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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.”

Alexandra Bruce

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Alexandra Bruce

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11 comments

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  • While I do not disagree with Dr.Lustig, I do think that there is a social condition that contributes to the user that somehow allows them to “give up” on themselves. I mean that they really just dive in deep regardless of family and relationship responsibilities. It appears that there is no longer a reason for the user to live or dream of the things that life has to offer. Their view of themselves seems to become so very small. It could possibly be a genetic issue as well that allows the user to not have the will to live and grow, or with the drive to live a real meaningful life.

    • “Only love is real” used to be the motto of Forbidden Knowledge TV. After a host of disasters, I stopped using that motto. Maybe I should bring it back.

      I agree that a huge driver of the addiction phenomenon is the lack of connection and love. This is what the newer studies tend to say, that the atomization of modern society is contributing to this disorder, which also does have a genetic component among many others. Addiction is complex but I do think that this new understanding of dopamine vs. serotonin and pleasure vs. happiness is incredibly instructive for those treating and struggling with addiction.

      I would hardly call this piece “bad news”, quite the opposite. The bad news is that occupied Afghanistan is providing 95% of the world’s opium and that the unprecedented availability of opioids is likely fueling the addiction crisis. The good news is that this epidemic is finally forcing us to begin to confront addiction in a more humane way.

      • Alexandra,
        for me the only one bad news is, I have never learned to love me and others. The only one good news is I and so others can learn to love. The therefore needed question is: Who I am?
        Susan

  • In Germany there was a research about less sugar inside food and it was described this way on the food. However the result was that people did eat more of this food, what increased the problem of sugar.
    Sugar is a substitue for love.
    When love is lived, any food problem will vanish.
    Now the question is: what is love, because people think they love and still become fat.

    Is there a general definition?
    Who will try it to define?

  • Alexandra, this is definitely the best information you have put out. Every school should make this available to its students and their parents. Every medical doctor should have it posted in one’s office in a conspicuous place. It explains why pleasure is a natural state that enhances certain activities that keep the human race in existence, but that it must be limited so as not to push one into the abyss. It is a great article that everyone should read at least twice, and again later. Cheers, — Carl G. Looney, Ph.D.

  • Excellent information. The distinction between ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ certainly needed to be drawn by someone using clinical means to explain it from a scientific POV. Spiritual explanations don’t appear to work so well for most.

  • “you can’t fix a problem unless you identify what the problem is.”

    Happiness or contentment is at root love of being yourself. You cannot become some other self, no matter how much makeup, exercise, surgeries, blood transfusions, or toys you collect from wealth made by harming others.

    “Love of self” doesn’t mean egotistic gratification at the expense of others. It is when you face your fears, accept your wounds and move into them and through them, seeing how all are wounded, and wound up, how the wind of the anima Spirit winds all in Its Gyre.

    Introspection, deep contemplation, finding the Shadow self as Dragon in the Deep Dark Woods of the hidden psyche… this is the Way Out. Via the Way In.

    But HOW? Meditation puts most to sleep; talk therapy is shallow at best. “Mindfulness” is a wonderful idea…. but HOW to be awake in the midst of fear for loss of self, fear of our extinction, from the PTSD we used to wall ourselves off from the fact that much as we are born from the Love Cosmos has in pumping out endless concatenations and variations on a theme, … we are passing patterns in an eddy on the Tao. WHAT then will allow you to accept this truth with capital T about your nature, your place in Nature?

    Ironically a key tool is MDMA, unique among sacraments when used with consciousness, for it opens not only the Gates of Serotonin, but also the Gates of Dopamine. You CAN have pleasure and happiness at the same time…; and find the Joy in the silent Beingness of your Self.

    You should dig up and watch the Dave Nichols lecture on the impossible task they have had trying to find other “chemicals” that can duplicate the unique nature of X, of E. Vitamin E, X, when you stand at the X-roads, on your own Crossing, and find the Holy Spirit within.

    Sure, sugar, sleep, exercise…. blah blah blah.. The path for people who think of themselves as bodies. The Spiritual Quest demands that you face your body’s coming extinction, and find the Wave that All this surfs upon.

    For YOU are the Wave waving. In all your gettings, get Understanding. Man…. Know Thyself.
    Cuz the immediate future may be shit… and shit is just the worn out juices of the past becoming compost to feed newer generations…. who will start up this discussion again and again… and again… about What is Pleasure vs. Happiness? And… how do we get some??

  • Yes, the question is:
    who is using the mind/brain. Am I using my brain or is my brain used by education by the old ones.
    Here, I discovered that in the right half of the big brain, there is an identity present, which I name as the collective identity (I). Now inside the left half of the brain, there is an identity present, which I name as the individual identity (I).
    – This collective I is adjusted and addicted to what is told by some one else. So obeserving science, religion, politics, sports etc.
    – This individual I thinks something new, until that moment unknown, where here the chance is present to change the own life.

    Inside the big brain now appears an inner battle, where the collective I and the individual I fight each other, like goliath and david. When david wins, the personality being (ego) can leave the main stream and become human.

    – Besides the collective I and the individual I there is also an identiy with a presence inside the midst. This I, I name it as the universdal I or godly I.

    When the participation as a collective I onto the rat reace hurts enough, the individual I can find a way out and a way in into the universal I.

    It is all an impact of I-dentification.
    Hijacking is a forced identification, where the soul gets hurt.

  • Damn, your synopses are so articulate and well thought through…refining videos into words like you do so well doth deserve applause…almost don’t have to watch ’em sometimes…tks!

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