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How Dopamine works in favor of our Reward System

Let’s talk about dopamine, this little chemical that lives in us and makes us happy.

It’s one of our so-called ‘feel good’ chemicals. It’s a really tiny neurotransmitter that jumps between our nerve cells and activates them.


Dopamine is synthesized in the brain. Consuming it as food is irrelevant since it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. However, tyrosine, one of the molecules it is synthesized from, can cross the blood-brain barrier. So, consuming food rich in tyrosine (e.g. almonds, apples, cheese, soybeans, beef, lamb, fish, chicken, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole grains.) helps to prevent dopamine deficiency and to keep a good spirit.

dopamine-be-happy Dopamine

What triggers dopamine release?

Before dopamine can activate the nerve cells it needs to be released. How can this happen? For example, by singing, running and physical activities, by meditation and quiet spiritual time, and by consuming special food. Interestingly, just looking forward to something pleasurable has already an effect.

Enjoy the Rewards


Once we have experienced happiness we want more of it. We like our rewards. We actually take action to move toward receiving our rewards. Our brain is made to show behaviors that release dopamine in the reward system. That’s also why we repeat a behavior or habit that gives us our reward, our natural high.

In other words, our reward system is connected to a behavior or a habit. And we have to reward ourselves with happiness to be able to stick to a habit or develop a new one.


Since our reward system is connected to a habit we have to reward ourselves to develop a new habit. Click To Tweet


Reward System Pathway

Sometimes we are confused because we are told that dopamine release leads to movement, focus, concentration and memory as well.

And while this is all really cool we ask how this fits with our reward system?

Truth is, it doesn’t!

Dopamine simply activates more than just one pathway in our brain.

The pathways that lead to increased movement, focus and memory are different from the pathway that activates our reward system. Dopamine activates all of them. However, the answer and outcome to the dopamine activation are different.

So, to finish my short post of today allow me one scientific sentence for the ones who want to know the reward system pathway, also called mesolimbic dopamine pathway, in more scientific detail:

The reward system pathway connects the ventral tegmental area (VTA), one of the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain, with the nucleus accumbens, an area found in the ventral striatum that is strongly associated with motivation and reward.

reward pathway brain

Courtesy of

Reap the Rewards

Everyone is talking about dopamine but not everyone knows exactly what it is.

I hope today you could get to know it a little bit more.

I’m not claiming that have explained all there is to dopamine.

After all, it is a very useful, wonderful but still complex little friend.

Important is to see its connection to our reward system and habit development.

Important is to make use of it.




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Hi I'm Ilka, a self-development writer and lovable scientist with a knowledgeable expertise in brain science. I help people realize the power our behavior has on our brain - and the other way around.

Ann Davis - January 27, 2017

Hey Ilka,

My favorite is “t… can cross the blood-brain barrier. So, consuming food rich in tyrosine (e.g. almonds, apples, cheese, soybeans, beef, lamb, fish, chicken, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy, beans, and whole grains.) helps to prevent dopamine deficiency and to keep a good spirit.”

This gives me more reason not to eat bread.

I enjoyed reading the post,


    simplyilka - January 28, 2017

    Hi Ann!

    I’m glad you liked the post 🙂

    Focusing on foods high in tyrosine is a good choice. And it’s definitely possible to live a healthy life without eating bread.

    Thanks so much for sharing.
    Ilka 🙂

Ella - January 28, 2017

Hey Ilka!

I have heard of dopamine as a happy chemical. I never really knew how it worked. So this is was really interesting. As always I learned something new.

I wonder about the other happy chemicals like endorphins. How do they work?

Thanks, Ella

    simplyilka - January 28, 2017

    Hi Ella!

    As always, thank you so much for sharing your valuable thoughts. And it makes me happy if you learn something new 🙂

    Thanks also for your interest in the other ‘feel good’ chemicals. They are all neurotransmitters like dopamine, but the do not work the same way. They also ‘look’different. I am actually considering now to write a full post about them and their differences. Hmmm!

    Thanks for the input! Ilka

Ravi Chahar - January 28, 2017

Hey Ilka,

I have no clue about such biological things. Though I have read about enzymes and all but it was in my 10th grade.

Dopamine seems to be for activating the brain nerve cells. Maybe I should learn more about our body.

Thanks for the info.
Ravi Chahar recently posted…A Complete Guide For Adding MailChimp Subscription Form To Your Site.My Profile

    simplyilka - February 1, 2017

    Hi Ravi!

    Thanks for your comment. It can helpful to understand your body if you want to make healthy decisions. You also don’t really need to believe everyone and everything if you know yourself.

    And yes, dopamine activates nerve cells. And it activates the ones that give you ‘happy-feelings’.

    All the best to you. – Ilka

Mike Mahaffey - January 28, 2017

HI Ilka

I thought I loved dope, because it tricked me into making me think I loved it?

Then I found out about dopamine, and it’s so much better because it’s real!

And correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems from reading your article that doing something I enjoy releases more dopamine. And that make me enjoy more? and longer?

I was stuck in a world of regrets for what seemed an eternity, and now actively pursue changing my brain, my thoughts, and my attitudes about life. Thanks for your article.

    simplyilka - February 1, 2017

    Hi Mike!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    A natural high is always better than an artificial one because there is no danger of addiction. You also avoid the low moments when artificial help wears off. So, I think it is wonderful that you want to actively change your brain and thoughts. I love the saying “here we stand, from here we go’. And regrets don’t help with this. So, forget about regrets.

    Dopamine activates the happy feelings. But it also activates motivation. So yes, you feel good doing something you enjoy AND you are motivated to continue doing this.

    All the best to you. – Ilka

Michael T Scanzello - January 31, 2017

Hi Ilka,
Love the post, short and to the point. Except for that scientific thing at the end. 😉
Always good to know what my body is doing. I like how you mentioned foods that increase dopamine levels to feel happier. Practical tips are always awesome!

I was a little confused, you have a non-committal ending here. You say dopamine activates the reward system and other systems to help form habits, but does more than that. Is it nor effective for forming habits? I was just left a little confused about the takeaway. Will eating those healthy foods, exercising, and meditation make me feel better or is dopamine just a thing that “opens” up my body and brain, but doesn’t significantly help me feel better?
Michael T Scanzello recently posted…How To Receive The Gift Of Advice To Be SuccessfulMy Profile

    simplyilka - February 14, 2017

    Hi Michael!

    Thanks so much for passing by and sharing your thoughts.

    I’m glad you liked the post. And well, I warned you about ‘that scientific thing at the end’ 😉

    I’m also glad that you will be eating the foods that will help built your dopamine. Sorry I confused you at the end. To answer your question. Dopamine makes you feel great! And special foods, exercise and meditation have the same answer in your body: dopamine.

    So, I’m glad if you also take away that once you start a new habit and you feel good doing it (feeling good is the dopamine part) your body wants you to repeat the habit. That makes it easier to stick to the habit.

    I wish you all the best 🙂
    – Ilka

Carl D'Agostino - February 4, 2017

No release dopamine from alcohol or drugs 5 years but now its cake and ice cream and joy in children and grandchildren.

    Carl D'Agostino - February 4, 2017

    ooops, that’s 15 years. My 1 key is on the blink.

    simplyilka - February 14, 2017

    Hi Carl!

    Cake and ice cream are definitely the better dopamine reward sources. I love to indulge in them as well 😉
    15 years! (yes, I read the second post). You can be so proud of yourself. And you are a real inspiration.

    Keep in up! – Ilka

Philip V Ariel - February 10, 2017

Hi Ilka,
Happy to be here again after a while.
Glad to see the new developments.
This is really an interesting and informative read.
I do not know anything about dopamine!
Thanks for telling about this and its benefits and features
Though fully explained about it but you nailed by the concluding line:
“Important is to see its connection to our reward system and habit development.”
Habit development is the key here.
Thanks for sharing
PS: I am here today via the ABC community of AhaNOW
Keep sharing
~ Phil
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    simplyilka - February 14, 2017

    Hi Phil!

    Great to see you again over here. I hope you are doing fine. Thumbs up to the Aha community.

    I’m glad you liked the post. And you are right, habit development is the key here. And so often we forget about that. Habits are not really about willpower but about taking advantage of our nature. And our reward system is part of our nature. If we don’t reward ourselves when we try a new habit we will fail after a while. I wonder how any people have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and all the best to you 🙂
    – Ilka

Vernon Layne - September 8, 2017

Hi Ilka,
It’s good to be back over here again. Seen you at ahaNOW.
I really appreciate this post because being a recovering addict I have heard my fair share on dopamine.
But mostly it’s negative but this post shed some light on the purpose of them which is positive.
If we do things that makes us happy in moderation we don’t have to fear becoming addicted to it.
Have A blessed weekend.
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    simplyilka - October 14, 2017

    Hi Vernon!

    Thank you so much for sharing in your comment. This was very insightful.
    I’m glad that you see the positive in dopamine and why we humans have it in the first place. I absolutely agree that used in moderation dopamine is to our benefit – and not the opposite.

    All the best, Ilka

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