Disappointment happens in life.

The guy in the BMW swerves into the perfect parking spot you'd targeted at Trader Joe's. A friend at work decides to leave early for the party without you. In the break room, there's not a single Keurig left on the rack. Compared to the kids getting sick or a fender bender on your commute, these are only minor annoyances, and you probably don't need to understand the science behind them. Mostly, you get over mild disappointments in about five minutes.

Then there's a totally different category.

For those of us who have found the perfect job and then watched it crumble to the ground, or dated someone who had all the makings of a life-long partner (or so it seemed), actual disappointment is completely different from realizing someone took the last K-Cup.

With crushing disappointment, something more radical happens in your brain, and understanding why that is and what to do about it can help you cope easier.

First, before getting into some of the science here, let me explain one thing: I've been there. I have experienced this all before and I'm experiencing it this week. I have read up on disappointment recently and studied the science behind it, and I've put some of the ideas you'll find below into practice, mostly because I've had things fall apart in a radical and life-altering way. I know the pain of discouragement and loss. 

It's helpful to realize what is happening from a scientific standpoint, and the chemical involved with disappointment (or the lack thereof) will surprise you.

Here's why that is: For most of us, a major setback is like a brick wall. We sense it, we see it, we feel it, but we go through a few stages where we don't want to believe it's really there. In my corporate job years ago, I rose to the top of the corporate food chain then slid all the way to the bottom. (Fun fact: I was downsized almost exactly 18 years ago, on September 18, 2001. Here's the full story.) I believe the length of time we experience true satisfaction in life has a direct correlation to how much disappointment we feel when it all ends. During this rise, my brain was constantly producing dopamine.

My management job lasted about 10 years, so that's a lot of chemical reactions.

Sadly, it took me a year to rebound.

During that period of time, in late 2001 and into 2002, my brain stopped producing as much dopamine. We know this from literally hundreds of studies and scientific research; I know this because I lacked motivation. I also know from science that I was trying to replicate all of those feelings of success, that "high" from building a team of writers and designers.

As I've mentioned to my wife several times now, I'm reacting better to some recent disappointments. I'm not bitter. I refuse to sulk. I know what is happening chemically. 

From science, I know I'm trying to get back to that euphoric state when everything felt like pure bliss, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. However, it's impossible for us to manufacture dopamine on the spot, to simply "feel" better. The chemical is missing in our brains, and that feels like crushing disappointment. In fact, that state of "trying to get back to a previous state of bliss" is a perfect definition of disappointment. 

Thankfully, science also has an answer for that as well. You might call it replacement therapy. The idea is to find healthy activities that help produce dopamine. I've started biking more, hoping to distract myself and soak in the sun and warm weather while it lasts. I'm actively seeking out new experiences, including a trip to Florida in a few weeks. I'm hopeful I can find a similar outlet for some mentoring I've been doing lately.

Of course, this doesn't always work. We need time to heal, time to grieve--however, the key is to not let bitterness fester and to start the journey back to normal. 

I have every intention of finding a new way to produce dopamine, and to overcome the disappointment. I plan to avoid sitting around thinking about the bleakness of it all, and my advice to you is to look for similar avenues of encouragement.

There are chemicals that should be firing in your brain and they are not, so it's best to do something about that. Dopamine is to blame for almost everything, it seems.

Published on: Sep 20, 2019
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