The chemistry behind what makes us truly happy

Serotonin and Dopamine, happiness and pleasure

It was in church that I first learned about the difference between happiness and pleasure (or joy and happiness, or true happiness and happiness, or whatever, the exact vocabulary isn't as important as the idea). Pleasure is the temporary joy that we feel in short bursts as we do certain activities or partake in certain substances. Happiness is the peaceful calm you feel when you're in a good mood and generally just feeling good. It is important that we all know and recognize the difference between these two things, but while looking into Robert Lustig's website I learned that that the things going on in our nervous system that cause these two, commonly mixed up, feelings are very different.

In this interview where Lustig talks about his, at the time, new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brans (which I may or may not read), Lustig describes the effects of dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is a chemical that when released in our bodies excites the individual cells in our nervous system, which makes us feel good. Interestingly this type of stimulation is not good for our individual nerve cells since if they are exited in this manner too much they could be damaged or die, so to prevent this our nerve cells will initiate a process called downregulation, which will reduce the number of available receptors so that it is harder for the effects of dopamine to kick in. Regardless of this we feel good when we are under the effects of dopamine. Serotonin also makes us feel good, but in a much different way. Serotonin calms our nerves down, this process makes us feel good without the risk of damaging our nerves and it can last longer. Dopamine is watching porn, serotonin is spending time with someone you love, Dopamine is smoking pot and getting high on the weekends, serotonin is the satisfaction of completing a marathon. Dopamine is seeing notifications of people liking your posts when opening Facebook, serotonin is helping a friend. Dopamine is pleasure while serotonin is happiness.

Interestingly while serotonin is the less harmful of the two it is dopamine that is more well known by the common person, according to Lustig this is by design. He claims, and I agree, that people of the world today are trying to merge happiness and pleasure into one concept. Notice that it is true that money doesn't buy happiness, but it sure can buy pleasure. An interesting effect of downregulation is that as more and more nerve receptors are deactivated it takes a larger amount of dopamine to feel good, this is why drug addicts seem to always be searching for a bigger hit, they continually need and increasing amount of dopamine to trigger their nervous system. The companies of today want you to be continuously buying pleasure from them to keep you "happy" and they want you to always buy more and more of it as downregulation requires. Don't get hooked on pleasure, learn to find true happiness.

Of course this does not mean that all forms of pleasure are bad, plenty are, but there are plenty more that are good activities. Have fun in life but don't let the appeal of quick pleasure keep you from experiencing true happiness.