How many of us are “looking for happiness in all the wrong places?” (That phrase reminds me of the country western hit by Johnny Lee: “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”) But this column isn’t about love and lost loves. It’s about understanding the difference between happiness and pleasure.
Happiness is an internally generated feeling of peace and satisfaction with life in general. Pleasure is caused by external events such as beautiful scenery, Christmas lights, the sound of rain, a bird chirping, buying something new, video games, arriving at your destination, winning the lottery, your team winning, eating s’mores, drinking spirits, smoking cigarettes or marijuana, and using fentanyl. These external pleasurable events are related because they cause the brain to release dopamine which creates a short-lived sense of elation or joy. Many of these events are addictive.
Pleasurable events are not necessarily bad, in fact they are often the spice of life. But experiencing an event over and over again dulls the brain’s receptors to that event which can become a bad thing. If it was possible for a person to be forced into listening nonstop to the sound of rain or the same chirping bird for a month they could become very depressed and unhappy! That’s why true happiness cannot be created by stringing together an unending number of pleasurable events.
The feeling of happiness comes from serotonin. Serotonin is found mostly in the digestive system, although it’s also in blood platelets and throughout the central nervous system. Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan which is only acquired by humans in their diet. Fortunately, many foods provide tryptophan but that isn’t what causes serotonin releases. It’s these five conditions that cause the body to increase serotonin releases:
● Positive thinking
● Exposure to bright light and longer periods of daylight
● Personal relationships
The first four ways are self explanatory. Positive thinking doesn’t ignore unpleasant situations. It approaches them in a more positive and productive way by visualizing an outcome for the better instead of the worst.
Light impacts our moods. Bright light can heighten emotions. Blue light makes us feel more energetic. Natural light can make us happier and help reduce symptoms of depression.
Some psychiatrists recommended exercise for psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious or depressed.
Direct social contact and being in close proximity to others is far better for serotonin production than is dopamine-producing social media and texting.
Diet is not self explanatory because what is and is not a healthy diet is often shrouded in a fog of myths and marketing. But the science is there and the many studies prove that high glycemic foods (sugar sources) are dopamine producers that are pleasurable and addictive. Sugar, which is highly addictive, causes obesity, liver damage, diabetes, and feeds internal fungi that create mycotoxins. Those are good reasons for avoiding high glycemic foods.
Processed foods should also be avoided because they are usually high-glycemic and loaded with Omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Since Omega-6 EFAs are inflammatory they should be consumed sparingly. On the other hand, Omega-3 EFAs should be included in the diet because they are anti-inflammatory and tend to have a positive impact on moods. The optimal dietary Omega-6 to Omega-3 EFA ratio is 1:1.
These two simple restrictions, glycemic index and EFA balance, narrow down the options of approved foods to a rather “boring” list that includes: grass-fed and Omega-3 meats, wild-caught seafood, green leafy vegetables, other selected vegetables, and a limited selection of fruit. It greatly restricts the consumption of nuts, seeds, grains, and most oils.
Dr. Robert H. Lustig, author of “The Hacking of the American Mind” says parents are destroying their children’s brains with video devices, appeasement, and sugar. Dopamine receptors are fragile. Continuous use can damage them or even stimulate them to death. That’s why over time it takes more and more addictive behavior or substances to get the familiar buzz. But as long as dopamine receptors are alive they can regenerate although it can take 12 months or longer.
This is why boredom is a good experience for children. Boredom encourages daydreaming which can lead to imagination and innovation while giving dopamine receptors a rest. By always providing children with pleasure-inducing dopamine hits (candy, sugary fruit, soft drinks, video games, endless television, and granting them their every wish) parents unwittingly create conditions that cause childhood depression.
Eating foods high in tryptophan will not cause happiness. Serotonin releases are best caused by the five primary ways listed above. But just for grins here are my favorite tryptophan foods.
Americans have become dopamine junkies. The main dopamine-producing stimuli include movies, social media, the news, advertisements, video games, sporting events, amusement parks, casinos, drugs, alcohol, sweets, and on and on the list goes. Our society is over stimulated and the traditional sugary foods people eat only compound the problem.
So, if we seek happiness, then we have to focus on its true source which is within us. Right now we are well into the holiday season and there is no better time than now to focus on happiness instead of pleasure. Try it. Put down the cell phones, get together with friends, keep exercising, get outside in the sunshine, be mindful of the foods you eat, and have a positive outlook. Don’t be a dope looking for happiness in all the wrong places.
To your health.
Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.
Don’t miss these links for additional reading:
Dopamine from Wikipedia
Serotonin from Wikipedia
Tryptophan from Wikipedia
How to Counter the Effects of Too Much Dopamine by Deane Alban
How to Increase Serotonin in the Human Brain Without Drugs by Simon N. Young
Videos by Dr. Robert H. Lustig
The Pursuit of Pleasure Is a Modern-day Addiction by Robert Lustig
Cocaine: How It Works, Effects, and Risks from WebMD
Positive Thinking: Stop Negative Self-talk to Reduce Stress by Mayo Clinic Staff
The Exercise Effect by Kirsten Weir from American Psychological Association
Is Social Connection the Best Path to Happiness? by Kira M. Newman
Daydreaming Is Good for the Mind by Jennifer Welsh
Seven Ways Boredom Is Actually Good For You by Forbes Coaches Council
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places by Johnny Lee