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The Neuroscience of Addiction: Hedonic Set-Point

There is a theory in psychology that everyone  has a certain set-point of happiness. The hedonic set-point remains relatively constant throughout an individual’s life, but can be altered by certain events. Addiction changes the hedonic set-point in our brains, leading to dysphoria and unhappiness when the drug is removed.

Dr. Alex Lickerman, in a 2013 Psychology Today article entitled How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point, explains, “The set-point theory of happiness suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life, and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time.” Addiction is capable of making major alterations to this set-point, causing us to feel unhappy unless we are using our drug of choice.

Addiction disrupts the reward mechanism in the brain. These changes as a result of chronic drug use cause one’s motivation for drugs to surpass the motivations for basic needs and desires, such as food, sex, and sleep. Jason Bardi, in an article for The Scripps Research Institute entitled Addiction at a Distance: Brain Reward Decreases and Danger of Relapse Increased with Heavy Cocaine Use, explains how the hedonic set-point can change as a result of prolonged and chronic cocaine use: “Once a new hedonic set point has been established, it takes more cocaine to reach this point. The increase in cocaine consumption then pushes the hedonic set point even further. This only happens when there is extended access to large amounts of cocaine, which allows for an escalation in cocaine use over time. Under such conditions, the hedonic set point increases, and the amount of drug that must be taken to achieve euphoria also increases. This leads to further drug intake and further alteration of brain reward neurobiology.” The rush of dopamine as a result of drug use will, overtime, change one’s ability to experience happiness.

The brain essentially rewires itself to expect large rushes of dopamine, making it impossible for an individual to experience happiness from other, natural means. Fortunately, the brain’s hedonic set-point is capable of returning itself to base level with time in sobriety. It may be difficult to experience feelings of great happiness for some time, but as the brain repairs itself in sobriety, a person will begin to once again feel happiness from natural means without the use of mind or mood-altering chemicals.

Your life can become one of happiness, joyousness, and freedom in sobriety. Recovery is possible, and you can begin the rewarding journey by making the decision to seek help now. Resilient House, located in beautiful Shreveport, Louisiana, brings together the highest quality behavioral health and addiction specialists, spiritual guides, and holistic experts to help you develop all the tools necessary to live a happy and fulfilling life in sobriety. For information about treatment options, please call today: (833) 242-6431