Have you ever sat at your desk intending to get work done, but ended up on your phone five minutes later, wasting hours of your time? Some call this a dopamine addiction, and claim you need a ‘dopamine detox’—an extended break from unproductive activities—to solve the problem.

The recent threat to ban TikTok in the US raises the question as to what would happen if everyone in the world decided to go on a dopamine detox. If the key to happiness and productivity is practising discipline and avoiding dopamine triggers, what would happen if everyone had this restraint?

What is a dopamine detox?

Dopamine is our brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter, producing pleasure when we engage in certain activities. Such activities include gaming, social media, TV, comfort food, and anything else that may potentially distract you from being productive. Cognitive behavioural scientists claim that when your brain is over-exposed to dopamine triggers, your mind will become over-dependent on particular reward pathways, making you addicted to certain behaviours.

Dopamine is the reason why your brain would rather spend hours watching Netflix than the same time exercising. You know that exercising will bring you more satisfaction in the long run (even if it is unpleasant in the short run), but Netflix would bring you similar satisfaction instantaneously, with little to no effort. Ultimately, our brains want a higher release of dopamine via the path of least resistance.

In context, binge-watching TV shows is the modest end of the dopamine spectrum. The more extreme end of the spectrum includes drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines. These can cause withdrawal symptoms so strong that we would sacrifice our well-being to get more of them.

The idea behind the hypothetical detox is that we reset our brains’ reward pathways to become re-accustomed to more a natural level of dopamine release. This could result in us getting more satisfaction from simpler, more productive activities like meditation, working, and healthy eating. In this way, we could achieve or even surpass our goals. Levels of dopamine detoxing can range from abstaining from only one activity to abstaining from all activities that could bring enjoyment, including even simple conversations.

History of the dopamine detox

The underlying concept of the dopamine detox has been around for centuries and can be traced back to Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who toyed with the idea that abstaining from certain enjoyable activities can lead to a more morally satisfying life.

The ‘dopamine detox’ itself, however, is a modern term coined in 2020 by Dr Cameron Sepah, a Harvard psychiatrist from California. His idea was to help Silicon Valley tech and venture capitalists reduce mobile phone dependence. The concept has now become a widespread TikTok and social media trend.

What if everyone successfully dopamine detoxed?

If everyone successfully dopamine detoxed, they would feel far less dependence on social media platforms, junk food, and video games, to name just a few addictive activities. The problem, however, is that many social media sites, streaming platforms, and repayable games all rely on you coming back for more. Research has shown that addiction is not just a symptom of social media usage but in some cases an inherent design feature. Examples include being able to save passwords for easier access, never-ending suggested posts, and push notifications to drive engagement and trigger dopamine reward pathways.  

Thus, in theory, if everyone was to break free from such a vicious cycle, we could potentially be wiping out 60%–70% of the entertainment industry’s value. It goes without saying that this would cause a worldwide recession on an unprecedented scale. If industries decline, how many high-flying opportunities would exist for a population of newly disciplined people? And if everyone had military levels of discipline, what would the competitive landscape look like for the top 5% of the top 5%? Overall, a dopamine detox can be an effective method to becoming more productive, but the impact will vary depending on a person’s individual situation. If the individual feels like they are spending too much time on unproductive things, a simple two-day detox may be enough to remedy the problem. If the individual feels as if they are addicted, they will likely need further help from specialists.