Kurt Cobain: His biggest folly

Kurt Cobain created a whole new genre of music: the grunge music. And he did this while he was homeless! After he dropped out of school, his mother gave him a choice: either get a job or get out. Cobain left.

He would crash at various friends places. And sometimes sneak back into his mother’s basement. But he spent quite a few nights homeless too. And throughout this time, he focused on his music. He experimented with his vocals and the guitar and pushed himself to create something different!

He found his unique sounding music in this phase of his life. He started his band Nirvana. And a few years later, Nirvana’s second album Nevermind suddenly and unexpectedly became a huge hit. Alternative rock was hitting mainstream and Cobain became the spearhead of the trend. Millions of people bought their music!

Cobain suddenly found himself surrounded by various executives and owning a huge mansion. And do you know what he started doing to make new music?

Sneak out of his mansion and go to cheap motels. Why? Because he wanted to recreate the feeling that helped him create magic in the first place. He wanted to find his roots. Go back to the feeling of being free of responsibility where he could experiment.

In 1994, at the age of 27, Kurt Cobain killed himself. 

His suicide note read that he had not “felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music… for too many years now.”

Kurt Cobain craved the past. What drove him was pursuing the feeling of creating pure music when he had nothing else. And when he could never recreate that feeling, he finished himself. 

Craving the past is the ultimate shortcut to unhappiness

Nostalgia is fine in its place. But when you start craving for past glories, your life starts going downhill. 

And that’s because craving is an overwhelming emotional response that your brain creates. A response that narrows your focus and makes you chase after short term pleasure over long term gain.

What happens inside your brain when you are craving something?

Craving is excess dopamine release. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that your neurons release to communicate in the brain. It helps in impulse control and in keeping you motivated to do the job that needs to be done. But when excess dopamine is released, it makes you obsessive. It shuts down all the noise and reduces all the options. It narrows your attention and focus. And makes you go after one thing and one thing only.

But dopamine is flawed. Because dopamine is released not when you do the job and receive the reward. Instead, it is released before you do the job – in anticipation of the reward!

And this can be a problem.

When you are thirsty and drink your first glass of water, you feel really good. But the second glass of water doesn’t quench your thirst with the same satisfaction. Every subsequent reward that you receive never matches your original experience. And when you crave the anticipation that is never met, you feel incomplete.

This feeling of incompleteness and unfulfillment led Cobain to do the unthinkable.

Cravings and anxiety

Do you know who else feels incomplete? The people who suffer from OCD. They do the same task again and again because they have an inability to achieve “closure.” They keep on thinking that something is just not right.

(Science shows that the brains of people suffering from OCD actually release abnormal levels of dopamine, especially in their basal ganglia and the cingulate gyrus areas – areas of the brain that affect attention and cognitive flexibility.)

So how is OCD treated? With chemicals and drugs that help modulate dopamine and serotonin. But also with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

You know what people with OCD are taught in CBT? They are taught not to avoid the triggers that lead to them feeling OCD. Not to escape. And not to seek comfort from others.

Instead, they are taught to feel the anxiety in the moment. Be ok with anxiety. Be ok with uneasiness. Because the pain of anxiety makes your brain stronger – it teaches itself to cope.

The case of another suicide

32 year old R. Buckminster Fuller had lost all hope. His business had failed. He could not support his family. And because of his poor living conditions, his young daughter’s meningitis had become worse – and she passed away. 

Buckminster was considered extremely smart by his peers and yet he had failed. And paid with the life of his child. With a devastated mind, he went to Lake Michigan to drown himself.

But there was a single moment of clarity before he took the lethal step. He let his anxiety wash over himself. And decided that his life didn’t belong to himself. It belonged to the Universe.

He went on to invent various scientific miracles including the geodesic domes!

Let the future be uncertain. Be ok with anxiety. Be ok with your present not matching your past experiences.

The difference between Cobain and Buckminster was this: Cobain could not deal with the anxiety. He could not deal with the future uncertainty… of whether he would ever make amazing music again. And so, he tried to escape from it. 

The antidote to cravings

To stop craving your past, you have to replace the anticipated dopamine rewards (that is never met) with something else in your brain.


With gratitude. 

An experiment at Indiana University was done with 200 people who were entering psychotherapy treatment for clinical depression and anxiety. Half of them were asked to write a gratitude letter. What were they thankful for? The other half were in a control group and not asked to do anything. Both the groups received similar treatment for their depression.

Three months after, fMRI scans were done on their brains. And it was noticed that people who had written a letter of gratitude had more activity in their medial prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that regulates drive and suppresses anxiety and fear based responses.

People who wrote gratitude letters recovered from depression faster too!

So why does gratitude work so well in reducing cravings? 

Robert Emmons gives us a clue in his essay on gratitude. Gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. And by giving gratitude, we recognize that this source of goodness lies outside ourselves!

Our focus moves externally. Gratitude helps you focus on what you have, instead of what you want. 

And by shifting that focus, our cravings and wants go down. We can get out of the dopamine trap. And feel real joy.

Once you are out of the vicious cycle of cravings, you can then start rebuilding for the future. Instead of trying to recreate the past, you can focus on completely new innovations for the future. If only Kurt Cobain would have thanked his lucky stars and moved ahead.

Action Summary:

  • Shift your focus from what you want, to what you have. Write gratitude letters when you are feeling down. 
  • Stop trying to recreate the highs of your past. Be thankful for your experiences. And take on new challenges.