What’s the difference between pleasure and happiness? - Food for the Brain

What’s the difference between pleasure and happiness?

Pleasure means something I want because it feels good at the time, so I want more, until that ‘want’ becomes a ‘need’.

Happiness means contentment. You feel good and are satisfied. You don’t want or need to buy anything. It is about connection.

Pleasure seeking, reward and desire are all linked to the trio of ‘stimulating’ neurotransmitters – dopamine from which we make noradrenalin and adrenalin – and the more activated the more ‘want’ turns into ‘need’. This is the basis of addiction to caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, stress, gambling, video games, overeating, checking your mobile phone, Facebook likes and sex.


Alcohol is the flip side of all this because it promotes GABA (which switches off adrenalin) but the effect doesn’t last so long so you need another and another drink, then wake up with low GABA so easily flip into a stress state.

This neurological highway has been hijacked to make us buy the latest iPhone and check your email, Facebook and Instagram every 2 minutes, think more sugar or coffee or another drink will fill that need. The end result is we become addicted consumers and pleasure seekers but increasingly less happy as a result. We are sold happy – the happy hour, happy meal, happiness is… – when really we are being sold a quick fix hit of pleasure.

Happiness is different. It is to do with the neurotransmitter serotonin which becomes depleted by the dominant overstimulated dopamine pathway. Depressed serotonin leads to the hallmarks of 21st century living – anxiety, feeling stressed, poor sleep, carb and alcohol cravings.

Marketeers have learnt how to trigger our brain’s ‘reward’ circuitry with triggers that make you act and variable rewards. Facebook, for example, have learnt how to do this with prompts, swipe downs, red icons that you press and don’t know what you receive. Is it a ‘like’. Has another person ‘linked’ to me on Linkedin etc. The average person now checks their phone 2,617 times a day (according to research in 2017 – probably over 3,000 times by now). Facebook even knows when you’re feeling ‘insecure’, ‘worthless’ and ‘need a confidence boost’ or bored, according to a leaked report this year, and can make sure you receive notification of a ‘like’ just when you ‘need’ it to keep you hooked in.

We are sold various forms of caffeine, sugar and alcohol as the answer to happiness. Think of ‘happy hour’. The medical profession also offer anti-depressants and tranquillisers as the answer to our lack of happiness. It’s a telling sign of the times that serotonin- based anti-depressants such as Prozac, now off patent, have been replaced with serotonin and noradrenalin-based anti depressants such as duloxetine with terrible ‘withdrawal’ effects, which is a hallmark of a potentially addictive substance.

Addictive substances tend to have a variable reward – they don’t always work and often become less effective as you get used to them so you want more, and end up just needing the substance to feel normal, not good.

These, and many drugs, work by blocking the recycling of the brain’s neurotransmitters. That’s what an SSRI antidepressant does. It stops you recycling serotonin so you become increasingly deficient. The new anti-depressants are noradrenalin reuptake inhibitors. Cocaine is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor. Heroin is an endorphin inhibitor. Sugar, in excess works the same addictive pathways. Sugar plus stress equals addiction.

Think about your addictions – that is things you couldn’t do without or, if deprived, would start saying ‘I need…’. Do they really make you happy and contented or do they stop you feeling bad/tired/stressed? How long before you need more?

How to end addiction is based, first on restoring the brain’s normal ‘reward’ chemistry and promoting healthy serotonin response. Key is quitting sugar and junk food. Something simple like exercising outdoor in sunshine helps. Next time you reach for a coffee how about taking a walk around the block instead? Exercise and sunshine actually promote serotonin and happiness.

The amino acid tryptophan is the building block for serotonin. An experiment was carried out at Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry which proved this connection very clearly. Fifteen women were given a diet devoid of tryptophan. Within eight hours ten of the women started to feel more depressed. When tryptophan was added back into their diet, without them knowing, their mood improved. That is how quickly what you eat affects how you feel.

A natural form of tryptophan, 5-HTP, is a very good mood booster, also helping improve sleep and lessen anxiety.

So too is the mineral chromium, which also affects serotonin. If you’re not feeling much ‘happiness’ try this:

*There is a caution about taking 5-HTP with anti-depressants. Discuss with your doctor.