Having more pleasure than you ever imagined:
Is that possible or a pipe dream?
Part of a series on increasing pleasure, fun, and happiness that illustrates how we are needlessly being robbed of enjoyment because our brains are literally stuck in the Stone Ages regarding bliss. This antediluvian remnant of evolution once served us well, but its adaptive value is long gone. Our genes aren't even trying to catch up, but with a bit of knowledge, you can overcome it.
Most people seek pleasure in indirect ways such as pursuing wealth or attractive partners, but they usually provide only ephemeral delight. The direct approach is the key to getting more than you ever dreamed possible. There is no heaven on Earth, but there are legal and healthy ways to feel that good. Stress makes you miserable as it erodes your health and appearance, so my recipe for happiness will improve your body, mind, and mood.
The human brain is remarkably stingy when it comes to doling out pleasure. Must it be that way? No, but first let's see why it is so parsimonious.
Your boss has a marvelous way of motivating you. It's called a paycheck. If he or she pays you too much, you win the lottery, inherit a fortune, or otherwise accumulate a lot of money in your bank account, you probably won't go to work, and hence not do the work your boss wants done.
Your brain has a marvelous way of motivating you, too. It's called pleasure. When you do something it wants done, or needs done, it rewards you with pleasure. To a certain extent, giving you more pleasure increases your eagerness to do something, but there's a catch: while pleasure positively reinforces what you've already done, feeling too good can decimate your drive to do the myriad other things people must do to survive. This is analogous to having so much money in the bank you stop working.
If a caveman or even a farmer from a century ago stopped working, he would likely die. Hence, the human mind evolved to give enough pleasure to motivate folks to do what needed to be done, but not so much they felt great even if they sat around and did nothing. Mmm, not adaptive.
Enduring versus evanescent pleasure
First, some definitions:
enduring (adjective): long-lasting, long-lived, persisting, continuing, sustained, stable, ongoing, unceasing, unremitting, imperishable, abiding; remaining in existence; resistant to decay or diminution
evanescent (adjective): vanishing or tending to vanish like vapor; temporary, brief, fading, fleeting, passing, transient, transitory, ephemeral, impermanent, perishable, short-term; passing away quickly; not lasting
Enduring pleasure, though not permanent or perpetual, does not rapidly fade away like evanescent pleasure. Most pleasures are evanescent. For example:
- Eating tasty food gives pleasure that ends with swallowing.
- Looking at attractive people gives pleasure that ceases when you look away.
- Kissing is pleasurable while kissing, but not afterward.
Enduring pleasure is like the Energizer Bunny: it just keeps going, and going, and going. The most common example is being in a great mood: pleasure bubbles through your veins for a long time even if you are not continually eating tasty food, looking at attractive people, kissing, hugging, having sex, etc. The pleasure persists, often in the absence of a readily identifiable explanation for it.
The so-called “runner's high,” which can be induced by any strenuous exertion that triggers release of brain endorphins (natural opiate-like painkillers), is one example of enduring pleasure, but it has a major drawback: you must work for it, often very hard, for quite some time. I hate to be so vague, but predicting whether you'll get a runner's high from any prolonged and strenuous exertion is even more iffy than counting on the accuracy of a novice weather forecaster who is intoxicated. You might sweat and get nothing but wet, or you might get a buzz that lasts all day and makes narcotics seem like M&M's®. In the Couch Potato Age, working hard for a long time each day to get pleasure that might last or might rapidly dissipate if you're fortunate enough to get any pleasure at all . . . well, it's too much work. If you're like me, you want to feel good every day, not just once in a blue moon when the stars are in the correct alignment. So what can you do? Keep reading.
Enduring pleasure is the typically elusive Holy Grail of pleasure and happiness: we all want it, but most adults rarely experience it. The human brain made enduring pleasure difficult to get because it does not want to undermine your willingness to work to obtain evanescent pleasures, the pursuit of which led people to do adaptive things such as eating and making love. To use the above work-for-money analogy, your willingness to work may fade if you already have the money you need. Thus, by keeping you hungry for pleasure (not just food), your brain can motivate you to do what it wants you to do.
The neurochemicals that create enduring pleasure do not extinguish rapidly like switching off a light bulb. Instead, they typically linger and slip away so slowly people rarely notice minute-by-minute diminution of pleasure. Limiting the peak of enduring pleasure hastens the time when a thirst for it (or evanescent pleasure) returns.
No one needs to be a rocket scientist to realize that the brain could now give us much more pleasure without us dying, because it is now much easier to survive than eons ago when staying alive was more than a 40-hour-per-week job, with weekends off, paid vacations and holidays, personal days, sick time, sabbaticals, and retirement. Thus, without having video evidence of what life was once like, we know it was much more difficult than it is now. To survive, humans had to almost constantly be doing adaptive things. By giving smaller hits of pleasure, the brain motivated people to do more work, like a boss who pays his workers peanuts. Hungry for a greater reward and needing more money, such workers are more eager to work overtime or a second job. This explains why I worked 110 hours per week for years to become a doctor, but now I have more, I work less because I can get what I want without getting up at 4:44 AM seven days per week.
Many people do things to heighten pleasure, such as by drinking alcohol or taking drugs. However, there are much better ways to feel good. I discussed natural ways to boost mood in Fascinating Health Secrets and The Science of Sex, which isn't only about sex, but also many things that affect it. This series of articles will give you more unique insights into pleasure and how to increase it.
Why don't we have more pleasure?
If we could safely enjoy more pleasure now, why doesn't natural selection give it to us? There is no genetic competitive advantage to feeling great. Most folks have children even if they are depressed (episodic depression is so common that it is one facet of normalcy). If this isn't clear, consider this: Given the male fondness for beauty, one might think that natural selection would gradually result in supremely attractive women, who get attention because they are so rare. However, most women reproduce even if they are Plain Janes or unattractive. A stunning woman might have 1000 men chasing her, but all it takes is one man with even a fleeting attraction to a woman to transmit her genes to the next generation. (Although not important for this discussion, men obviously contribute genes that influence the attractiveness of their offspring, and there is no correlation between male attractiveness and their willingness to mate. Hence, this would blunt the effect of natural selection resulting in more attractive women, if it were to occur.)
First, the bad news . . .
Psychologist Ingmar Franken demonstrated that “frequent exposure to "natural high" experiences is related to anhedonia.” You may have noticed a similar gradual reduction in pleasure by taking narcotic drugs. The first pill might induce rapture, but weeks later one pill delivers much less bliss. Trying to compensate for this reduced sensitivity, many people increase their dose. That helps for a while, but the mind becomes increasingly resistant to the drug, so users often increase the dose even more. This is one facet of how people become addicted to drugs and ruin their health by using increasingly more of them.
The progressive reduction in sensitivity to the euphoric effects of narcotics and other psychoactive drugs is well-known (drug tolerance and tachyphylaxis), but Franken found that skydiving—and likely similarly thrilling activities—triggers a nonpharmacological induced reward that may make everyday pleasures less enjoyable. This is analogous to your mother catching you having a great time raiding the cookie jar, and then making you pay for it in upcoming weeks by getting few or no cookies.
So is it worth it? The pleasure of the thrilling activity is later negated by less everyday enjoyment, so the net effect may be zero or even less than zero—unless you know what I know. Like a mother saying “no” to cookies after you had too many, the brain essentially has a limit switch—effectively a pleasure thermostat—that limits its response to pleasurable events.
The thermostat in your home doesn't care where the heat came from: the furnace, fireplace, oven, or heat lamp. If your home temperature exceeds the thermostat set point, it won't allow your furnace to turn on. If your thermostat were as determined to limit temperature as your brain is determined to limit pleasure, when the house became too warm, the thermostat wouldn't just keep your furnace off, it would also open your windows to let cold air rush in.
Imagine you win a multi-state lottery and buy a private jet. If your wife or girlfriend were as attractive as the adjacent model, you'd likely . . . well, feel as if you hit the jackpot. However, your brain will try to make you come down to Earth. Like the nerve receptors in your skin that rapidly adapt to stimuli (explaining why you feel a watch when you first put it on, but it becomes all-but-unnoticeable the rest of the day), before long the jet doesn't seem as appealing. The human mind is more attuned to changes, so it tends to ignore what is old news, even if that old news is so exciting it once put you on cloud nine.
There isn't any law of biology mandating that pleasure must diminish, but the human brain and body effectively operate as if not doing that would be a mortal sin. In determining how much pleasure it will give you, your brain considers your recent experiences. Even trivial joys can seem very enjoyable if you live a spartan life, as I did in college when buying a new pen or notebook was a big deal. If you've spent weeks jetting around with Miss America, the next trip might be so exciting you spend it thumbing through Sports Illustrated. The jet and the pulchritude in it are old news; your brain, like most brains, is hungering for something new. The next page might just have it . . . .
. . . Now the good news
I discovered a way to essentially turn off the limit switch so you can have more pleasure in a day than most people have in a year. Let's call that free-floating pleasure to differentiate it from pleasure triggered by enjoyable things such as gratifying sex, yummy food, interesting conversations, humor, captivating books, enthralling music, sunshine, doing a good job, helping others, and myriad other pleasant stimuli. With free-floating pleasure, you can feel marvelously delighted even if you don't win the lottery or have someone you adore begging you for a date. Free-floating pleasure is typically enduring, not evanescent. As a bonus, boosting free-floating pleasure can also amplify evanescent pleasures such as kissing, hugging, and having sex.
Is free-floating pleasure bad?
No. There is no drawback to feeling great while I wash dishes, clean my bathroom, or do other mundane work. I do everything I need to do and much more, which is why many people marvel at my productivity. If I sat around wallowing in a blissful stupor, that obviously would not be adaptive, but that doesn't happen. In fact, many people waste inordinate amounts of time and emotional energy because they are beset with anxiety and depression. Overcoming them can free you to do more, so feeling very good is very adaptive.
Getting your thrills safely
People who engage in risky, thrill-seeking activities such as driving fast on snowmobile trails or skydiving “may be hyper-stimulated by [those] experiences because their brains release more dopamine during these events” than people who can get their fill of pleasure from less extreme stimuli.
Thrill-seekers aren't after the danger, but the high that results from it. This suggests that boosting dopamine (via pharmaceuticals, foods, vitamins, and otherwise) can satisfy the craving for it without risking death or serious injury.
Young men are most likely to seek their dopamine fix from risky thrill-seeking activities because “the brain’s reward system develops long before the inhibitory system, which keeps impulsive, novelty-seeking behaviors in check.” Thus, I have reason to believe that people who dangerously speed on snowmobile trails or roads are either immature or have defective brain inhibitory systems. (Incidentally, I am speaking of people who speed for fun, not understandable if not legitimate excuses such as rushing to work or to catch a critical flight.)
Every winter, hundreds of snowmobilers per day spend hours at a local restaurant, doing more smoking and drinking than eating before many of them return to speed on snowmobile trails. No normal person needs to speed on a snowmobile to have fun on it, or to booze it up beforehand. Similarly, many others engage in other risky or illegal activities in an attempt to satisfy their craving for pleasure. The desire for pleasure is so strong that the “just say no” approach is just plain ineffective. When you gotta have it, you gotta have it.
Governments and parents typically do a poor job of getting people to do what they want. They can crack the whip all they want, but when you gotta have it, you gotta have it. Ya dig?
The most effective strategy is to replace the desired pleasurable activity with something safer to substitute for it. Importantly, that substitute needn't be less pleasurable. This enables the brain to safely have the pleasure it wants. Thus, if I had a son or daughter who wanted to use drugs, I'd give him or her a safe, even healthy way to have more pleasure without the rebound dysphoria and countless other drawbacks of drug use. Premarital sex and the diseases and other problems resulting from it could be curbed by a knowledge of masturbation that goes beyond the basics, so President Clinton did the nation a grave disservice by firing Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders after she suggested that teaching about masturbation might reduce riskier forms of sexual activity, which it obviously would. Burying our heads in the sand does not make problems go away.
To be continued . . . .
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- Outmuscling Major Depression With Creatine
- No fear no risk! Human risk behavior is affected by chemosensory anxiety signals.
- Neuroanatomy and Physiology of the “Brain Reward System” in Substance Abuse
- A High-Fat Diet Alters Crucial Aspects of Brain Dopamine Signaling
- Weight Gain Induced by High-Fat Diet Increases Active-Period Sleep and Sleep Fragmentation
- Fat Intake Negatively Influences The Sleep Pattern In Healthy Adults
- Satiation: when a reinforcer loses its effectiveness.
- Why the Thrill Is Gone: Potential Target for Treating Major Symptom of Depression based on Anhedonia requires MC4R-mediated synaptic adaptations in nucleus accumbens
- Being in Awe Can Expand Time and Enhance Well-Being based on Awe Expands People's Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being
- Hormone Curbs Depressive-Like Symptoms in Stressed Mice based on Adiponectin is critical in determining susceptibility to depressive behaviors and has antidepressant-like activity
- Light At Night Linked To Symptoms Of Depression In Mice based on Influence of light at night on murine anxiety- and depressive-like responses
Comment: Light pollution is ubiquitous.
- Light at Night Causes Changes in Brain Linked to Depression
- Room Light Before Bedtime May Impact Sleep Quality, Blood Pressure and Diabetes Risk
- Exposure to 'White' Light LEDs Appears to Suppress Body's Production of Melatonin More Than Certain Other Lights, Research Suggests based on Limiting the impact of light pollution on human health, environment and stellar visibility
- Don’t Burn Out: Enjoy Your Favorite Products More by Consuming Them Less Frequently based on Slow Down! Insensitivity to Rate of Consumption Leads to Avoidable Satiation
- Gene That Predicts Happiness in Women Discovered based on The MAOA gene predicts happiness in women
- World's happiest countries
- Can Money Buy Happiness?
- Want the Shortest Path to the Good Life? Try Cynicism
- Happiness Lengthens Life based on Healthy happiness: effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care
- Secret to marital bliss? Don't have kids
- Monkey Study Reveals Why Middle Managers Suffer the Most Stress based on Associations between social behaviour and adrenal activity in female Barbary macaques: Consequences of study design