels up. With the loss of so many things that we used to look forward to in the future (think trips, plans, or even just going out to dinner with friends) our brain dopamine levels are low, which leads to misery.

To get them up, consider finding a “dopamine project” to do – a small project that has meaning to you. By planning out a small project or learning activity that has personal value to you, you can get dopamine levels in your brain up, and it feels damn good.

This is a recent dopamine project of mine. The shower heads in my home have been in place for 30 years and over that time the calcium build up in many of the little holes has given them a sort of shower strabismus causing the stream from many of the holes to spray off in all directions. For the last several years there was one hole in particular that tormented me as it was aimed directly at my right eye. So most of the time I showered with my right eye squeezed shut. It drove me nuts, but I never did anything about it.

So my dopamine project was to figure out how to either decalcify the shower heads or how to replace them. Youtube to the rescue. I learned that the way to decalcify anything is to soak the object in white vinegar. So I figured out how to shut the water off to each shower head, got out my crescent wrench, dismantled the three shower heads, and soaked them in plastic bags over night.

Unfortunately, though much improved, the strabismus sprayers still had strabismus, so I did feel a bit defeated, but I forged ahead, no matter what. On to the Kohler website and a call with a Kohler rep who helped me choose new shower-heads. It was fun shopping for new ones (way too many choices – but that is a separate issue), waiting for them to arrive, and then installing them. I admit to being very hopeful that my family would shower me with glowing accolades about my new found plumbing and interior decorating skills.

Well, I got a few “that is really nice” comments that had all the emotional urgency of a sedated psychologist. Despite their lackluster interest, I felt enormous satisfaction when I finished the job. Importantly, each step of the process brought me real pleasure because I celebrated the many small wins with mental pats on my back along the path to the bigger end goal of shower heads that no longer directly sprayed my right eye.

Figuring out how to shut of the water – mental pat on my back. Getting shower heads off without screwing anything up – mental pat on my back. Devising hefty bag white vinegar soaking set up for each shower head – mental pat on my back. Getting them screwed back on and ready for the test – mental pat on my back. Boxes arrived, loved the choices I made – mental pat on my back. Installed them successfully – mental pat on my back.

If you approach a dopamine project with the right attitude and segregate out the small wins along the way, it works great. If you want to see the process of acceptance and dopamine projects in action with the leader of a large organization, check out this interview that TRG 30 did with Joseph Haj, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis. Though the Guthrie’s normal theater season has been shut down by the pandemic, note the smaller virtual performances they are offering for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His approach models beautifully the process of acceptance and then taking on small dopamine projects laced with creativity.

On another note, I came across this great study that demonstrates the value of watching nature programs on television. Ninety-six people had boredom induced by having them watch a video of someone describing their job at an office supply company. Then they watched scenes from an underwater coral reef on either a television or a virtual reality headset with or without computer graphics.

They found that all viewing methods minimised negative feelings such as sadness and significantly decreased boredom. However, only the virtual reality increased positive feelings such as happiness. Bottom line, if you want a mood lift get outside if you can for even a short walk. Or watch a good nature TV show.

Meanwhile, do the next best thing, no matter what.

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