When we feel a strong craving for another person, we sometimes say the two of us have strong chemistry. What if that’s more than a metaphor?
It was almost 10 years ago when something hit me which seemed like a major revelation at the time, even though I realize others had already figured it out. I realized that the things people wanted in life — myself included — weren’t the actual material things or the achieved goals. Instead, what we really want is the emotional or psychological states that come with those things.
Once I’ve satisfied my actual physical needs, I don’t actually want money. Instead, I want the feelings that I’ve attached to money and having more of it.
I don’t have to have one partner I’ve committed myself to as my wife. After all, I could make the wrong choice. But I’m driven to find the right wife anyway, because I want the feelings I’ve attached to being loved and understood by a one special woman who is my partner.
In an objective way, I don’t want the extra responsibility and headaches that come with having children and raising them, but I want the emotional state that I attach to reproducing and having a loving family.
Plenty of people have money and spouses and children — and hundreds of other things that we attach to this sort of emotional state — and they’re miserable. So just having the thing itself isn’t necessarily what we need or want.
We want the feelings of fullness and love and deep satisfaction that we associate with having those things and with meeting our goals. That’s why we strive to meet our goals and desires. We believe we will feel those emotional states, even though we’re not conscious of the association most of the time.
I read something recently about why we love music. According to a study done in 2011, music causes something primitive in our brains to release dopamine. This was apparently the first time that it had been proven that something abstract can cause the physical release of this brain chemical. (Here’s a short video summaring what I learned about music and dopamine.)
I’m not going to try to explain the specific brain chemistry that’s involved in dopamine and serotonin, partly because I’m not qualified to do a good job of it and partly because it would overly complicate where I’m going with this. If you’re interested in the science, here’s one place to start.
To oversimplify it, let’s say that more dopamine gives human beings strong feelings of well-being and happiness. Since that’s true, we tend to be drawn to those things which have previously given us those feelings. Even if we’re unaware of what we’re doing, we find ourselves seeking out chocolate — or ice cream or alcohol or cocaine or gambling or sex — if we’ve found that that particular thing has caused us to have that emotional state in the past.
So what if our cravings for all sorts of things — both the healthy things such as love and family, and the unhealthy things such as substances, greed for money, or lousy foods — is nothing but our brains trying to create the emotional states we get when dopamine is at higher levels?
If this is true — and it seems likely to me based on what I’ve been reading in the last week — then much of our behavior is going to be driven by what we’ve been conditioned to associate with different things in our lives.
If we learn that reading literature gives us this pleasurable state of mind, we’re going to read a lot for pleasure, even if most people don’t understand that.
If we learn that getting approval from a certain person gives us this pleasurable state of mine, we’re going to do things to seek that person’s approval, even when we consciously know it’s unhealthy to do so.
If we learn that having money or other material possessions gives us that pleasurable emotional state, we’re going to seek more and more money to the exclusion of other things.
If we learn that sex or drugs or alcohol or cigarettes or gambling or ice cream create that state of mind, we’re doing to turn to those things when our minds crave a “hit” of that state of mind.
If we learn that controlling other people and molding them into what we want them to be — or even rescuing people so we can control them — produces the emotional state we want, we will crave control over those people.
And we won’t understand what we’re doing, because we will create another justification for it.
I suspect we can attach this craving to almost anything, but it depends on what we’ve been “programmed” to need, starting in childhood. We’re going to have different ways of approaching the craving. We’re going to have different ways of justifying what we do. But the need is the same — a need for an emotional state that allows us to feel peaceful, understood, satisfied and what we call happy.
I’ve been thinking about this for the last week or so and filtering my own desires and goals through the lens of this idea. What I realize is that the basic need for this state of mind — and for the chemistry that produces it — isn’t a bad thing. Not only that, but the things we do to achieve the state aren’t necessarily bad simply because they don’t serve purposes in and of themselves other than achieving that state.
Falling in love, having children, making money and getting approval can all be positive things and help the human race to survive. The problems come when we have unhealthy associations that produce that emotional state of mind, as has been the case for me when it comes to food for a long time, especially anything with sugar in it. When those connections are made, we become self-destructive in our pursuit of a chemical state in our brains.
I’m very aware of the things in my life that produce this state of mind. I crave love and understanding from a woman. I crave having an emotionally healthy family. I crave emotional, psychological and financial stability. I crave artistic expression. All of those things bring me that wonderful emotional state that I crave. Those things make me feel satisfied, loved, happy — whatever you want to call it.
But I also know that when I don’t have those things, I turn to dark substitutes. I eat ice cream by the gallon. I stuff my body with all sorts of horrible food. I pursue cheap approval and applause. I even put myself into relationships with a power imbalance that can allow me to be the hero on a pedestal, rescuing someone else who needs me.
I don’t want to do those things. I want to get emotional states I crave from the things on the positive list. But my lack of ability to delay gratification leads me to the dark impulses that give me a shortcut to the brain chemistry I crave — and doing those things short-circuits my ability to achieve the healthy things I want.
I need to be able to delay gratification long enough to win the things I need, but I am programmed to fall into a dark abyss when I go without the feelings I get from that brain chemistry. I panic when it’s missing — and I’ll do anything to get it back in the short term, whatever the cost. Somehow, I have to get past that abyss without falling into my darker cravings, because everything I need is on the other side.
When I reach for the love of a certain person I need, I’m trying to change my brain chemistry. I’m trying to alter the emotional or psychological state I feel. That might not sound romantic, but understanding why the craving is there can actually give us respect for the objective fact that one person can change everything for us. It can help us to understand a complex chemical, emotional and psychological process.
Even so, it’s just easier to say I have strong chemistry with the person I love. That’s more accurate than I’ve ever known.