Eat not to dullness: the pleasure pain balance

Ever heard Benjamin Franklin’s adage “Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation?”

My speciality is screen addictions, not food or alcohol, but behavioral and substance addictions may be the same. (the evidence is contested) At the least, we know that “eating too much sugar” gives us a headache.

In this two-part series, I’ll expand on that, replacing “sugar” with “dopamine.” And I’ll cite ideas from leading neuroscientists, including Anna Lembke, Medical Director of Stanford Addiction Medicine, on how to never get sick from “eating too much” again.

Eat not to dullness pleasure pain balance Pinterest Pin

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The dose alone makes the poison

“Eat not to dullness” exemplifies core value #3 of this blog:

Intentional > disposal. Substitute.

Because a classic symptom of addiction is an inability to stop when you want.

Long ago, I made this graph to help my video game addiction. Instead of playing for hours, it helped me stop after just a short time AND not feel completely drained after.

As fun goes down, regret goes up. There's no such things as "just one more." Put it down, turn it off, and walk away. Don't question it. You'll be glad you did.

If you want to eat not to dullness, remember: There’s no such thing as “just one more.” It always gets worse the longer it goes on, and you’ll feel more in control if you quit when you first wonder if you should.

Which leads us to the first of Medical Director of Stanford Addiction Medicine Anna Lembke’s 5 strategies: the pleasure / pain balance.

(The strategies here come from her book, Dopamine Nation. This article is very pared down, and there are lots more help and deep insights in the full book. If you find this article useful, buy her book for more.)

1. The pleasure / pain balance

The parts of the brain that process pleasure may also process pain. (The science is scattered and inconclusive.) But it’s possible pleasure and pain are a literally-fulcrumed balance.

(Also known as opponent process theory.)

When you feel a lot of one, you’re about to feel a lot of the other. That’s because your brain likes to keep the balance level, in homeostasis.

(Note: some people may have a balance tilted slightly more toward pain: those with chronic pain, depression, anxiety, etc.)

Let’s take my ex-video game addiction for example. I liked action or fighting games on medium/hard depending on the game. The important thing was to make me feel effective or powerful and boost my self-esteem. I didn’t play on very hard or easy.

The problem was I couldn’t stop until I obliterated the AI in the most satisfying possible ending. And that took 5-10 rounds to happen. Then I’d switch characters.

Here’s what we think that looks like:

Of course, we never see the gremlins, or in the moment we don’t care. They appear over time and gradually raise your side from pleasure, off the button. (Your brain places them there so you don’t get stuck forever; it’s a self-defense mechanism!)

And soon, the gremlins tip the scale toward pain. This is the comedown, the hangover, the “brain buzz.”

And those gremlins linger there for awhile, trickling out like the last fans at a football game.

What goes up, must come down.

And then because of the pain, you watch another video, play another game, eat another cookie to try to get some pleasure back. Only that never works.

Often, you’re just trying to delay the painful awareness of coming back to reality.

The see-saw isn’t a perfect metaphor, since we often “want” but don’t “like” something. Self-harm also doesn’t count! But you get the picture: the longer you experience pleasure, the more your brain gets fried and wants to go back to baseline.

Hence why it helps to eat not to dullness.

But hold on. You shouldn’t “crash diet.” Those never work.

1½. The hedonic setpoint

people at a gym running on treadmills

Also known as the hedonic treadmill, hedonic adaptation, or in drug terminology, sensitization, this is when your body gets used to a particular “diet.” If you try to eat not to dullness when you’ve been on an unhealthy brain diet for a long time, your brain produces cravings.

And this applies whether your addiction is pornography, social media, Internet in general, shopping, smoking, drinking, or cheddar jalapeño Cheetos.

Dr. Douglas Lisle, co-author of The Pleasure Trap, explains the science with “the five phases of hedonic adaptation.” I made a chart to summarize it below.

1, 3, and 5 are the same amount of pleasure. The difference is whether they’re preceded by a 2 or a 4.

If you’re constantly consuming 2’s, you’ll experience a 3 as a 3 and not as a 5 (red). You’ll get cravings for more 2’s, since 3’s suck in comparison.

And if your normal experience is 4, 5’s are so great you don’t like 2’s as much and have a harder time getting addicted to it. Unless you pile on the 2’s.

With constant 2’s, you’ll even get temporary anhedonia (no response / desensitized). Then you seek more potent forms to get the same high, because “vanilla” just won’t do it anymore.

Whether supernormal stimulus or “bland oatmeal,” your brain adapts by downregulating your dopamine receptors and dopamine transmission. You get less “happy juice” from the same thing, and you need more or a more potent version. Addiction.

eat not to dullness with this dressed-up (not plain) oatmeal
Compared to trans fat-laden fruit pies? Or plain oats?

“When you’re not eating a cookie, you feel bad, and you need to keep eating cookies just to feel normal again… from a larger, sociocultural perspective, the rising rates of depression, anxiety, suicide may indeed be because we’re all eating too many cookies.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

On a minor scale, this could be searching for just the right video, needing to end a game session with a satisfying beatdown, or scrolling or watching new videos despite them not being as exciting as the first ones.

The more potency, the stronger the habit, and especially if it’s your psychological security blanket, the harder to quit.


It also works in the other direction. I’ve heard anecdotes of vegans who get sick by sugary ice cream, yet a handful of blueberries is sweet enough for them. Truly, they eat not to dullness. They have a lot of 4’s and 5’s in that chart.

So what should you do? Go cold turkey? Wean yourself off?

My solution is substitution, urge surfing, and Quests.

In Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors, I show you how to create simple daily “quests” aligned with your signature strengths, and designed to increase your hope, meaning in life, happiness, lasting motivation, and resistance to triggers. I use daily Quests myself, and it’s backed by 8 psych books and 32+ papers by scientists.

2. Dopamine overload

Fried egg in a small pan
Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Ever noticed how easy it is to fry your brain these days?

Lembke argues that our brains evolved over millions of years to protect us from predators and dangers around every corner. It was a Paleolithic world of scarcity.

The problem is we now live (in first-world countries) in a world of overabundance.

And this overabundance manifests everywhere: addiction, obesity, sexual dysfunction (yes, too much porn causes ED), and all kinds of death from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs; meaning you can’t transmit or receive them).

Among NCDs, those stemming from behavioral risk factors make up the majority.

  • Tobacco / secondhand smoke: 7.2 million deaths a year
  • Excess sodium intake: 4.1 million
  • Alcohol: 3.3 million
  • Physical inactivity / obesity: 1.6 million

(source: the WHO, whether or not you like them)

According to the NCD Alliance, the below five factors account for the majority of NCDs, and NCDs make up about 74% of deaths worldwide.

Tobacco use, alcohol use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, air pollution

A person who eats not to dullness significantly reduces their chances of dying from “diseases of overconsumption.”

Plus, we know social media, television, video games, gambling, porn, news, movies, junk food, cigarettes, consumerism to fill the gnawing void inside, etc. are designed to be addictive– that’s how they sell more!

“The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

Eat not to dullness gives meaning to life?

I’ve often wondered whether having so much and not needing to work to get what you want destroys all meaning in life. Porn, YouTube for hours, super-junk food, and most television destroys mine.

Happiness in the United States has been in decline since the 70s. The Easterlin paradox, acedia, panem et circenses…

“Ever more people… have the means to live, but nothing to live for.”

– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning [ one of the top five books in my 100+ collection ]

“The paradox is that hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, leads to anhedonia. Which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

The Japanese have a saying: 腹八分目 (hara hachi-bun-me): “stomach eight parts full.” I can’t place why, but when you’re fully satisfied, doesn’t your vigor and motivation go?

If all motivation comes from pain, would it then be better to never be fully satisfied? To eat not to dullness?

And doesn’t Epicureanism (intentional pleasure) trump Hedonism (reckless pleasure) in giving meaning, happiness, and desire?

Japanese diet tips illustration

Here’s my translation of that blurry text (yes, I speak Japanese):

| The goal of hara hachi-bun-me is neither an “I’m hungry” feeling nor an “I can’t eat any more” feeling. |

It’s about more than just food. How’s your digital diet?

I don’t have many articles on that yet, but here are some present and future ones on that “digital diet”:

The philosophy is easy enough– “stop eating before you’re full and/or sick”– that you can gently prod yourself to eat not to dullness whenever you think about it. You don’t want to be sick, after all.

But for now, here are some simple eat not to dullness tips for tech:

  • stop scrolling when your feed refreshed or you have to go to a new page
  • stop playing a video game on an unsatisfying ending
  • use a blocker tool that sets screentime limits (Mindful Internet Use is good)
  • stop watching an episode in the middle, before the cliffhanger at the end (you know they’ll do it!)
Stop in the middle of an episode, before the cliffhanger. Binge-watching solved.

Eat not to dullness solutions in part 2!

In part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss Lembke’s three points for healthy dopamine management with our digital devices.

  • the best and correct way to do a dopamine fast (it’s controversial)
  • self-binding to stop addiction
  • manipulating the pleasure/pain balance to get more pleasure out of life

If overdoing it always hurts, you’ll have to read these tips for making temperance fun. ‘Cause that word sure don’t sound like it.

Benjamin Franklin (painting) by Joseph Duplessis, 1778

“Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.”

(From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin)

Eat not to dullness series

Part one: The pleasure / pain balance
Part two: Dopamine detox, self-binding, and more pleasure out of life

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