Have you heard about the mildly seductive and extremely elusive ‘I’ll be happy’ game? I used to play it all the time. “I’ll be happy when I lose 10 kilograms.”, “I’ll be happy when I find a lifetime partner.”, “I’ll be happy when the millions come rolling in.” There’s an inherent social belief that if only something happens then happiness will inevitably and fluidly follow.
It is not so.
The state of global psychological misery runs counter to the message that greater digital connectivity, faster access to goods and services and instantaneous gratification is the pathway to universal happiness. This is what The Hacking of the American Mind author, Dr. Robert Lustig, terms the dopamine effect.
The Dopamine Effect
Part of the issue is that in the modern age, pleasure and happiness have become confused. Pleasure is all about the phenomenon of reward. This can be achieved through things like impulsive shopping, sex, or outright substance abuse. Happiness, on the other hand, is a state of general contentment that requires little in the way of a trigger.
The neurotransmitters in our brains control our pleasure/happiness responses. While the dopamine hit feels good in the moment, it’s suppressing the serotonin in our brains, the chemical responsible for feeling calm and satisfied. This means that over-indulging in these pleasures is actually making us unhappier in the long run! According to Lustig, too much dopamine or a rush makes your receptors go down to protect themselves, so you need a bigger hit until finally you take a huge hit with no dopamine reward. This is known as tolerance. When the neuron dies from “a bludgeoning rather than a tickle”, as he puts it, it’s called addiction.
Sounds confusing right? Right! It is. Added to this convolution is that your pleasure versus happiness reactions are being carefully manipulated by strategies of big business exploiting pleasure inclinations for the purpose of addiction to their product through digital advertising and clickbait. Daily, we are being sold pleasure disguised as happiness – think Happy Meals, Happy Hour and smiling emojis. The constant approval and attention seeking on social media can leave us vulnerable when the responses are not what we hoped. Over time our brains become conditioned to hoping that each click will lead to bigger and better hits or that the response will flatter our ego more.
“When I win the Lottery …”
Manipulation of your pleasure is also intertwined with a skewed perception of what happiness actually is. A ground-breaking study awkwardly entitled: “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” tried to determine how both these groups and a control group varied in their levels of happiness. But what they found was starkly in contrast to the expected outcome. The victims rated themselves above average in happiness, even though accidents had rendered them either paraplegic of quadriplegic. The lottery winners were no happier than the controls, in any statistically meaningful sense. Simple pleasures like talking to friends or walking the dog had, in fact, left them less satisfied than before.
A more comprehensive recent Swedish study showed similar results, but with a general increase in long-term contentment among lottery winners.
While the initial study was deemed crude, they both have an irresistible take away: Money doesn’t buy you happiness! So, then what does?
By example and ironically one of the authors of this foundation research on happiness was 34-year old Dr. Philip Brickman, socially awkward but with a brilliant wit and a widely acclaimed body of work on the subject of happiness. Married with three daughters, he was by all accounts, successful. Yet at the age of 38 he flung himself off the Tower Plaza’s 26th floor. The father of these studies on happiness was, it would seem, unable to find his own. The why is unanswerable, but the context can be extrapolated. His marriage had started to unravel. He was feeling insecure in a new job which required a skills set he lacked. His self-esteem was low and his anxiety high. The answer, oddly, could lie in his addiction to the work that preoccupied his time, that happiness has little to do with cognitive processes. Rather it has to do with matters of the heart: how we cope with adversity; how we care for others; how we form commitments, subdue inner conflict and wring meaning and happiness from this brief life.
He was also a perfectionist and what he did achieve he never considered good enough. He expected the same exacting standards from others. More than anyone, perhaps he understood that the pursuit of power, things and even happiness was futile. The more we achieve the more we require to sustain our new levels of satisfaction, making gratification fleeting. Happiness is something which always looms ahead.
Pleasure and Happiness are not equal
It would seem understanding the difference between pleasure, or reward and happiness or contentment is the first step on the road to true happiness.
In his book, Lustig says, “Pleasure is the feeling of ‘this feels good. I want more’. Happiness is the feeling of ‘this feels good I don’t want or need any more’.
- Pleasure is short-lived, lasting only about an hour after that bar of chocolate. Happiness lasts from weeks to years.
- Pleasure is exciting and activates a fight-or-flight system, ramping up your heart-rate. Happiness causes your heart-rate to slow down.
- Pleasure can be achieved with different substances, such as sugar, alcohol, heroin, caffeine. Happiness cannot.
- Pleasure is ‘yours and yours alone’. Conversely your contentment or lack thereof often impacts on people directly and can impact society at large.
- Pleasure is associated with the act of taking, like winning money at a casino or shopping for clothes. Happiness is many times generated through giving, whether donating time or to charity.
- Pleasure in the extreme can lead to addiction. Yet there’s no such thing as being too happy.
How to Find True Happiness
So how do we stop trying to find happiness in the very things that are sabotaging us from achieving it? Well, dopamine and serotonin don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Instead, Dr. Lustig suggests focusing on the four C’s:
- Connect – anything short of face-to-face is not a connection. Email is not a connection nor is FaceTime :). The literal face is important because when you’re interacting with someone in person your neurons adopt the emotion of that person. This generates the phenomenon we call empathy, which is necessary to produce serotonin.
- Contribute – Contributing to something outside yourself, which is for non-personal gain, for the benefit of children, family, friends and the world at large helps to produce serotonin. Making Money, alone, is not contributing. But you can derive happiness from work if your boss sees how the work is doing good for you and others. Serotonin can be boosted by helping a charity or by walking the dog.
- Cope – This is about self-care with sleep taking centre stage. Sleep deprivation increases cortisol and causes depression which is why your sleep needs priority. Multi-tasking is what Dr. Lustig calls the enemy of mindfulness, “only 2.8% of people can actually multitask. Everyone is uni-tasking, meaning moving from one task to another and in the process they increase their cortisol and their depression.” Exercise is recommended as a big part of coping as it reduces cortisol levels.
- Cook – this is probably the most unexpected, but is considered an essential part of any happiness focused lifestyle. Dr. Lustig says “There are three items in food that have to do with pleasure versus happiness. Number one is tryptophan, which is the precursor to serotonin. It’s the rarest amino acid in the diet. You find it in eggs, poultry and a little fish. Number 2 is omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory and finally, Number 3 is fructose, which depletes serotonin, ups your dopamine and causes metabolic syndrome.” So that means cutting out processed foods.
What do we live for, if not for happiness?
How does one permanently increase the dosage of one’s happiness? According to Brickman, commitments were on the road to salvation to an otherwise futile existence. They may not always give pleasure, they may even oppose and conflict with freedom or happiness. But that’s the point: he concluded that the more we sacrifice for something, the more value we assign to it. It could be argued that what maintains us is not happiness, but is really unhappiness. If you find happiness elusive this should make you prickle with excitement!
Commitment, however, can also be fragile and transient, less fragile than the dopamine high of getting a paper published or falling in love, but still transient. Relationships end, jobs don’t work out, more papers need to be written. As Brickman’s apparent successes in life and marriage diminished, he began to experience the unfamiliar sensation of failure, in fact, even worse than that, it was despair. He lost his commitment, his direction and his purpose. His academic dopamine hits increased, but provided less and less gratification.
As an academic he wrote in his last book, published posthumously, about the following four categories of people. Tragically, Brickman would already have placed himself squarely in the fourth category.
- Those who think they’re responsible for both their problems and their problems’ solutions
- Those who think they’re responsible for neither
- Those who think they’re responsible for a solution to a problem, but not the problem itself
- Those who think they’re responsible for the problem but they don’t have a solution
Sobering, and if nothing more a stark reminder that happiness is worth striving for.
So, If you’re going to start anywhere in your quest for happiness, become aware of the technological, reward driven culture which has taken hold over the past 40 years. In order to up serotonin you have to dampen dopamine. That means sometimes disconnecting, which most of us have a very hard time doing. Turn off your phone for an hour a day, preferably while you have dinner with another human being, take time out doing things that ground you like walking the dog, cooking or meditating. Step off the hedonistic treadmill for a while, eliminate your dopamine triggers and just enjoy knowing that you can control your own happiness.