February 23, 2018

Pleasure Vs. Happiness

I don't quite remember how I fell on this book (the joys of happenstance) by Robert H. Lustig, but The Hacking of the American Mind is turning out to be quite an interesting read (although it should change its title, because it certainly doesn't just apply to Americans)!

In it, he states that there are two clear definitions of the terms Pleasure and Happiness:

Pleasure, which comes from the French word plaisir, is a concept of reward:

  1. It's immediate
  2. It provides some level of excitement/amusement
  3. It's dependent on circumstance
Happiness, on the other hand, is about being content, about well-being and human flourishing (aka physical and/or spiritual growth:
  1. It's about life
  2. It's not prone to acute changes in one's life (so no roller-coaster of emotions)
  3. It's unrelated to circumstances--anyone can be happy!
These two states can certainly happen concurrently, but they also can affect one another in negative ways that I certainly hadn't always suspected (going all the way down to the molecular level of our brain!). In fact, "chronic excessive reward eventually leads to both addiction and depression," what Robert Lustig calls the twin epidemics, and therefore too much pleasure can actually prevent us from being happy.

For your (and my) ease, I've created a quick table of the 7 differences between reward (pleasure) and contentment (happiness) as expressed in The Hacking of the American Mind:

Note here that it's important to have some level of dopamine (it would actually be really bad not to), but it is addictive, whereas serotonin...isn't. On top of that, in terms of evolution, dopamine is
"stronger" than serotonin, or we'd still be cavemen (if still around at all) since dopamine is a hormone that keeps us motivated. But this also means that, if we're constantly releasing dopamine into our brains, we're effectively destroying our dopamine receptors...and our ability to feel happiness.*

Knowing this, it only makes the following fact all that scarier:

In his research and analysis, Robert Lustig has come to realize that "in the last half century, America and most of the Western world have become more and more unhappy, sicker, and broke as well. Marketing, media, and technology have capitalized on subverting our brain physiology to their advantage in order to veer us away from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of pleasure, which for them, of course equals the pursuit of profit."

"In fact, [these corporations'] recipes are continuing to improve: as the science of reward is elaborated and becomes more precise, new techniques in neuromarketing are now becoming mainstream. And as corporations have profited big from increased consumption of virtually everything with a price tag promising happiness, we have lost big-time. America has devolved from the aspirational, achievement-oriented "city on a hill" we once were, into the addicted and depressed society that we've now become.
Because we abdicated happiness for pleasure. 
Because we got cheap."

And you thought the world in Game of Thrones was bad**! 

In any case, after this intense intro, I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of his book, including how indeed we did get hacked, and how we can claim our brains back (OK, this definitely sounds like a weird zombie movie now). I'll probably share a couple more nuggets as I go along :)

*OK, so this is highly simplified, and we have loads more hormones, but this doesn't make the above facts wrong either.

**I'm still crying that the last season won't come out till 2019, yes, yes, I too fall prey to this society of consumption, especially when it comes to stories...and sweets...and tea... Gah!

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