The New York Times–bestselling author of Fat Chance reveals the corporate scheme to sell pleasure, driving the international epidemic of addiction, depression, and chronic disease.
While researching the toxic and addictive properties of sugar for his New York Times bestseller Fat Chance, Robert Lustig made an alarming discovery—our pursuit of happiness is being subverted by a culture of addiction and depression from which we may never recover.
Dopamine is the “reward” neurotransmitter that tells our brains we want more; yet every substance or behavior that releases dopamine in the extreme leads to addiction. Serotonin is the “contentment” neurotransmitter that tells our brains we don’t need any more; yet its deficiency leads to depression. Ideally, both are in optimal supply. Yet dopamine evolved to overwhelm serotonin—because our ancestors were more likely to survive if they were constantly motivated—with the result that constant desire can chemically destroy our ability to feel happiness, while sending us down the slippery slope to addiction. In the last forty years, government legislation and subsidies have promoted ever-available temptation (sugar, drugs, social media, porn) combined with constant stress (work, home, money, Internet), with the end result of an unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression, and chronic disease. And with the advent of neuromarketing, corporate America has successfully imprisoned us in an endless loop of desire and consumption from which there is no obvious escape.
With his customary wit and incisiveness, Lustig not only reveals the science that drives these states of mind, he points his finger directly at the corporations that helped create this mess, and the government actors who facilitated it, and he offers solutions we can all use in the pursuit of happiness, even in the face of overwhelming opposition. Always fearless and provocative, Lustig marshals a call to action, with seminal implications for our health, our well-being, and our culture.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Once upon a time we were happy. Then the snake showed up. And we've been miserable ever since. Hieronymus Bosch's painting Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1500) is a triptych housed in the Prado in Madrid. It is an allegorical warning of what happens when we squander our birthright of happiness divined from God in one garden and move on to the pleasures of the flesh in the next garden, with the inevitable result of eternal damnation. Figures. Our most lauded goal in life-to be happy-is seemingly an illusion, out of reach for us common folk. Except the rich aren't any happier. Happiness seems to be a mirage, something to chase after, to keep us turning over rocks, kissing frogs, and trying to fit keys into the magic lock.
But along the way, wandering through our own individual gardens of earthly delights in search of our seemingly unobtainable nirvanas, we've sure had a whole lot of fun. Or we've at least tried to. We buy shiny things, play Powerball, imbibe with friends or sometimes alone. So why are so many of us miserable? Are we destined just to sink further into the abyss of pleasure with no hope of extricating ourselves to find real happiness? Is it all futile? Lots of people have died trying to get to that magic place of contentment and inner peace, that thing called "happiness." But if we can't get there, what's the point?
What if I told you that happiness is right there in front of you, just behind the curtain of your own brain?
To some, an argument over the difference between pleasure and happiness might seem like a straw man, a false argument not really worth having. Hey, they both feel good; why should you care? And pleasure is here, now. Happiness . . . maybe not so much, and not so soon.
But it does matter. And not just to you but to all of society. Explaining the differences between these two otherwise positive emotions form the narrative arc of this book.
Terms of Endearment
Pleasure takes many forms and has many synonyms: "gratification," "amusement," "indulgence," "titillation," "turn-on." But the experience of pleasure is the visceral readout of activity of a specific brain area known as the "reward pathway." In fact, pleasure is actually two phenomena in one. First, one experiences the motivation for a given reward. Second, one experiences the consummation of that reward as the visceral experience we call pleasure. For simplicity, I will call it reward so both the social science and the neuroscience can effectively be treated as one.
The old adage goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Same for happiness. Happiness is in the brain of the experiencer. And it too has its own brain area, known as the "contentment pathway." But as a philosophical concept, happiness has a long history and has been tangled up with the history of society for as long as there's been society. Happiness consists of a grab bag of definitions that have changed and morphed over time. The root of the word, "hap," means luck. And we see this etymological root in other words relating to chance occurrence: for instance, happenstance or perhaps. Early societies weren't very happy; after all, with famine, plague, and war, they had a lot to be unhappy about. Happiness was chance, fleeting, and seemed to alight on only a select few in any given society.
The God Factor
Religion has been the arbiter of both pleasure and happiness since there was religion. By no means is the brief history that follows meant to be exhaustive, but understanding where we came from can help us determine where we are going.
The Jewish tradition says that the study of the Torah is the path to happiness, because "all its paths are peace," and by following the law one could not help but achieve happiness. The Greeks are on record for jump-starting both the pleasure and happiness industries. In the third century BCE they wrestled the concept of happiness away from the concept of hedonism, the philosophy that said that the goal of life was net pleasure (pleasure minus pain). Aristotle expanded on the Jewish concept and argued that happiness consisted of being a good ethical person, a manifestation of reason and virtue, and coined the term eudemonia, a synonym for "contentment" (the concept on which this book is based). Zeno, the father of Stoicism, took this up a notch to say that unhappiness resulted from errors of judgment and that the true sage was immune to unhappiness; the converse of this was, of course, that if you were unhappy, you were no sage. Epicurus weighed in to say that happiness was a state of peace, absence of fear, absence of pain, and a life surrounded by friends-threads of which remain with us today.
Then came Christianity, which said many things, one of which was that happiness will occur there and later as opposed to here and now. Life is unpleasant, but if you live it as an upstanding Christian, heaven awaits. Pleasure was the devil on earth, and pain in the form of humility and service was the path to a happy afterlife, a gift from God. Islam refined the concept to turning it into a struggle, the war between good and evil on earth, and one would be rewarded with happiness in the afterlife. And the Baha'i faith has its feet in both camps by stating that we humans are noble from the start and capable of continual spiritual growth both in this world and in the afterlife. So make the world a better place now and heaven a better place later.
The Eastern religions take a slightly different approach, by establishing the methods for achieving happiness now rather than later, because there is no later-at least, not the heaven of Western theology. Hinduism proffered the theory of reincarnation as a means of "getting it right"-that the goal of religion was to adhere to a way of stopping the process of death-rebirth (so you don't come back as a frog). Buddhism added specific practices allowing us to break free of this cycle to achieve "nirvana," or liberation. Thus, pleasure has historically been the cultural antagonist to achieving happiness. In terms of the science, nothing's changed.
Indeed, there is not one definition of "happiness." What it means to be happy is quite different, depending on the times in which you live, your religious and cultural affiliations, and likely the language you use. For instance, some languages define "happiness" as "good luck and favorable circumstances" (i.e., out of your control), while in others "happiness" refers to "favorable internal feeling states" (somewhat in your control). Obviously, this makes it very hard to write about, because the definitions and the criteria for inclusion have been a moving target.
Happiness is what most people say they really want: the spouse who can manage those things you can't; the house with the porch and the white picket fence; the two matched children (one boy, one girl) who get all the awards in high school and go on to Ivy League colleges; seeing the world with your family; having a retirement nest egg (I always liked the Prudential commercial with psychologist Dan Gilbert that states, "Retirement is paying yourself for what you like to do"); and growing old with your spouse without infirmity. Then again, most parents today simply wish for minimal psychiatric bills, no trips to rehab and no police record, good colleges on their children's résumés, and offspring who are neither bullies nor bullied. Yet virtually any hallmarks of happiness are noticeably absent from most of our written history, in part because who'd want to read it? That's kind of the point. Happiness is what we say we want. But reading about someone else's happiness can get kind of boring. Lack of conflict doesn't make for a very good page-turner or miniseries.
Since the Renaissance, happiness has been the main stated goal of life, rather than being on good behavior to reserve yourself a seat in the afterlife. When asked their primary desire, people across the world, from the U.S. to Slovenia, have put happiness at the very top of their lists. But despite our five-hundred-year eyes on the prize, as a whole we consistently miss the target. The self-help section of any bookstore (that is, any bookstore that is left: their disappearance is itself a marker of our collective loss of happiness) is chock-full of tomes that explore the achievement, value, or consequences of pleasure or happiness in isolation of each other. The publication of books on happiness has become a lucrative niche market, to be sure.
In the twentieth century, Martin Seligman and his colleagues on the beaches of Mexico birthed an entirely new field called "positive psychology," which aims to get us to focus on what is right with our lives rather than what is wrong. Positive psychology studies positive emotions, positive traits, and positive institutions in an attempt to make your life more, well, positive. The idea is to capitalize on your strengths rather than to emphasize your weaknesses or detriments. (To lead a productive and fulfilling life, you can take an online authentic happiness test.) Seligman argues that your happiness is based on who you are intrinsically, voluntary actions, and your circumstances. Tal Ben-Shahar's Positive Psychology class has been and continues to be the most subscribed undergraduate lecture course at Harvard University (maybe because it's an easy A?). Clearly, intelligence and youth don't guarantee happiness.
Sonja Lyubomirsky takes positive psychology even further by breaking the driving forces of happiness into a pie chart: she states that happiness is 50 percent genetics (set point), 40 percent up to your own behaviors, and 10 percent environment (national or cultural region, demographics, gender, ethnicity, experiences, and other life status variables such as marital status, education level, health, and income). More recently studies put the heritability of happiness (i.e., satisfaction with life and well-being) somewhere between 32 and 36 percent. One genome-wide analysis found two genetic variants associated with subjective well-being (i.e., contentment), while yet another report suggests there are at least twenty more, which implies that we won't be genetically engineering happiness very soon. The argument that your state of happiness is only 10 percent based on your circumstances/environment becomes difficult to parse considering that we live in our environments 24/7 and are constantly barraged with commercials of what we need to be happy.
Numerous pop psychology books have popped up, arguably because people want to know how to get happier. Each of these books views happiness as one phenomenon, and most confuse pleasure with happiness. Until you can distinguish the difference between these two emotions, you can't recognize either one as unique and you can't understand, let alone fix, the problem for yourself or for your family.
One Origin of the Confusion
If you google "happiness," here's what you get: "pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction, contentment, felicity." Note the conflation of the concept of pleasure with the concept of happiness in this definition. Where did this conundrum come from, anyway? Who conflated pleasure with happiness in the first place? And how is it that governments and businesses have been able to harness this confusion for their own purposes? (See Chapters 13 and 14.) Here's one quick and dirty explanation of how words make all the difference. Aristotle argued "the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain is a first principle; for it is for the sake of this that we do all that we do." Enter eighteenth-century political philosopher-economist Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was a curious fellow hell-bent on quantifying and scientifically explaining individual human experience by constructing a tally sheet of happiness. He might be called the godfather of utilitarianism, the term John Stuart Mill coined in the nineteenth century to describe the philosophy of increasing net world happiness as the primary goal of human existence. Bentham argued that each person should consider others' welfare as seriously as his own. But in the process, Bentham bastardized Aristotle: "Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure, and that just happens to be a fact . . . benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, all of which ultimately comes to the same thing." Under Bentham's rubric, anything that minimized pain and maximized pleasure by its very nature increased happiness. Carrying Bentham's rubric forward into the neuroscientific age, anything that triggers dopamine or opioid release and action (see Chapter 3) would equally qualify as generating happiness.
Even academics have confused the concepts of pleasure and happiness. For instance, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that there are two separate "accounts" of happiness: (1) hedonism (maximization of pleasure), and (2) the life satisfaction theory, giving them both equal standing. What? Since when is hedonism even in the same room as happiness? Aristotle would be turning over in his grave.
Now that you understand the history of the words themselves, how they have been confused with each other, and how even pop psychologists and Google can't tell the difference, let me now make clear how I am defining them, because the brain science says so. For the rest of this book, pleasure, derived from the French plaisir for "to please," is defined as the concept of gratification or reward. The keys to this definition are: (1) it is immediate, (2) it provides some level of excitement or amusement, and (3) it is dependent on circumstance. Conversely, happiness is defined as the Aristotelian concept of eudemonia-that is, "contentment" or well-being or human flourishing, or, as in the introductory quote from Yeats, "growth"-physical and/or spiritual. The keys to this definition are: (1) it's about life, not the afterlife, (2) it's not prone to acute changes in one's life, and (3) it is unrelated to circumstance, so anyone can be happy, not just the rich and the powerful.
Unraveling the Threads
These two similar yet conflicting aspects of our neurobiology interact with each other, and it is this interaction that serves as the fulcrum on which our lives, our self-worth, and our internal compasses are balanced (see Chapter 10). Our current collective wisdom does not distinguish between reward and contentment at the etymological level, and fails to acknowledge the personal and societal consequences of mistaking one for the other at the biochemical level. And there are consequences, to be sure. That's what this book is all about. Because chronic excessive reward eventually leads to both addiction and depression; the two most unhappy states of the human condition.
This confusion also belies the basis for many of today's most successful marketing strategies (see Chapter 13). Over the past forty years, the dark underbelly of American enterprise has waged war on the American psyche. City College of New York sociologist Nicholas Freudenberg coined the term "corporate consumption complex" for the six biggest industries that sell us various hedonic substances (tobacco, alcohol, food) and behavioral triggers (guns, cars, energy). Add to that the consumer electronics sector, which further takes advantage of our neurobiology, and wrap it all up in some slick Madison Avenue packaging, and you have an unbeatable recipe for corporate profit. In fact, their 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 pleasure got cheap.
Table of Contents
Part I A Few Fries Short of a Happy Meal
1 The Garden of Earthly Delights 17
2 Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places 26
Part II Reward-The Agony of Ecstasy
3 Desire and Dopamine, Pleasure and Opioids 45
4 Killing Jiminy: Stress, Fear, and Cortisol 60
5 The Descent into Hades 69
6 The Purification of Addiction 84
Part III Contentment-The Bluebird of Happiness
7 Contentment and Serotonin 97
8 Picking the Lock to Nirvana 109
9 What You Eat in Private You Wear in Public 122
10 Self-Inflicted Misery: The Dopamine-Cortisol-Serotonin Connection 137
Part IV Slaves to the Machine: How Did We Get Hacked?
11 Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? 151
12 Gross National Unhappiness 165
13 Extreme Makeover-Washington Edition 175
14 Are You "Lovin' It"? Or "Liking It"? 186
15 The Death Spiral 204
Part V Out of Our Minds-In Search of the Four Cs
16 Connect (Religion, Social Support, Conversation) 221
17 Contribute (Self-Worth, Altruism, Volunteerism, Philanthropy) 236
18 Cope (Sleep, Mindfulness, Exercise) 250
19 Cook (for Yourself, Your Friends, Your Family) 267