We’re All Dopamine Fasting Now

Photo: Getty Images.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably bored. Or were recently bored. Or will soon become bored. Or are planning on giving yourself a haircut in an attempt to avoid becoming bored. (Unpopular opinion: Go for it, it’ll probably turn out fine!) Over the past two months of coronavirus-related lockdowns, those of us lucky enough to be healthy, financially stable, and safe at home have begun dealing with a trivial but very real question: What the hell am I supposed to do with myself all day?
And the answer is, some pretty weird shit. Stuck in our homes, separated from the friends, family, and strangers’ dogs who give our lives meaning, we’ve been experiencing levels of boredom not seen since 1998, when the entire internet was just two X-Files fan sites and a GIF of a dancing baby. You’re probably on the verge of picking up an arcane new hobby to fill the hours, like pet-hair knitting, or watching so many episodes of the Bachelor that you tearfully propose to your couch (“My heart chooses you and your easy-wash corduroy covering forever”).
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But I would like to suggest something else. I would like to suggest that, for just one day, you thrust yourself deep into the howling heart of boredom and see what you find there. I would like to suggest that you make friends with the void. I would like to suggest that you try a dopamine fast.
Remember dopamine fasting? A few months back, the wellness technique became trendy among the type of tech influencer who is always looking to “optimize” something. It’s really no biggie — you just abstain from phones, computers, TV, music, work, sex, shopping, exercise, petting your dog, and prolonged eye contact for 24 hours. According to enthusiasts, doing this will cause your brain to release lower-than-usual amounts of dopamine. This neurotransmitter does a lot, but it’s most famously known as the chemical our brains produce when we’re in pursuit of pleasurable activities. Depriving yourself of it for a day is supposed to “reset” your brain and behavior, reducing your need for stimulation and allowing you to function at a higher level.
Normally, I don’t take my wellness cues from millionaires who still wear free promotional hoodies. But a few months before the lockdown, I noticed that my policy of constantly doing something — returning an email, listening to podcasts, pretending to pay attention on a conference call while covertly watching Succession — was eating a hole in my brain.
Like many of you, the internet is my closest frenemy. I’m compulsively online, even though there’s nothing waiting for me there but depressing world news, the various successes of people I hated in college, and information about how someone on Twitter named “dung_lord_69_420” thinks I’m a bitch. And it was undermining my real life. It impacted my ability to write, or give my husband my full attention. I can’t remember the last time I was even able to make it through a two-hour movie without texting five people and checking at least one celebrity dog’s Instagram account. Something had to be done.
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And that something, it turned out, was nothing.
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Dopamine fasting may seem like it came out of nowhere, but it is actually a result of the fairly recent alliance between tech bros and wellness culture — an alliance that brings to mind those viral videos about a wallaby and an armadillo who are friends. Sure, it’s cool, but also, how did they even meet? 
Like many other Silicon Valley-inspired wellness trends — including “ice baths” and “take a teeny tiny bit of LSD before work, what could possibly go wrong?!?” — medical professionals are not convinced that dopamine fasting can rewire anyone’s brain. (As one PhD previously told Refinery29, “This is a fad, not a controlled study.”)
In fact, most doctors are not sure dopamine fasting actually “does” much of anything. “It is clear that the use of the term ‘dopamine’ is a marketing ploy, to try to link in to all the internet and popular press mythology of dopamine as the ‘pleasure chemical’ of the brain” John Salamone, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, tells Refinery29. “There probably is some merit to the general idea of disconnecting,” but there’s no reason to only do it in such a dramatic, all-or-nothing way, he says. “It might be better to limit texts and emails for a few hours every day, rather than complete ‘fasting’ on specific days.”
Catherine Price, author of the guide How To Break Up With Your Phone, was also a bit incredulous. Dopamine fasts, she tells Refinery29, borrow from older traditions that help people healthily disconnect, like mindfulness. But dopamine fasts in particular seem designed for “people who don't have kids and don't have other responsibilities. There's a certain level of privilege that comes with the idea that you're just going to try to isolate yourself from the world in your dopamine fast.” 
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Of course, all of these professionals are correct — dopamine fasts are weirdly dramatic, so dramatic that they can’t possibly fully deliver. And yet, something about that drama made it appealing to me. It felt like tearing up a photo of you and your ex to show that you were serious and not just going to get back together with you in two weeks this time, okay, Andrew?
And so, several weeks before anyone could have imagined a months-long quarantine, I began planning a day of doing nothing. I decided to cut out all tech, entertainment, exercise, shopping, and sex; though I was still allowing food and talking, I decided to compromise by only eating Soylent, the futuristic gruel beloved by Silicon Valley, and only saying really boring stuff, like “How about this dopamine fast, huh?” 
Unsurprisingly, my husband decided to make himself scarce during my fast, which left me alone in my apartment for the day. Once alone, I realized something important. Though I had figured out all the things I was not going to do, I had no idea how I was going to fill the hours until I went to bed. I panicked slightly. If I didn’t come up with something, wasn’t I setting myself up to fail? The siren song of my phone is never stronger than when I have nothing planned. So I quickly decided on the most boring activity I could think of: dusting very, very slowly. Luckily for me, there was a ton of dust in my apartment,  which I had not noticed for the past several years, due to my busy schedule of staring at my phone for eight to 15 hours every day.
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As I settled into hour two or three of slowly cleaning, I realized something surprising: I LOVED dopamine fasting. It felt so freeing to have no notifications, no tasks, no options. I couldn’t obsess over the work I could be doing, or the emails I should be returning, so I didn’t. Instead, I just got really into organizing the area under my bathroom sink — which, unlike replying to emails or doing work, is an activity with a clear ending and obvious pay-off. I felt incredibly hyper until about 4:30 p.m., at which point my brain seemed to settle down and accept its new normal. 
Every so often, I’d feel a faint tug in my brain, like there was something else I should be doing — a little bit like the parents in Home Alone, right before they realize they forgot Kevin. But then I’d just remember that the thing I was forgetting was my tiny box that shows me stressful news and the photos of people who are richer than me, and I’d put it out of my mind.
I’d always suspected that if I spent too much time alone with my thoughts, I’d have some kind of chain-reaction freakout that ended with me making a bunch of rash decisions, such as starting a new life as an alpaca farmer (no offense to an alpaca farmers reading this). But during my dopamine fast, my unoccupied brain didn’t spill out dark secrets or troubling memories. Instead, totally innocuous thoughts floated to the surface: names of second-grade classmates, the memory of a fun vacation my family took to Savannah, the lyrics to songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. I hummed songs I wanted to listen to when my fast was over, thought about whether I wanted to get into pottery. Hour after hour, my brain spit wholesome, soothing stuff at me. I had spent so much time thinking of my mind as this enemy that had to be tamed, when really, it just wanted to be my buddy. I almost wanted to cry. But instead, I went back to cleaning under the sink.
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Dopamine fasts are mostly framed as a case of great suffering leading to great results — you’ll be miserable during the fast, but then you’ll feel amazing and totally recalibrated afterwards. If anything, my experience was the opposite. I had been so used to thinking of my phone as a guilty pleasure, I hadn’t realized what a burden it had actually become to me. I felt the stress melt off my body as I silently wiped down my baseboards.
In contrast, I didn’t really feel different afterwards. I slept badly the night after my fast, and I did not find any of my online habits had changed in any major, long-term way.  
Of course, now, my fast has taken on a totally new context and meaning. Most of us have given up some of the dopamine-stimulating pleasures that used to pepper our days, most notably leaving our homes for anything except necessities and being around groups of people we love. While we’re still allowed access to our technology, many of my days during quarantine remind me of my dopamine fasting experiment. And each one continues to remind me what I learned during my first trial: I don’t need to be afraid of being bored. It isn’t scary, it’s just... boring. 
Maybe the thought doesn’t seem revolutionary to you, but it was to me. So much so, that I’m preaching it to all my friends. Feeling bored? If you have the time, the ability, and the inclination, I say, get even more bored. Turn off your phone, log out of Netflix. Best case scenario, you’ll discover something about yourself that will completely change your inner life. Worst case scenario, you’ll end up a few hours behind on your pet-hair knitting.