Your new iPhone makes you happy. Reconnecting on social media with everyone you’ve ever met makes you happy. Binge-watching the latest Netflix series makes you happy. Guess what? You’re not happy—you’re addicted to pleasure. You’ve been hacked, and we’re not talking e-mail or bank accounts. Your mind has been hacked by a science engineered to stimulate your pleasure cravings. Like any addict, the cycle of chasing pleasurable moments is a no-win game that leaves people perennially unsatisfied, continually chasing the next fix, unhappier than before. Break yourself free!
Pleasure Is Not the Same as Happiness
Pleasure is the fleeting feeling of enjoyment or gratification we get when the reward center, deep in the brain, is activated. We derive pleasure from eating a good meal, watching our sports team win or receiving a lot of “likes” on Facebook. Happiness, on the other hand, is a rich feeling of peace, calm and contentment that comes from things such as a long conversation with your son or daughter. How to spot the difference between pleasure and happiness…
Pleasure and rewards are short-lived. The day after the Netflix series is over, you’re searching for the next one. Happiness and contentment last longer. After that good conversation, your relationship with your child is deeper.
Pleasure is visceral and exciting—it causes your blood pressure and heart rate to go up. Happiness is ethereal and calming—your blood pressure and heart rate go down.
Pleasure occurs when you get something, such as winning money at a casino or buying a new car. Happiness results from giving our time or money to others or a charity.
Pleasure often is experienced alone, while happiness is likely experienced connected to others.
Pleasure often is achieved with substances—caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sugar—but happiness is achieved with deeds or successes, such as watching a child graduate from college.
How Dopamine Can Hurt
The brain’s reward centers evolved to help us survive, reproduce and stay fit. But research in The Journal of Neuroscience has linked the release of natural feel-good hormones in response to pleasure and happiness to the same pathways that cause addiction to drugs. These days, thanks to an ever-increasing number of temptations both online and off-line, we have a near constant stream of opportunities for reward, which “hacks” our brain’s physiology.
Here’s how: A neurotransmitter is a chemical in the brain that, when released, causes other nerve cells to fire. Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter that’s released when we feel rewarded by something. That’s not necessarily bad. But too much of anything can be dangerous. Jumping from one clickbait online headline to another, for example, is too much stimulation, which can kill neurons. Next time, it takes a bigger hit to get the same rush. Just as with opioids and alcohol, the end point is addiction.
Another impact of excessive dopamine release: Not enough production of the calming hormone serotonin. Too little leads to depression. So the more pleasure you seek, the unhappier you become.
Stress is a third ingredient at play here. To protect us from stressors such as injury or an important presentation, we produce the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol. In small doses over the short term, cortisol is helpful. When stress is chronic, however, and cortisol remains elevated for long periods, it causes dopamine to fire even more, increasing the cycle of reward-seeking behaviors. Cortisol down-regulates production of serotonin adding to our unhappiness. Cortisol is, in effect, the anti-contentment hormone.
Net result: The cycle of hormone release and suppression caused by our nonstop personal pleasure-seeking is harming our emotions. Fortunately, pleasure addiction can be overcome—if you are willing to fight back. Here’s how…
The 4Cs of True Happiness
Though not rocket science, there’s a scientifically proven formula that can ramp up your serotonin, tamp down dopamine and cortisol, and improve your mood and your health in the process. But know that this road map to reclaiming your happiness takes some effort and sacrifice because it requires breaking away from your current social patterns. These are four things we all used to do and need to return to doing again…
• Connect: While it may seem extreme to you, log off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Instead, make time every day to interact with friends and loved ones face to face, eye to eye, in real life.
Why: Being physically face to face increases empathy and produces serotonin. Research published in Child Development shows that as you interact, you adopt or mirror that person’s emotions, stimulating serotonin release. You can’t achieve that connection with emojis.
• Contribute: Give your time, your money and/or yourself by volunteering, donating and performing tasks that contribute to the greater good. Even simple acts of kindness provide benefits.
Why: Multiple studies show that contributing to others or society at large improves your feeling of self-worth, drives contentment and boosts health by reducing your blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels. Doing good results in a better you, both physically and mentally. Bonus: You’re likely interacting face to face with others when you volunteer.
• Cope: This is all about self-care. You know the drill—get enough sleep, stop trying to multitask, eat well, focus on one thing at a time and exercise regularly.
Why: Taking care of Number One is key to managing stress. Sleep deprivation and trying to multitask drive cortisol and dopamine up and serotonin down. In fact, research shows that attempting media multitasking (watching TV, surfing the web, texting and reading all at the same time) literally shrinks the brain in the area associated with executive function—the set of skills that helps you get things done. Exercise, on the other hand, boosts serotonin production. Combined with mindfulness practices (yoga, walks in nature), it may be as effective at reducing depression as taking medication, according to researchers at Rutgers University.
• Cook: Stop eating out and relying on processed foods. Use fresh ingredients to prepare food at home instead.
Why: It’s no secret that eating fast food and processed foods, as well as supersized restaurant meals, is a major culprit in the obesity crisis. But your food choices can make you happy or miserable, too. How? Processed food is low in tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. It’s also low in omega-3 fatty acids, and omega-3 deficiency has been shown to inhibit serotonin action. Meanwhile, processed food is high in sugar, which depletes serotonin, ramps up dopamine and increases the risk for a smorgasbord of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Countless studies show that these foods are addictive and unhealthy.