Just be happy, strong, and healthy, and the rest are bullshit – Wim Hof

What’s the difference between pleasure and happiness?

This casual question is a big theme for me starting from 2018, it is what I’ve been spending most of my time on ever since, it has opened a whole new floodgate of knowledge (with massive digital piles of research materials on Evernote), and led me to implement a healthier eating habit, made me more focused and composed, prompted me to physically meet more people, made me play 3 sports on a weekly basis (from virtually none in the past decade), and losing 9 KG (18 lbs) in the process (enough to downsize myself from overweight to normal BMI Index). 

I first heard about this seemingly trivial question in 2018 at an interview with neuro-scientist Dr Robert Lustig in FT Alphaville podcast, and the scientific answer that he gave was mind blowing, so mind blowing it changed my attitude towards life (I have since listened to every interview he’s done in podcasts, watched his lectures on YouTube, and read his book on this subject).

So what is really the difference between pleasure and happiness? Neuroscientifically speaking, pleasure comes from those activities that trigger the release of dopamine in our brain, and happiness comes from those activities that trigger the release of serotonin.

So what triggers serotonin (happiness)? From giving, eating healthy food (meeting all the macro and micro nutrients that our body needs), doing physical exercise, doing meditation, sleeping well, things like basking under the sun, and physically meet and interact with people instead of in social media. What triggers dopamine (pleasure)? From receiving, shopping, scrolling down the social media, binge-watching TV, binge-reading news, eating junk food, too much sugar, too much salt, gossiping, sex, smoking, drinking alcohol, drinking caffeine, consuming drugs, gambling, basically all the instant gratifications that are not necessarily healthy for us.

Spot the pattern yet? Yes, dopamine is generated by those things that make us addicted. And there’s a scientific explanation for that: the more pleasure we indulge in, the more the dopamine will drive down our neurons and receptors, increase cortisol (the stress hormone), and reduce serotonin. You read that last part right, too much pleasure actually reduce happiness.

It gets worse. Because dopamine is addictive our brain naturally keep on wanting more hit, but the more hit you indulge in means that the dopamine also drive down your neuron and receptors even more, and over time you will reach a peak dopamine:

  1. It is when the part of our brain that regulates self-control (the prefrontal cortex – which isn’t fully developed until we are 25 years old) becomes numb and we start to lose our self-control over our indulgence.
  2. It is also when the thing that we indulge in no longer generate that much pleasure as it was before (due to damaged receptors), so our brain wants to indulge more of this stuff, up the dosage, up the frequency, so that we can still experience the same rush as the first time. 

Point no 2 is exactly why a lot of recovering drug addicts who want to “take a last blow” before quitting for good ended up die of overdose, because when they went to rehab their body’s tolerance level to the substance came down, but in the “last blow” they usually consume the last high dosage they took before they decided to quit, which was at the peak dopamine level. Or on a lighter note, this is why people who have been changing their diets to clean eating suddenly gets a stomachache when they eat junk food again.

Now it doesn’t really matter what the indulgence is, what matter is our dopamine-filled brain, that creates an addiction. That’s why a lot of smokers who quit smoking suddenly have a big appetite for eating, or why a quitting alcoholic suddenly love to indulge in sugary drinks  (they just switch from one indulgence to the other), while an addict in one substance can easily adopt another addiction like gambling and drinking. 

But this is not entirely their fault, their numbed prefrontal cortex means that they really can’t control themselves, so it’s not about the will to quit but it’s the chemicals in their brain (but it’s their fault to start indulging).

This is what modern corporations are now competing to produce, goods and services that are designed for dopamine: cheap and addictive junk foods, all the discounts groupons, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, fast fashion, happy hour at the bar, click-bait articles, those damn toy channels at YouTube, even the competition to keep our attentions in their social media platform – all of which are cheap, easy to get, quick fix, and makes our brain wanting more hits as we get addicted to their goods and services.

So what happens next when we’re already an addict, and nothing seems to be pleasurable anymore? If we’re not overdosed yet, the next extreme stage then sets in: depression. Because all the money in the world can’t seem to make us happy (also remember that too much pleasure reduces happiness). 

So what’s the cure? One drug company thought that they had it all figured out: eliminate the dopamine. In 2006 a drug company Sanofi-Aventis developed a drug called Rimonabant, an anti-obesity drug that – a very technical long story short – kills off the dopamine receptor. The idea was if people don’t find pleasure in eating, they will see no point in indulge eating. And it worked very well: those who consume the drug lost their appetite, they stop eating junk food, they even lost all interest in food altogether, and a lot of people lost a significant amount of weight (if your spidey sense is tingling, you’re spot on).

Indeed, they lost all interest in food but they also lost all pleasure from anything else because the dopamine hit was no longer there. The effect? European (they’re only allowed in Europe) post-marketing data showed that 21% of the people who consume the drug became clinically depressed and many of them committed suicide, because they lost the motivation to live (what’s the point of living when there’s no pleasure?). The drug was quickly withdrawn and banned. 

So, eliminating dopamine is not the answer, in fact in our brain dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter that control the brain’s pleasure and reward centres, so we need dopamine. The problem occurs when we have too much dopamine. A case in point: a while ago medical researchers have discovered the fact that Parkinson disease is caused primarily by low and falling dopamine level. So naturally the doctors’ response was to inject [too much] dopamine to the patients, and (you know where this is going don’t you?) the patients suddenly develop gambling habits that they never had before.

So, if eliminating dopamine and too much dopamine are both not good, then what’s the correct cure for dopamine-induced addiction or depression? The short answer: cut off cold the dopamine-producing indulgence, change the environment (hence, the usually secluded area for rehab centres), and simultaneously add serotonin.

Some rehab centres literally injects serotonin into the patients, while some give serotonin-filled drugs (one of the most well known drugs to cure depression is Prozac, and it is categorised in a class of drug called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI)). But we don’t need to add artificial injection to practically be happy, we can instead obtain it through natural ways.

To generate serotonin, Dr Robert Lustig focuses on what he called 4Cs (connect, contribute, cope, and cook). I personally have a slightly different model: after more research from many different sources and medical journals I narrow down most experts’ solutions into this particular order:

  1. Sleep well
  2. Eat right
  3. Exercise
  4. Mindfulness
  5. Social interaction

And the result? One of the many examples is what happened in Russia, where the trend of replacing heavy alcohol culture with healthy living in accordance with these 5 points have reduced the rate of male suicide, as their serotonin-generating new lifestyle make them happier.

So, as it turns out we can buy pleasure but not happiness. But we can easily earn happiness, and as an effect be in control over the number 1 priority for all of us living beings: our health.

This, of course, is a half-baked attempt to summarised the highly complex web of medicine. And this post barely scratched the surface.