Why Hiking Makes You Happy: Dopamine & Delayed Gratification

Ryan Steger
Why Hiking Make You Happy Dopamine Delayed Gratification

This is the second article in a series on how exercise and
being outside affects mental health. This is a strong passion of mine. In today’s society, you can have pretty much anything you want instantly, or within one or two days. Heck, I can order something from Garage Grown Gear and have it within two to three days! And that isn’t always healthy. 

Way back, before we settled down into towns our lives revolved around finding food. We spent most of our time looking for food, and we had no free time. As technology evolved, humans were able to specialize. We still had to work for food and if we wanted to buy something we had to drive out and get it. With the invention of Amazon and social media, instant gratification became an integral part of our daily experience. We can post on social media and get immediate likes, boosting dopamine momentarily, before quickly subsiding and leaving the reward system in our brains looking for another stimulus.

I’m going to get a little scientific so bear with me. Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter (chemical that helps your brain to know what to do) involved in the reward system and motivation. Dopamine is directly involved in both Parkinson’s and ADHD.

Why Hiking Make You Happy Dopamine Delayed Gratification


So basically, how to think about this is as a speed limit. Your brain has an average amount of dopamine that is being released at any time. Think of that as driving the speed limit. Your brain is doing what is expected and the situations around you don’t require more dopamine or motivation. Now, let’s say you’re hungry and you see a picture of a sandwich, so you speed up a little bit to get food a little faster. The picture of the sandwich increases dopamine production in your brain. After that, you slow down below the speed limit because you don’t want to get a ticket. The same thing happens with your dopamine levels — they decrease too.

Social activities cause the same rise in dopamine. The difference between social media and in-person social interactions is the response time for that rise in dopamine to occur. Social media causes an immediate rise in dopamine. Whereas in-person social activities cause a more gradual bump and then tapering off of dopamine. When the dopamine response time is immediate, the brain can become addicted. Cocaine for example causes an instant rise in dopamine, causing it to be extremely addictive. And most of us have felt that inexplicable pull to keep scrolling, keep clicking, while using social media. 

Why Hiking Make You Happy Dopamine Delayed Gratification

Delayed gratification
has many benefits. This delay causes less of a spike of dopamine and a shorter low of dopamine. This helps to ensure that your dopamine levels stay consistent, which helps with motivation.

What this means is that when you have to set a goal and work for it, your brain is happier than when you can have something immediately!

Why Hiking Make You Happy Dopamine Delayed Gratification


Now let’s talk about hiking, camping, being outside and exercising. Nothing about these experiences is immediate! When you are backpacking, not only do you have to hike to your campsite, you also have to filter water, set up camp, take down camp and make dinner. These are all activities that might not happen in your everyday life. All of these activities can actually help regulate your dopamine levels, along with resetting our reward systems.

Additionally, delayed gratification can impact resilience. Delayed gratification greatly improves resilience, which directly translates into being a better adventurer. Things go wrong on trail and being able to adapt is extremely beneficial. Resilience is the ability to deal with adversity. Resilience is something you have and something that can be trained. 

Why Hiking Make You Happy Dopamine Delayed Gratification

A study on adventure racers, for example, noted that resilience “is not simply about recovery but rather a process of struggling well. Race teams were resilient to the extent that they actively engaged in and shaped their context and then in the next moment did it again.”

“Our findings suggest resilience in organizations is more impermanent, enacted and relational than conceptual models currently portray.”


Why Hiking Make You Happy Dopamine Delayed Gratification

Social media is a wonderful invention but has had some unintended consequences. One of those is the detrimental effects of instant gratification on the dopamine reward center. Being outside and exercising — delayed gratification — can help to reset and offset some of those effects. 



My name is Ryan Steger and I’ve worked in the bike industry for 8ish years, and I’ve rode pretty much every type of bike out there. I graduated with my degree in Kinesiology from UW Madison in 2020 and I’m looking forward to sharing my love of bikes and all things outdoors! I’m pursuing a nursing degree, which is my journey currently. 

Trail talk

1 comment

Matt  O

Matt O

Awesome article. Lots of great info in a few paragraphs. A nice quick boost to my dopamine levels, lol. Actually I often wonder what it is about hiking that I love so much. This article gave me some answers. Thanks!

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