That Rush of Dopamine
Do we ever lose our need for affirmation? Does our ego ever bed down for the night and wake up in peace? Do the scales of wellbeing ever become balanced between ego strength and ego need?
These are valid questions, but I am not the person to answer them. I am afraid to say after all these years my need for affirmation is still a bottomless well.
People who can be classified as narcissists also have a never-ending need for affirmation, but their need is also accompanied by a lack of empathy and a tendency toward grandiosity. If you watch television you will find a ready example each and every evening on the news. But this post is not about our narcissist-in-chief. It is about being human.
I was about five when Elvis Presley became popular. The way he moved and swiveled his hips was scandalous in my church, but at my grandmother’s house there was greater tolerance. One summer afternoon I discovered that by playing an imaginary guitar (long before air guitars became a thing) and singing You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog, I could get the attention of a room full of adults. I was hooked. It wasn’t long before I was singing solos on Sunday nights at church, partly because I liked to sing, but mostly because for three minutes all those people were mine, all mine.
I was nervous every single time I sang, just as I am nervous every single time I preach. There are a lot of collective minutes in the audience. A church service with five hundred people at 20 minutes each is 10,000 collective minutes. I am not inclined to waste minutes. But as concerned as I might be for my audience, I know that to a greater or lesser extent, it is also about me. And that is where my concern lies, in that greater or lesser extent. All of us have ego needs, but when does normal become abnormal?
Last fall I was asked to speak for Denver’s TEDxMileHigh Wonder event. The invitation came after their curators heard me on Colorado Public Radio. I was initially skeptical, but the more I read about TEDxMileHigh, the more I realized it was a big deal, so I said yes.
First, we had to decide on the subject about which I would speak. Once that was determined, I started writing. Three weeks before the event, I was at edit 21 when I was asked to switch subjects. I was good with the change, because I agreed with the TEDx folks. The new subject might bring a wider audience. Besides, I really liked the idea of talking about the difference between living as a male and a female. So I began writing again. The final edit was number 18.
For reasons I won’t write about today, the day before the event I was a wreck. The day of the event I was normally nervous, which means scared shitless, but ready to go. The sold out audience of 5,200 was wonderfully responsive and rewarded my talk with a standing ovation.
A month later the video came out and my obsession began. I watched the first evening as the count shot up to 1300, but then slowed down to a trickle. By the middle of February it had clawed its way to 10,000 views, but hardly a stellar performance for a TEDx talk. From December to February I looked at the count every few days. But then came February 24. I have no idea what happened on that particular day. Maybe it was Melissa Greene linking to my talk from her Facebook page, but it took off and started growing to about 7500 views a day.
I was hooked, intoxicated by the dopamine rush that accompanied frequent checks of YouTube. The count went to 10k a day, then 15k, then 20k. I became obsessed with looking multiple times a day. I mean, obsessed.
About the middle of March the views peaked at 30,000 a day, but I wanted more. Then the numbers began dropping, first to 20k, then 15, then 12, 10 and 7.5. My ego was bruised. The more the numbers dropped, the more obsessed I became with following them. They have settled down to around 5k views a day, and I was just beginning to come to my senses and put the whole thing in perspective when Amy Schumer linked to my talk from her Twitter account with the line, “Love a good TED talk.”
I was thrilled. I mean, it’s Amy Schumer! But my numbers didn’t go up on YouTube. Then a producer from Radiolab called and asked me to do an interview. They did one 75-minute interview, followed by a two and a half hour interview yesterday. I mean, it’s Radiolab, one of the best shows on NPR! I adore Radiolab! But of course my first thought was, “Yeah, but being interviewed on Radiolab probably won’t bump my YouTube views.” And that is when I knew I had a problem – YTCA – YouTube Count Addiction.
I imagine my YTCA will require intense psychotherapy, as well as behavioral therapy, which will include including limiting my views of YouTube. Or, oh no, please no, maybe I’ll have to stop counting completely!
But I love my little dopamine rush. I just spent a week with my five granddaughters. It was wonderful. I had a delightful time with my kids and their spouses. My son preached at Left Hand Church last Saturday and did an amazing job. I mean, my life is blessed without YouTube, right? So what is my problem?
The whole episode really did cause me to read up on dopamine rush, the reward molecule that gets excited every time a text dings. Since we became a nation fixated on social media, it has become a genuine problem. But I will write about that another day. Today, it’s all about me.
I have committed to not checking my numbers this week. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll let you know. And so I leave the count where it was last night, at 435,800 views. Aw gees, I do have a problem.