So Happy Together
By Maria Reidelbach
This month, I’m giving thanks for a new book that rocked my world. It’s not news that Americans are growing less healthy, that we are the first generation that will have a shorter lifespan than our parents, and that obesity is endemic. Surveys show that we are also less happy than our parents. Given that we live in what we like to describe as one of the “best” nations on earth, how can this be so?
Dr. Robert H. Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist and obesity researcher who became freaked out that so many of his young patients were sick with type 2 diabetes and hypertension—illnesses previously found only in adults—and that he was having little success in treating them. Rather than despair, he researched and analyzed. His results are astounding.
In The Hacking of the American Mind, Lustig shows that unhealthy children are the canaries in the coal mine. Fully 75% of US healthcare spending is on “metabolic syndrome” diseases: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and dementia. And 75% of these cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes. Almost $1.8 trillion a year is wasted—and we pay for this through our health insurance and taxes!
In just a few generations, what has caused this health crisis? Lustig discovered that there’s a crucial, biological difference between pleasure and happiness, and that marketers are exploiting our natural desires, making us sicker and sicker.
How is this known? Brain Science!
Our brain’s limbic system is a set of specialized, interconnected structures where our emotions are formed. Different chemical neurotransmitters are generated in response to the events of our lives, and they each travel different pathways, giving rise to our moods and feelings. The two pathways we’re mostly concerned with are the Reward (pleasure) Pathway, which runs on dopamine, and the Contentment (happiness) Pathway, which uses serotonin.
Dopamine is triggered when we partake of many pleasurable things such as sweets, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and other drugs, surfing social media, shopping, gambling, watching porn, playing video games and shooting guns, and each gives us a short-term rush of fun. Serotonin is generated by more subtle behaviors and foods (about which more below) causing a wide variety of feelings of happiness, serenity, satisfaction and love, and mitigating depression and anxiety.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. Both dopamine and serotonin make us feel great, that’s for sure, and humans are made to enjoy both of them. But, as Lustig explains it, “Pleasure is the emotional state where your brain says, ‘this feels good—I want more,’ while happiness says, ‘this feels good—I don’t want or need any more.’” However, overdoing pleasurable things for the dopamine rush interferes with serotonin’s access to the Contentment Pathway. The end result: too much pleasure makes happiness impossible on a physical level, is addictive and often has terrible health effects!
Lustig shows that we Americans have been hijacked by pleasure pushers, companies that consciously exploit the addictive qualities of substances and behaviors that produce dopamine. These bad actors include corporations, the processed food industry, pharmaceutical companies, government programs, Silicon Valley, and more. As our traditions have been melted into one big consumer culture we have become enthralled by things designed to appeal to our very biology—we are almost helpless to resist them. Delicious, cheap processed food stuffed with government-subsidized sugar, unrestricted, constant advertising for ephemeral products, ever-more-attractive video games, ever-kinkier porn, more ways and places to count your “likes,” a gun culture that equates weaponry with patriotism and freedom, insurance companies that want you to die fast—it goes on and on. All of these things contribute to making us fat, sedentary, depressed and sick, and Lustig documents it thoroughly.
BUT. There’s an amazing antidote, and it doesn’t cost a dime. Lustig has developed a science-based program to nurture physical and mental health, to generate serotonin and all kinds of happiness and it’s pretty simple, even kind of retro. He calls it the 4 Cs.
Connect: reach out to fellow humans, in the flesh. Join in groups—family, civic groups, social groups, hobby groups, church communities, political campaigns, social dances, board gaming, singing. Looking in others’ eyes actually generates serotonin!
Contribute: do some work toward the greater good, contribute money to a good cause, volunteer to help others.
Cope: take care of yourself. Not getting enough sleep (at least 8 hours) and too much stress will each lower your serotonin. Practicing mindfulness and getting plenty of exercise is good for the parts of our brain that are the home of happiness. Avoid multi-tasking like the plague.
Cook (now we’re getting to eating locally grown food!): Lustig says, “Based on the science presented throughout this book, I offer to you my single most important key to happiness: cook real food for yourself, for your friends and for your family!”
Science shows that sugar is at the root of many of the metabolic disorders, including many cancers. The American Sugar Association and other vested interests subverted important studies to this effect starting in the 1970s. Government subsidies have made sugar, once a luxury ingredient, even cheaper than grain. Processed food contains lots of obvious sugar, but half of it is hidden in savory foods.
We can avoid almost all of this sugar by cooking for ourselves—and still have a sweet at the end of the day. But cooking does so much more. Cooking includes the other 3 Cs: it connects us with others, it contributes to the health of our family and friends, it makes us focus. Cooking with food that we grow ourselves, or forage, or get from local farms and friends is even better because we get exercise, join with friends, get out in nature.
In The Hacking of the American Mind, Lustig presents a much broader and more detailed case for an unfortunate combination of corporate and governmental factors setting us up to fail. (To write it, he even went back to school and studied law.) In the current political climate, we may not be able to create the regulations that would reign in these forces for ill, but we can change our own lives and support change in our communities. The Mid-Hudson Valley is rich with many ways to practice the 4 Cs—there’s Hudson Valley Community Dances, Weston Price potluck dinners, the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, organized hiking at public parks, game nights at public libraries, choirs, and many more opportunities to get together and amp up that serotonin. I’ll post this column on my blog at stick2local.com with an open list of groups, activities and resources that we can all share. Let’s get happy and healthy together!
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.