Setting Goals Can Boost Dopamine to Help You Feel Less Sad

April 24, 2023 Joanna Satterwhite

Dopamine and setting goals are links, and so are important in depression. In spite of what the popular "treat yourself" culture would have you believe, when it comes to battling depressive swings, setting goals and striving towards them remains tried and true. When we're feeling blue, self-care and self-compassion are important, but face masks and chocolate will only get us so far. If you're stuck in a rut, it's possible that what you need isn't less responsibility but more. 

Dopamine Is the Molecule of Motivation

To understand why, we need to turn to dopamine. Dopamine, a neuromodulator, is a largely misunderstood molecule. Most people know it as the brain chemical responsible for pleasure, but one of its primary functions is to keep us motivated. From an evolutionary perspective, the pursuit of things like food, shelter, or sex—things that keep an organism alive or help propagate the species—needed to feel hopeful and exciting. These positive feelings ensured that people wouldn't be dissuaded when the going got tough. 

Choosing Good Goals to Optimize Dopamine

These days, people utilize their inborn dopamine for all kinds of things, like checking their phone for notifications, eating hyper-satiating food, or seeking meaningless intimacy. These are quick-hit "goals" that spike our dopamine sharply with little to no effort, and the result is a yo-yo effect between euphoria and malaise. This is because for every bit of dopamine our system releases above our baseline, we experience an equal and opposite dip under our baseline. Turning back to pre-history, this still adds up. We couldn't relish a meal caught or a safe haven found for too long. Soon enough, there'd be another threat to evade or another meal to hunt. Once a goal is met, dopamine wanes to prepare us to seek out the next one. 

What all this means is that we aren't wired for constant pleasure. We're wired for constant pursuit. Making sure we are pursuing fulfilling goals with long-time horizons helps keep our dopamine "in the black" and away from the yo-yo of a pleasure-to-pleasure life. 

Process of Goal-Setting for Dopamine

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that it's the process and not the product that allows our dopaminergic system to keep us feeling good. So choose a goal you can really sink your teeth into and focus on the process that will get you there. I explain more about how to go about this in the video below, so make sure to check it out. However, easier said than done; it's sure to pull you out of a funk.

Source (for all assertions)

Huberman, A. (Host). (2021, September 27). Controlling Your Dopamine for Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction (No. 39). [Audio podcast episode]. In Huberman Lab. Scicomm Media.


APA Reference
Satterwhite, J. (2023, April 24). Setting Goals Can Boost Dopamine to Help You Feel Less Sad, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from

Author: Joanna Satterwhite

Joanna is a writer and teacher based in Atlanta. Find her on Substack and Instagram

Leave a reply