17 Oct 2017

Why the pursuit of pleasure is making us sad

From Afternoons, 3:08 pm on 17 October 2017

We are being robbed of happiness by companies working very hard to keep us addicted to things that provide temporary pleasure, says Dr Robert Lustig.


Photo: Public domain

The pediatric endocrinologist was one of the first people to sound the alarm on the dangers of too much sugar.

Corporations happily increase our appetite for things, such as sugar, that feed our dopamine-based pleasure and reward system. As a result, serotonin – the chemical which actually makes us happy – gets the short straw. 

Dopamine governs pleasure, while serotonin governs happiness – and the two do not overlap, he says.

Pleasure is short-lived, visceral, can be had alone and can be brought about by substances or behaviours.

Happiness is long-lived, ethereal, usually social and cannot be had from substances or behaviours.

“The extremes of pleasure; whether they be substances or behaviours. The extremes of all of those lead to addiction, but there’s no such thing as being addicted to happiness,” he says.

Dopamine and serotonin are two different biochemicals, two different neurotransmitters, in two different areas of the brain, he says.

Dopamine is a what is called an 'excitatory' neurotransmitter.

“It turns out neurons like to be tickled, but they don’t like to be bludgeoned. Chronic overstimulation of a neuron causes neuronal cell death,” he says.

An overstimulated neuron will die, and so that the next neuron along has a self-defence mechanism, downregulate the receptors for dopamine so it too won’t die.

What does that mean for humans?  

“You get a rush, the receptors go down and next time, because there are fewer receptors, you need a bigger hit to get the same rush.”

This goes on and on until even a huge hit has no effect.

“That’s called tolerance. And when the neurons start to die, that’s called addiction.”  


Photo: 123RF

Serotonin does not behave this way because it is an inhibitor.

“It doesn’t cause the next nerve to fire, it causes the next neuron to stay silent. You can’t overdose on happiness.

“But there’s one thing that down-regulates serotonin and that’s dopamine. So the more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get.”

That’s why addiction and depression are different sides of the same coin, he says.

“Addiction is from too much dopamine driving down the receptor and then the neurons die, whereas depression is serotonin deficiency. Too little serotonin which has been driven by the dopamine.”

Just as this process works for drugs it works for all those things that give us pleasure.

“The fact is human beings have this area in our brain – the reward centre – and every single thing that we find rewarding, that signal is transduced. If it’s rewarding it’s mediated through that system.”

That pleasure could be from drugs, gambling, fast food, coffee, alcohol, shopping or pornography, he says.

“Industry has taken advantage of this little hitch in our biochemistry, in the neural science of our brain, to supply us with all we want. And as we do we get more and more miserable and ultimately either plunge into addiction or depression or both.”

The more a product gives you a dopamine rush, the more addictive it is – think Facebook.

Gmail uses this technique. That slight pause between clicking on the icon and getting your messages is deliberate, he says.

“Do you think Google’s just slow? That has been engineered on purpose because they know that’s giving you that dopamine rush to make that product addictive. The same thing happens with Facebook likes.

“Your cell phone is just a slot machine in your pocket.”

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Dr Robert Lustig Photo: UCSF

All big corporations have neuroscientists working for them, Lustig says.

Fast food companies are particularly adept at peddling substances that directly affect the reward centre of the brain – sugar and caffeine.

The fact that fast food and soft drinks are 'price inelastic' – even when prices rise, demand stays the same – is a sign addiction is at play, he says.

“We have the data, we have the neuroscience, we have the imaging studies, we have the biochemistry to demonstrate how the food industry has basically doctored our food supply so as to make it absolutely irresistible, and in the process we have gotten sick.”

Compounding the problem, a chemical in the gut needed to make serotonin – tryptophan – is not found in processed food.

Tryptophan is the rarest amino acid in our diet, found in eggs, fish and some poultry – three items rare in processed food.

“People eating a high processed food diet probably are not even getting the precursor to make the serotonin in the first place, so that is a great reason for unhappiness.”

Dr Lustig says he has a simple, evidence-based, four-step process to combat this problem.

To tamp down the dopamine and up the serotonin, focus on the Four Cs – Connect, Contribute, Cope and Cook.

  • Connect with eye-to-eye human contact, not social media.“It’s now been shown that Facebook drives unhappiness and depression. After two weeks of Facebook you end up less happy than you were before,” he says.
  • Contribute by giving from which you gain no reward.
  • Cope by getting enough sleep and exercise and by being mindful.
  • Cook to get the nutrients you need in the right amounts.

“You need high tryptophan, high omega 3 fatty acids and low sugar. That’s called a real diet.”

Working on the Four Cs will lead to much more happiness and occasional pleasure, he says.

Dr Robert Lustig is the author of The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains.

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