Dopamine, Anticipation, Capitalism, Hollywood, and What Happens if Charlie Brown Never Kicks the Football?

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.

It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear, p 106

I’ve been thinking about anticipation in our society. About how dopamine keeps flowing for a person who believes a reward is coming—and how capitalism is great at instilling belief in rewards by showing us other people receiving rewards and selling the idea that with enough work, it will be our turn, or at least our children’s turn. And, if that seems too obviously unrealistic, Christianity offers the back-up belief that rewards will be offered in the life to come, if we are good.

For our system (or those who profit by it), it’s good for people to believe in capitalism, religion, or both because it keeps them anticipating a reward. If people stop anticipating— because they stop believing the reward will manifest, or in the value of the reward — their dopamine levels could drop to such an extent that (like the rats mentioned in my previous post) they stop working. Which would be bad because everyone striving for their individual rewards within the system, is the system.

The pandemic has shown, in a small way, how when people can’t / won’t service the system, it’s inconvenient for the people who need a new bathroom vanities, cling peaches or car parts, and also threatening to the people who normally profit from all these transactions. I’m far from the first theorize that to keep things running, the system might ultimately have to provide rewards of actual value — like workplace safety, higher wages and maybe some other things, like respect and appreciation for one’s contributions and skills…etc.

Oops — I think most of that was a tangent. The real topic of this post, of course, is me.

Who am I? I’m a subset of person: a writer, existing in a subsector of the capitalist system: the entertainment industry. The rewards I want are the same boring things most people in my industry who aren’t sociopaths want: creative opportunities, a living wage, functional work relationships, etc. For a fair while, I’ve sustained myself with the anticipation of obtaining these, because I had some belief that it was possible. Like its parent system, Hollywood is great at saying “look at all these other people getting dopamine-triggering treats—if they can do it, you can too!”— and also selling the idea that if you are just good enough, God (or someone) will pick you and lift you up to heaven (or at least higher up the food chain).

The thing is, one starts to lose one’s ability to anticipate a bright future if this keeps happening:

If you don’t want to kick the ball anymore, CB, there’s thousands of writers out there who would kill for the chance.

Please know, that, within my field, I am in no way unique and this football-yanking happens to lots and lots of people, all the time. So this is not a plea for sympathy, inasmuch as a preamble for some self interrogation, wherein I ask:

Who’s at fault in the situation pictured above?

Is it Lucy, for being a jerk? For sure. But. Is it also Charlie Brown? Why does CB repeatedly come back to Lucy and her ball? Doesn’t he have other friends who treat him better? Is Lucy so much more glamorous and interesting than those friends? Or, is Lucy his only acquaintance with a football, and a football is the only kind of ball he wants to kick?

What’s with Charlie Brown’s obsession with that dumb football anyway? That question is facetious — I know the answer. He feels like he’s meant to kick that football. If he could just have that one chance, where the ball didn’t get pulled away, and his foot could connect — he can feel in his bones how that football would go flying! (And once that ball was in the air, the world would know, and soon he’d have his face on a cereal box or at least be kicking footballs everyday for money. It’s just one kick between him and living the dream!)

But who are we kidding? Lucy is literally incapable of not fucking with the ball. Like the proverbial scorpion, it’s in her nature to pull it away. Like Jessica Rabbit, she’s just drawn that way.

So the question becomes, what should Charlie Brown do now? I mean, shouldn’t he try playing some other game that doesn’t include Lucy? Like baseball or soccer, or Yahtzee? Or maybe he could start mowing lawns, and just buy his own football?

Hell, he could start a lawn-mowing franchise and eventually buy a whole football team. By then he’d be past the prime for football-kicking himself, but he’d likely have friends who are more loyal than Lucy, clients who truly appreciate (and pay for) their evenly-cut lawns, and co-workers who invite him to BBQs and their kids’ birthday parties where they share inside jokes and compare lawn mowers.

Possibly, he could have a happy life with plenty of anticipation and dopamine despite never kicking a football!

Ugh, I just passed 1000 words! I didn’t want to do that. How can I wrap this up? Okay, here:

  • Capitalism is deeply flawed but seems poised to persist.
  • Given the fact that I’m not Neo, and can’t unplug from the Matrix, I need to live in it. (Matrix=capitalist system. I didn’t set up that metaphor, but it’s so commonly used I don’t need to, right?)
  • Within the capitalist system, my stubborn commitment to football kicking / i.e. screenwriting seems increasingly likely to end with me living underneath an overpass (between police sweeps), while Lucy / Hollywood forgets I ever existed and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty.
  • However, Hollywood is just one subsector of the big capitalist machine, and if I can quit sulking about the not-getting-to-kick-the-football thing, I could look for a different sector that doesn’t lead to the whole overpass scenario.
  • And in the process, I could even look for a sector with work-life balance, respect for my skills, and getting compensated happily and fairly instead of grudgingly and as little as possible. (I don’t know if this place actually exists, but what is life without a search for mythical lands?)
  • All of which would help renew my faith in humanity and the capitalist whole reward system, which would reset my ability anticipate good things, triggering the release of dopamine…

When It Gets Challenging

It’s a tough time of year. The weather is hot, both in the way that August is always hot and the way that portends the ever-nearing climate apocalypse. The autumn is nigh. In the way that August always precedes the too-fast downhill slope into the holidays and the end of the year.

We’re housesitting for a few days in a beautiful house with air-conditioning and a calm, well-behaved dog. An ideal writer’s retreat… but I am not being the ideal writer. It makes me feel ashamed of passing hours lacking in accomplishments, and it’s all too easy to make the mental jump from passing of hours to the passing of ones life.

I have my reasons for minimal output, as maybe writers always do. So far, 2019 has been yet another year of almosts, of promises, of feigned excitement and “contracts on their way from business affairs,” that in the end turn into nothing. Some “untruths” are no doubt innocent, others intentional — they are plentiful enough to have some of each.

So what should I be writing? I have two stories, a feature in need of a rewrite, and three feature outlines all begun, and I find myself in a state of paralysis, unable to make a good dive into any of them.

There is the pervasive Hollywood myth, that I am realizing is much the same as myths perpetuated by abusers everywhere, that there is some right choice, some story, that (if you can execute it in a way that’s transcendent) will make the relationship healthy, will make the abuser act not act like a sociopath. If you can just be GREAT ENOUGH then THIS TIME all the promises will be made good on. THIS TIME you will be pulled from your indentured servitude into the rosy future — if you can pass all the tests and reach it.

I’ve come to recognize this as the psychological fuckery it is, and I don’t believe in it anymore… except when I do. Like a seven-year-old coming to certain conclusions about Santa, I’m still like, “but WHAT IF?” What if he does exist and there are awesome presents that you get because you’re good?

So, there’s still this temptation to place an irrational weight on choosing which project to invest in, because what if one of them has the potential to be a project that CHANGES EVERYTHING and what if I choose wrong? Or, what if NONE of them will change everything, but there’s a project that will at least give me personal satisfaction, but instead I’m choosing to chase promises and pots of gold at ends of rainbows again?

At this point, either my compass is so messed up or — because it’s actually impossible for anyone to predict — I’m having difficulty even choosing what will give personal satisfaction. Which project, a year from now, will be worth the frustration of finishing a draft and realizing I need to tear it down to the bones and build it again and then again?

So here I am at a fork in the road, unable to choose a way forward, waiting for clarity.

At least there’s a pool.