The experience of pleasure is distinct from the experience of happiness. Quite distinct.
With pleasure, a dopamine “spike” occurs in response to an acute momentary reward. The experience feels wonderful but depletes serotonin. The ultimate consequence of repeated rushes to this pleasure center leads to the loss of dopamine receptors in the brain. With the loss of neurons comes Tolerance: a situation in which more and more “hits” are needed to feel the same impact as before — or to feel anything at all. The result is addiction.
The dopamine neuron, or pleasure receptor, is identical in most pleasure centers; its exploitation in one addiction is often transferred to another (usually in the same individual). This is called Addiction Transfer. Transfers of addiction are epidemic in all kinds of substance abuse (such as opiates, sugar, alcohol, etc.) as well as digital obsessions (porn, Facebook, selfies, etc.). A person addicted to amphetamines, for example, becomes more susceptible to cocaine addiction.
In contrast to pleasure, happiness is a more resilient and healthier mental state. The long-term components of happiness are found in Connection, Contribution, and Coping. (Coping consists of three things: Sleep, Mindfulness, and Exercise.) The fourth component, Cook, means increasing nutrients such as tryptophan and omega 3 fatty acids, while reducing fructose or sugar.
Examples of these qualities (and tips related to them) are provided by Dr. Robert Lustig, an Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco, who has explored the differences between pleasure and happiness…
Connection. Connection is not about Facebook or personal text messages. It’s about real people in real communities. Making friends. Volunteering. Joining a choir. Contribution is not about rewards or merit badges. It’s about meaningful work, helping others, or accomplishing something (like volunteering).
The third component, Coping, is about Sleep, Mindfulness, and Exercise.
Sleep. The blue light from our computer and TV screens, at night, excites our midbrain and confuses our circadian rhythms. 35% of adults get less than 7 hours of sleep each night. A regular sleep schedule (more than 7 hours) is necessary to restore both mind and body.
Mindfulness. The contemporary ritual known as “multitasking,” which is now a national obsession, runs counter to the peaceful emptying of the mind found in blissful contemplation. Stress releases cortisol, a fight-or-flight hormone which disrupts the calmer, more enlightened influence of serotonin. Serotonin is one of the biggest champions of happiness. Losing serotonin is like losing the soul.
Exercise. Regular exercise has been found to be more effective than SSRIs in fighting depression. Therapists prescribe SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to increase serotonin in treating this condition. The practice of exercise appears to exorcise the demons of chronic depression.
Cook. Sugar, or fructose, should be banished if possible to prevent their deleterious effects on serotonin. (It’s also recommended to avoid all processed foods.) As mentioned earlier, tryptophan and omega 3 fatty acids head up the list of good things to put into our bodies. Both increase the brain’s store of serotonin. Tryptophan can be found in eggs, poultry, and fish. Omega 3 fatty acids, found in wild fish and flax, are anti-inflammatories which protect our synapses and delay the onset of dementia.
Pleasure and happiness are often confused, especially in the United States. Almost 40% of Americans are now obese. Alcohol addiction has increased among teenagers as never before. 80% of foods are spiked with added sugar to increase product sales. Dr. Lustig blames advertising and the profit motive as part of the crisis. Our culture has been brainwashed by corporations to accept the idea that pleasure is the road to fulfillment, when in fact it’s often a brick wall.
Most studies on pleasure and happiness seem to reach a general set of conclusions. Pleasure is selfish. Happiness is altruistic. Pleasure demands more. Happiness is contentment.