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When Happiness Became Poison

Pleasure is its own principle – we seek it for its own good. Oftentimes, we’ll do things precisely for the pleasure. We only stop to think about the activity or issue if it becomes a problem: if despite its short-term pleasure it is detrimental to our overall happiness.

“Happiness” has traditionally been understood as long-lived and useful, often attained in relationships, and typically doesn’t lead to addictions or dependence. In contrast, “pleasure” has been short-lived, fast and fleeting, and can lead to addictions. In the abstract, we can probably see or even “feel” the difference, even when we don’t articulate it as a difference between “happiness” and “pleasure.”

It isn’t just a difference of words, however. There is at least one way to measure the distinction. Happiness is built on serotonin, a hormone produced by the brain that relaxes the body and calms the mind, provides a feeling of general satisfaction and contentment. Serotonin is also a slow-acting hormone – it takes a while to build up and feel its effects.

Pleasure, on the other hand, is produced by dopamine. It is fast-acting and short-lived. Interestingly, dopamine actually subverts serotonin because one quality of dopamine is excitement and a state of arousal. It is a neurotransmitter that tells the brain to “wake up,” “be alert,” and creates the craving to have more. It activates the urge to have more of what produced the dopamine to begin with, generating that pleasure again. Unfortunately, the brain also builds tolerance to dopamine, so it takes more of the activity (gambling, sex, social media) or substance (alcohol, drugs, sugar, food) to achieve that same level of pleasure. The ironic cost of excessive dopamine causes cell death.

Both dopamine and serotonin are necessary and helpful for full and efficient functioning of the human mind and body. But there is a dynamic shift taking place in our culture that is moving us away from healthy serotonin levels and toward consistently excessive quantities of dopamine.

As a civilization, we used to think of happiness as contentment, but are increasingly identifying it as pleasure-seeking. (Think of your reaction to the picture at the beginning of this article. What did you assume about their moods, their joy, their happiness. Look again, and reconsider what we are trained to see as "happy".) In our commercialized media and market, happiness doesn’t sell (because happiness is the feeling of fulfillment, with no craving for “more” or dependence on future input). What sells is pleasure: likes on social media posts, high-sugar foods, super-size quantities, bombardment of images and shifts of topic, sexualized marketing, and so on. These are well-documented in our culture. What I want to point out here is the effect on our physical and mental health.

These kinds of preferences – for short-term, immediate pleasure-seeking – affect our physical health through addictions and excess, but also our mental-emotional health by actually chemically inhibiting and destroying our ability to achieve genuine, long-term happiness. (This is precisely what our market economy wants, of course, because pleasure-seeking makes us spend money on products and services that will in turn cultivate in us the desire for more of those products or services.) Note that marketing is built on cultivating pleasure-seeking, not accuracy or truth or sustainability. We all know commercials and politicians lie to us, but what we might not appreciate is that they are nurturing us to want more lies, because lies feel so good (at least for a short time… but there’s always another lie to keep the dopamine drip going).

Happiness and pleasure-seeking have always been with us as a species, but the internet and cable news may have started an unprecedented epidemic of addiction anxiety and chronic diseases. Facebook and Fox News are chief among the culprits, providing little dopamine rushes with every “like” or bias-confirming news bit, with the advent of smartphones now instantly accessible at any time. (Netflix and Amazon are other good representatives of the problem: providing unlimited and easy access to stimulation, distraction, and “retail therapy” without ever needing to get out of bed or off the toilet.)

The dopamine chemical, which used to keep us alive (motivating our ancestors to find rich food sources quickly), has been hijacked, turning us into pleasure-seekers, never finding happiness. The line between need and want is blurred beyond distinction; we hardly know when we are happy beyond short-term technological stimulation. Our civilization is almost literally killing off our ability to be happy, and we hardly recognize it because the thing that is killing it off feels so good.

In reality, we’re already hypnotized. What we need is to be un-hypnotized. How do we stop the mind-hack? How do we cultivate happiness?

First, connect meaningfully with real human beings. Put down the cellphone, unplug, listen, share, enjoy. Happiness and serotonin is found abundantly in relationships with other people.

Second, create something, do something. Perform, sculpt, design, help – any dynamic action verb is a good place to start. Contributing meaningfully to your community (however large or small your “community” is) trains your brain in several ways. You are self-sufficient: you can do amazing things with the knowledge and abilities you already have. You are meaningful and helpful: your identity is rooted not merely in consuming but in providing for others – not just in “service” but in sharing your own valuable self. You can shape the world positively through your own industry and patience: long-term contentment is achievable, and you have everything you need to get started right now.

Third, de-stress. I know this sounds easier than it is, but seriously: take it easier. There are two kinds of stress: external and internal. External stress is the kind of crap we deal with every day. You know how to reduce that (and you’ll never get rid of it all entirely, so don’t make that a goal or benchmark). Internal stress in how we process our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. This is oftentimes something we’re not entirely/consciously aware of, because much of the process is going on subconsciously. These are associations or experiences we’ve had, habits and behaviors we’ve acquired, times we flinch or blow up or go off the rails, when our minds or hearts feel temporarily hijacked. To address this, you need help – because if you could do it consciously, on your own, you would have already. Hypnosis is the best way I’ve found to address subconscious issues, but you might also find a spiritual discipline, conventional talk therapy, or meditation to be helpful. The key is, stress (and the resulting chemical cortisol) isn’t good for your brain or body, and if you want to heal and be happy, you need to get that under control.

Fourth, eat healthy. Seriously. Omega 3, for instance, is a building block of serotonin, so increase your intake of fish. Generally, eat less meat, eat more raw fruits and vegetables, and cook for yourself from scratch. (Processed foods and prepared foods are notoriously high in sodium, sugar, and other crap your body does not need any more of.) If you cook more for yourself and others, the cooking itself becomes part of the happiness-cultivating regimen. Cook with others, eat with others, and food will start to taste better and be better for you.

Happiness, misunderstood as pleasure-seeking, has become a poison to us. The antidote is right in front of us. Choose the long game, the slow gains. Happiness is its own cure.

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