Be Happy! Yes You Can!

By Serge Genetet
Published on April 24th, 2018

Happiness is right there in front of us, just behind the curtain of our brains. We have everything in us to put ourselves (back) in the driving seat and live a life of long lasting contentment. We just have to follow a simple recipe – the 4 C’s. And this recipe does not cost a dime.

University of California, San Francisco. Robert H. Lustig is a professor of pediatrics there, working on reversing childhood obesity. In his book, “The Hacking of the American Mind”, Lustig gives us a simple and efficient recipe for happiness after driving us through a fascinating journey of the human brain. His message is based upon scientific evidence where he connects many dots between biochemistry, neuroscience, genetics, physiology, medicine, nutrition, psychology, psychiatry, public health, economics, philosophy, theology, history, law.

Reward vs contentment

Lustig defines happiness as the Aristotelian concept of eudemonia—that is, “contentment” or well-being or human flourishing. Happiness is not prone to acute changes in one’s life, and it is unrelated to circumstance, so anyone can be happy, not just the rich and the powerful.

On the other hand, pleasure is defined as the concept of gratification or reward. Pleasure is immediate and depends on circumstance.

Lustig identifies 7 differences between reward and contentment.

  1. Reward is short-lived, contentment lasts much longer
  2. Reward is visceral in terms of excitement, contentment is ethereal and calming
  3. Reward can be achieved with different substances, contentment is usually achieved with deeds
  4. Reward occurs with the process of taking, contentment is often generated through giving
  5. Reward is yours and yours alone, your contentment, or lack of it, often impacts other people directly and can impact society at large. Do you remember the Columbine shooters?
  6. Reward when unchecked can lead us into misery, like addiction. There is no such thing as lethal or excessive contentment.
  7. Last and most important, reward is driven by dopamine, and contentment by serotonin. Each is a neurotransmitter—a biochemical manufactured in the brain that drives feelings and emotions—but the two couldn’t be more different.

Dopamine vs serotonin: when chemistry makes us happy!

Here we are: understanding how and where dopamine and serotonin work is the holy grail in the ultimate quest for both pleasure and happiness.

Lustig gives us the chemical formula of happiness or contentment or well-being. It happens when our very good friend serotonin meets a delicate receptor in our brain called serotonin 1a receptor. This encounter seems to be uniquely involved in decreasing anxiety and mitigating depression.

So indeed, Mother Nature has put it all there for us to be happy!!!!

Well, not that fast. In its great passion for perpetual balance, Mother Nature has also introduced many ways for the encounter between serotonin and its 1a receptor to be challenged. This where dopamine comes in.

Dopamine is a Jekyll-Hyde neurotransmitter. We need dopamine. Without it, we are a laconic couch potato. No pleasure means no happiness. Reward is how humans (and other species) get things done. It is essential for survival of the species.

On the other hand, too much dopamine makes us aggressive and paranoid. Neuroscientists have proven that an excess of dopamine kills neurons and prevents the encounter between serotonin and its 1a receptor.

Not to mention another culprit: stress elevates cortisol, which when in excess, reduces serotonin levels.

This explains why chronic excessive reward eventually leads to both addiction and depression; the two most unhappy states of the human condition.

Remember the last time you saw an advertisement, spent your money on the lottery, drank or ate too much sugar (most of the time not knowing that what you ate or drank had so much sugar in it), received a stressful email, jumped on your smartphone seconds after your alarm bell rang, watched bad news on TV, did not resist this invitation for a binge-drinking party, slept less than 7 hours per day, counted with anxiety the number of likes you got on various addictive social network apps? You can bet that all these events shot your dopamine or cortisol levels to the roof. Poor serotonin….

The four Cs, our path towards happiness

Are we doomed? Can we change our brain’s biochemistry? YES WE CAN!

After a very well documented list of chapters on all the factors which drive a majority of persons to depression in developed countries and the chemistry triggered by these factors (my personal advice: read these chapters when you are relaxed under the warm sun, not after watching a horror movie in a dark place), Lustig gives us a big dose of hope (and contentment) with a simple, affordable recipe to happiness.

Understanding the differences between pleasure and happiness, the chemistry at play and how external organizations, companies and governments included, try to lock us into a perpetual reward loop to hack our brains and money, it becomes much easier for us now to use what Mother Nature has given us to move back to the driving seat and engage into a positive loop. You just need four ingredients, four essential boosters of happiness to make your own recipe. All of which have been proven to increase literally and significantly serotonin levels in human brains:

  • Connect– develop your social connections, meet friends and make new ones, engage into direct conversations, preferably face to face
  • Contribute– Volunteer, practice altruism, give time or money or attention and compassion to others without expecting a personal gain
  • Cope– Sleep more, unplug from your devices, meditate, practice mindfulness, exercise
  • Cook– for yourself, for your family and your friends, with unprocessed ingredients

In other words, Lustig gives us a very affordable GPS for happiness, based firmly on science. I will not wait to share with you Dr Lustig’s conclusion:

Happiness, our first garden, is our natural birthright, but we’ve been cheated out of it. In its place has been substituted a garden of earthly delights, and we’re all the worse for it. Some pay the ultimate price and slip into the abyss of eternal damnation. But that first garden is right in front of you, just behind the curtain of your own brain. You can re-enter anytime you choose. It’s time to reclaim your original garden as your own.”

Now that you know the truth about happiness, here is a challenge for you:

When you wake up tomorrow morning and find yourself reaching for your smartphone to check your regular news app, hold it for a second. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, stand up, open the window, look at the sky, walk a bit, prepare a healthy breakfast.

Do this every day, and you will start the day in clear control of your mind.

My next blog post will be on Martin Seligman, one of the 5 explorers of happiness I described in the opening of my blog series.

If you want to start your journey to happiness, you can also have a look at Same, it is entirely for free and made for you.

Stay tuned, and cook for yourself, your loved ones and your friends.