Over the past few weeks we’ve been studying James Clear’s Atomic Habits through the lens of a Christian worldview (see list of previous posts here). The author’s approach to habits can be summed up in his four step analysis of good habit formation (to break bad habits, just do the opposite):
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
We’ve been primarily focused on the first these laws: Make it Obvious. Now we want to move to the second: Make it Attractive. As Clear puts it:
“If you want to increase the odds that a behavior will occur, then you need to make it attractive…Our goal is to make our habits irresistible.”
Various experiments with the neurotransmitter dopamine have helped us to better understand the role of desire in behavior. While previously scientists thought that dopamine was released only when we experienced pleasure (hence it being called the happy chemical), it’s recently been discovered that it’s also released when we anticipate pleasure.
“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 reward–not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action. Interestingly, the reward system that is activated in the brain when you receive a reward is the same system that is activated when you anticipate a reward” (106).
Which explains why looking forward to a vacation is often as enjoyable (if not more so) than the vacation!
In fact, our brain has far more neurons allocated for desiring pleasure (wanting) than for experiencing it (liking)! Scientists have discovered that 100% of the brain’s nucleus accumbens is activated during desiring pleasure, while only 10% is activated in experiencing pleasure. Clear’s conclusion:
“Desire is the engine that drives behavior. Every action is taken because of the anticipation that precedes it. It is the craving that leads to the response” (107).
This all raises the question about whether or how God uses this system and these chemicals in regeneration and in spiritual formation. Does he simply override all of this in spiritual life and progress, or does he use it? Although in spiritual matters, God works primarily in the soul, to some extent he also uses the biological structures and systems he designed and created.
Consider, for example, how God uses the brain to reach the heart; he uses the physical part of us to reach the spiritual part. It also goes the other way in that the brain is involved in rendering spiritual obedience and worship to God.
So why would God not use the dopamine system for spiritual purposes as well? Let’s think this through a bit further in three areas.
Prior to regeneration, we have no desire for God. In other words, there is no dopamine spike when we hear about God or think about God. No matter how many external or internal cues there are (e.g. Christian witnessing, preaching, conscience), there is no spiritual craving produced. As a result, there is no response, no pursuit or seeking of God.
In regeneration, one of the things (not the only thing) God may do to bring us spiritually alive is to use our spiritual life to stimulate dopamine spikes when we hear about God or think about God. Where previously there was death in this system when it listened to sermons, now there is life (and dopamine). By God’s gracious and sovereign intervention, cues now create cravings.
Does God use dopamine to make us love what is holy and hate what is evil? Why not? When we were unconverted, we saw a sinful cue and our dopamine spiked with desire for the sin. But now, that chemical factory is dead and still (or, at least, is now “understaffed” and working only “part-time”). Whereas previously when we saw a cue for godliness, dopamine was dead, now, when we see someone or something holy, we desire it, we want it.
When we pray to hate sin and love holiness, does God perhaps answer that prayer by working through the soul to tamp down dopamine when faced with temptation and to amp it up when we are called to godly living?
Communion with God
The book of Psalms repeatedly connects longings and yearnings after God with spiritual joy (e.g. Ps. 63). The Song of Solomon is one long poem about the beauty of relational desire. John Piper highlights how, in Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis said that joy is the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction….[so that] any one who has experienced it will want it again,” something that he would not exchange for all the pleasures in the world. Or as Lewis put it in The Pilgrim’s Regress:
“The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. . . . This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth.”
Lewis calls this intense longing ‘joy’. Is it not possible that part of this is created and experienced through God’s use of our dopamine system?
In the light of the science, especially its alignment with biblical revelation and Christian experience, it’s fascinating to me that John Piper’s ministry, Desiring God, is all about Christian hedonism. Although Piper does not come at this subject from a physical or biological angle, the physical and biological angle confirms the connection between desiring and pleasure, and specifically desiring God and spiritual pleasure.
Now, let me raise some caveats to avoid misunderstanding. I’m not saying that physical processes are all that’s going on in a person’s spirituality. We must not reduce all that is spiritual to physical explanations. I am saying that at least this is going on. There is far more than dopamine in Christian desire and pleasure. But there’s at least some dopamine.
Neither am I saying there is no pleasure in actually finding God and in being godly (the response and reward steps of habit formation). Unlike purely physical habits, the habits of godliness not only have pleasure in the desire but in the response and in the reward too.
Lastly, will there be dopamine in heaven? Why not? We will still have bodies, though glorified. Is it not conceivable that part of our glorified bodies will be a glorified dopamine system that perfectly aligns with our perfect souls, and in turn perfectly aligns with Christ in his perfectly glorified body? The spiritual and the physical pleasure systems will work in perfect harmony forever!