Schafer: I’m hyperfocusing on… sand nickels

Columnist Cameryn Schafer discusses how goal-setting affects dopamine levels.Schafer and family took a vacation to Texas, where they search for sea shells on the beach each morning.

Cameryn Schafer

Editor’s Note: This column is a part of a series called “I’m hyperfocusing on…”.

Every 10 years, my family takes a vacation. This year is the year that we all load up into a minivan and drive across the country eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a week. This is what I’ve been up to recently, and the destination of choice was Texas. While I normally sleep until the middle of the day, I’ve been waking up before sunrise to walk to the beach and look for shells.

I’ve noticed that each of the six people in our group has a distinct shell that catches their eye. My mother’s been holding on to oyster shells. She’s found some gorgeous ones, with a pearlescent interior and an asymmetrical, barnacle-covered exterior. Her favorite has been an empty oyster that was still intact, with both halves of the bivalve.

I seem to be drawn to whelk and conch shells, although the whelks are much more numerous. Every time we walk back from the beach, we have hands, pockets and bags of shells. Every time, I look at my collection and realize that it’s almost entirely whelks and pieces of broken conch.

Cole loves sand dollars, and we previously discussed that he had a goal of finding a complete sand dollar on the beach to take home with him. As we walk the shores in the mornings, he stops over every small piece of sand dollar. At one point I jokingly said, “That’s more like a sand nickel” to one of his finds. After that, every new find is met with a proclaimed “SAND NICKEL!” before he picks it up. The rest of us have also taken to shouting it out before pointing out a piece of sand dollar. He’s still in pursuit of his full sand dollar, but that doesn’t stop him from appreciating the smaller, broken portions.

We live in a world that favors results over progress. I remember learning in my psychology class that our brains release dopamine when we reach a goal. This means short-term goals are healthier for your body by rewarding your brain more often. It’s been a full week, and we have yet to find a complete sand dollar for Cole. He could continue trying to obtain it before he celebrates. Instead, we chose to treat every piece like its own goal achieved. Each walk on the beach is full of dopamine because the broken pieces are just as much a sand dollar as a complete one as long as we treat it like it is.

This logic can be applied to anything. By holding out for a larger goal, we are depriving our brains of opportunity to release dopamine. And beyond that, once you’ve reached your big goal, there is no more dopamine to find in that area. Instead of focusing on an end goal, set a pathway for progress. Treat every step like its own achievement to celebrate. Get a cake for your floor to celebrate the first week of the semester being done. The celebrations don’t have to be anything big either. Do a happy dance after a quiz that went better than you expected. That’s something worth a little dopamine. You might not be done with the class yet, but another step in the right direction is achievement enough.

It’s easy to be too hard on yourself. It’s easy to find the downside. Give yourself some grace, find something positive to be happy about for a few moments, bust out that thing you’ve been saving for a special occasion and give yourself some dopamine — because any occasion can be a special one if you allow it to be.