The nonsensical financial theory of “low reward” vs “high reward” lifestyle

Let’s rap about the so-called “dopamine addiction” afflicting Americans and how it’s killing their savings.

The story goes that dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter associated with “reward” or pleasure… and that the more money you spend, the more dopamine gets released into your brain, activating pleasure centers in your brain, and the more “reward” you feel for your spending activities, the more you then turn around and spend.

I guess the layman’s term for this is a “spendaholic.”

None of this is your fault, they say, because you’re “just made of chemicals” and doing what comes natural to you.

Now, in my stoooopid lizard brain way of thinking, this reeks of psychologizing, but whatevs… let’s continue with the popular narrative.

Spending (and, by extension, a “high-reward lifestyle”)  is allegedly some sort of addiction you suffer from and the “cure” is to go on a “spending diet.”

Likewise, addiction to social media, smartphone use, and pretty much every other nifty bit of technology is blamed on dopamine.

Dopamine is the root cause of all that is wrong with the world… they say.

There is even something called The Dopamine Project which purports to promote: “better living through dopamine awareness”.

The Science™ is in (from the Dopamine Project’s website): “Using brain scanning equipment, researchers have established that all addictions can be traced to dopamine-induced expectations.”

I mean, research. Scientists. End of story, right?

And the list is (almost) endless:

Impatient? You have a dopamine problem.

Not saving enough money? Dopamine.

Spend too much money? Dopamine.

Can’t put your smartphone down? Maybe you should see your doc about getting your dopamine checked.

Facebook taking over your life? Dopamine strikes again!

Advocates of this idea refer to dopamine as a powerfully-addictive drug that sux you into a black hole of desire from which you cannot escape.

This idea is big in the financial blogosphere and especially among the #FIRE crowd (Financial Independence Retire Early) and really… I think it’s hitting mainstream because I just read a blog post about this on some major financial publication online.

Anywho, is any of this legit?

Is spending an addiction?

Is dopamine a naturally-occurring drug that gets released when you go on a spending spree or when you stop at Starbux for your morning cup of caffeine?

And, is the cure for your addiction some $buck.99 eBook or psychotherapy or a nun-like retreat into your basement for the next 6 months?

Should you trash all your hobbies, get rid of everything you value, and live like a stoic hermit for the rest of your natural born life?

Nay, Mortal.

As David Ley, a clinical psychologist who practices in Albuquerque (Hiya Albuquerqueians!) notes:

“Dopamine is not a “reward” chemical.”

It is associated with reward and pleasure, but… what it does is help you learn what feels good so you modify your behavior accordingly. It does not, however, control your behavior. That is an important distinction.

As for the actual “reward chemicals,” those are opioids that are released in the brain which result in a natural “high”.


Dopamine has many different functions in the body, and is involved in motivation, attention, perception, basic movement, regulating hormone release, dilating blood vessels, modulating production of insulin, modulating production of mucus, and so on.

About that science… There is no “silver bullet” theory in biology because the body is so complex and so many things are going on at the same time that there cannot be a single thing that modulates and controls every bodily function.

Your brain is not like a pool table, where a single billiard ball knocks you around and causes everything to happen, good or bad.

It just doesn’t work that way. And, people telling you it does have a kindergarten understanding of brain science.

I’m no expert at this, and in fact I probably only have a 1st grade understanding of neurobiology, and I am certain of my limits of knowledge in this area, and there is almost certainly more complexity which I’m not mentioning here.

But… my lovely, amazing, and perfectly wonderful wife IS a biologist (a molecular biologist, to be exact) and even though I barely understand her geek-speak and special nerd language, I do understand this:

Almost nothing in biology is quite that simple.

That doesn’t mean that you’re helpless though.

If you have problems spending too much or saving too little, there are lots of things you can do to change your behavior.

Like… start making lists. Set a firm timeline or deadline to take action. Make a formal, written, budget. Set goals and explicitly define your personal values. Seek out those personal values and commit to devoting money to those things you want to do, but haven’t (yet).

Speaking of which, one of the best ways to save money for your current and future goals is… life insurance.

It provides a guaranteed sum of money at a time and place when you know you’ll need it. That way, you can PERFECTLY match your savings to your financial goals.

Want to know more? Join my email list, now.

David Lewis, AKA The Rogue Agent, has been a life insurance agent since 2004, and has worked with some of the oldest and most respected mutual life insurance companies in the U.S. during that time. To learn more about him and his business, go here.