I’d been trying to figure out what might be peculiar about American culture that was driving the opioid, obesity and depression crises. Then a longtime subscriber sent me a video with Dr. Robert Lustig, who’s totally on the case. He’s cracked the neurochemical-cultural and economic codes of the country where “Happiness” is legally enshrined as a foremost right in the founding document.
Lustig is a professor of endocrinology at UCSF, where he specializes in neuroendocrinology and childhood obesity. He’s the author of The Hacking of the American Mind, in which he reveals a massive conflation that exists in American ideology (and in the American consumerist ideals that have propagated throughout the planet) between pleasure and happiness, which Lustig explains are completely different:
“Pleasure is short-lived, happiness is long-lived; pleasure is visceral, happiness is ethereal; pleasure is taking, happiness is giving; pleasure can be achieved with substances; happiness cannot be achieved with substances; pleasure is experienced alone; happiness is experienced in social groups. The extremes of pleasure all lead to addiction, whether they be substances or behaviors, yet there’s no such thing as being addicted to too much happiness.
“Finally and most importantly: pleasure is dopamine and happiness is serotonin.
“These are two neurochemicals that the brain makes and uses to communicate between one brain cell and another. It turns out dopamine excites the next neuron and when they’re excited too much, too frequently, they tend to die, so the neuron has a defense mechanism against that. What it does is it reduces the number of receptors that are available to be stimulated, in an attempt to try to mitigate the damage…that process is called down-regulation and a lot of different chemicals in the body do that. You get a hit, you get a rush. The receptors [get down-regulated]. Next time, you need a bigger hit to get the same rush because there are fewer receptors to occupy – and then you need a bigger hit and a bigger hit and a bigger hit – until finally, taking a huge hit to get nothing is called ‘tolerance’. Then, the neurons start to die. That’s called ‘addiction’.
“Serotonin, however is inhibitory. It’s not excitatory. It inhibits its receptor to provide contentment, to Zen-out, if you will. You can’t overdose the serotonin neuron…it binds and doesn’t activate the process beyond the receptor. It basically slows down those neurons instead of causing them to fire up and in so doing, you end up with the process of contentment, that feeling of oneness with the world, if you will, that thing we call ‘happiness’.
“But there’s one thing that down-regulates serotonin: Dopamine.
“So, the more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get – and Las Vegas, Madison Avenue, Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Washington DC have very specifically and in a coordinated fashion confused and conflated the term ‘happiness’ with the term ‘pleasure’, so that you can ‘buy happiness’, so that they can sell you their junk. It’s called the American economy and it’s based on hedonic substances, substances that drive pleasure, rather than happiness. In the process, we have become most decidedly unhappy and the problem is, you can’t fix a problem unless you identify what the problem is.”
Dr. Lustig prescribes simple things which support serotonin: sleep, mindfulness and exercise, all of which work to reduce cortisol (which acts against serotonin) and a diet low in fructose (which depletes serotonin), high in L-tryptophan (a serotonin precursor) and high in omega-3 to support serotonin transmission, aka “real food.”