If you wonder if you’re attached to your phone, here’s a three-minute exercise that’ll give you the answer.
Set it down, then walk across the room. Now meditate, breathe deeply, or talk to a friend for a few minutes — whatever will keep you present. Now slowly walk back to your desk. What happens?
When I tried this exercise, my heartbeat quickened as the anticipation and excitement grew. I couldn’t wait to hold my precious smartphone in hand, check for new texts and emails, and scroll through my updated Instagram and Facebook feeds.
Dr. Robert H. Lustig would likely classify my smartphone swooning as addiction or, in scientific terms, too much dopamine and not enough serotonin.
In it, Lustig explores how Americans have come to confuse the ideas of pleasure and happiness, and how ultimately the pursuit of what we think will make us happy is making us miserable.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post last week that the company is changing its news feed algorithm to display more updates from friends and less brand content in an attempt to inspire “more meaningful social interactions.”
The news feed change isn’t likely to make a significant impact on happiness.
Users are getting doses of dopamine from more than just one component of the social media platform.
Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, recently admitted on the record that the company set out to create an addictive product.
“The thought process that went into building these applications... was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” Parker said.
“That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever,” he acknowledged. “And that’s going to get you to contribute more content.”
“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” Parker said.
Lustig believes that Facebook is just one example of how companies are willfully confusing the line between pleasure and happiness, as well as employing neurologists, to create addictive products.
Pleasure and happiness are not equal
Understanding the difference between pleasure, or reward, and happiness, or contentment, is the first step in being able to actually pursue true happiness.
“Pleasure is the feeling of, ‘This feels good, I want more.’ Happiness is the feeling of, ‘This feels good, I don’t want or need any more,’” explained Lustig.
It might seem like there’s a middle ground, like connecting with people on social media or mindfully enjoying a Coke. However, scientifically, there’s no gray area.
Pleasure and happiness are caused by two different neurotransmitters and activate different areas of the brain. Dopamine causes pleasure. Serotonin causes happiness.
According to Lustig, there are six additional differences between pleasure and happiness:
- Pleasure is short-lived, lasting only about an hour after you finish that slice of chocolate cake. Happiness lasts longer, from weeks to years.
- Pleasure is exciting and activates your fight-or-flight system, ramping up your heart rate. Happiness actually causes your heart rate to slow down.
- Pleasure can be achieved with different substances, such as sugar, heroin, alcohol, and caffeine. Happiness can’t.
- Pleasure is “yours and yours alone… Conversely, your contentment, or lack of it, often impacts other people directly and can impact society at large,” Lustig writes.
- Pleasure is associated with the act of taking, like winning money at a casino or shopping for clothes. In contrast, happiness is many times generated through giving, whether it’s time or donating money to a charity.
- Pleasure in the extreme can lead to addiction. Yet there’s no such thing as being too happy.
What too much dopamine looks like
“Dopamine is excitatory. When it’s released, it stimulates… and gives you the feeling of reward and motivation to seek more. In and of itself it’s not bad, however, neurons that excite in chronic excessive dosing lead to neuron cell death,” Lustig told Healthline.
Once a brain cell dies, it’s gone forever.
“Neurons are fragile. They like to be tickled, not bludgeoned,” Lustig said.
In order to protect itself from being hit too hard, your brain employs a method called “downregulation.”
You get a hit, then a rush of dopamine. Your receptors go down to protect themselves, so you need a bigger hit and so on to get the same rush, until finally you get a huge hit to get nothing, Lustig explained.
“That is known as tolerance. When neurons start to die, it’s called addiction. That why it’s so hard to treat. Those cells have already died,” Lustig said.
“Every single thing that leads to dopamine can becomes an addiction,” he pointed out.
An abundance of serotonin, the happiness chemical, doesn’t kill cells, so it doesn’t need to downregulate.
In fact, there’s only one thing that downregulates serotonin: dopamine.
The more pleasure you seek, the unhappier you get.
How to find actual contentment
“In order to up serotonin, you have to dampen dopamine,” Lustig pointed out. “That means sometimes disconnecting, which people have a very hard time doing.”
Lustig came up with the four C’s to help people find true happiness, or contentment.
Connect. Connection increase serotonin. This has to be interpersonal, face-to-face connection with eye contact. Anything short of that isn’t successful, Lustig said. The practice works because humans have mirror neurons in the back of our heads that read in real time. “So, when you talk to someone face-to-face, you’re adopting some of their emotion. That’s called empathy. Empathy drives serotonin,” Lustig said.
Contribute. Lustig clarified that the contribution has to impact someone other than yourself. Philanthropy, charity, and volunteer work will boost your happiness.
Cope. This exercise is specifically to exercise your prefrontal cortex (PFC) and dampen your cortisol, according to Lustig. “Exercise your brain by practicing mindfulness,” he recommended. “During meditation, the PFC lights up like a Christmas tree, which is good. You’re knocking down some of the (dopamine) highs, but it certainly helps you avoid the lowest lows.”
Cook. “You can’t make serotonin without it’s precursor amino acid, tryptophan,” he pointed out. Eat foods high in the amino acid, such as eggs and poultry. Lustig notes that tryptophan is typically unavailable in processed food.
“Processed food makes people unhappy eventually. It’s a boost of pleasure for sure, but detracts from happiness.”
Lustig’s most important key to happiness? “Cook real food for yourself and your family,” he said.