top of page

Pleasure vs Happiness

Updated: Dec 31, 2022

Cynthia Crosse

If your life seems short of zing, rest assured, you are not alone. The World Health Organisation has declared depression a world­ wide crisis with more than 300 million people now living with the problem, an increase of over 18% between 2005 and 2015. If you put this increase down to our modern way of living - you 're right, and endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig, in his 2017 book, "The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of

Our Bodies and Brains " explains just why.

You can't solve a problem if you don't know what the problem is.

In identifying the root of the problem, Lustig takes us back to the fundamental difference between pleasure and happiness. Commonly we think of there being an overlap between the t wo, but an important message of this book is that - there is no overlap between pleasure and happiness at all.

At an endocrine level, our feeling of pleasure is dictated by our levels of the neurotransmitter, Dopamine. As the name suggest s, neurotransmitters are responsible for transmitting signals throughout the neural circuitry of the brain. Our feeling of happiness is communicated by the neurotransmitter, Serotonin. Dopamine and Serotonin are found in two different areas of the brain, with different sets of receptors and regulatory pathways, and they manifest in opposite ways:

Pleasure is the feeling "This feels good, I want more."

Happiness, "This feels good, I don't want or need any more."









Can be achieved alone

Usually achieved in social groups

Can be achieved with substances such as (cocaine, heroin, nicotine, alcohol, sugar, etc.) or behaviours (video games, social media, mobile phones, gambling, shopping, porn).

Cannot be achieved with substances.

Can lead to addiction.

Is not addictive.

So, why does this matter?

Dopamine is an "excitatory" neurotransmitter. It excites neurons to fire. When overstimulated, neurons die. However, the neurons next to them have a "Plan B" - a built-in safety mechanism that down-regulates the receptors for that substance. What that means experientially is that following a "hit" or "rush" of pleasure, the receptors go down. The next time you take the same substance or perform the same behaviour, there are fewer receptors, and so you need a bigger hit to get the same rush.

The extremes of pleasure, whether through substances or behaviours lead to addiction.

Conversely, Serotonin is an "inhibitory" neurotransmitter - it causes the next neurotransmitter to stay silent so you don't need to down-regulate receptors and so you can't overdose on happiness. The one thing that does down-regulate serotonin is ... dopamine! The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you become.

A chronic deficiency in serotonin leads to depression.


This basic neuroscience has been available to corporations for a long time, and they have exploited the "pleasure centre" in the brain to provide us with things that give us an initial sense of pleasure, but leave us wanting more.

"Corporations know what they’re doing, and they have done a really good job in subverting our own basic emotional needs and desires for their own profit."

The pharma, electronic, gambling and food industries have all capitalised, with food companies particularly adept at manipulating our minds with sugar. Lustig is a known anti-­ sugar campaigner and cautions that most big corporations have neuroscientists working for them specifically for this purpose.

The more a product gives you a dopamine rush, the more addictive it is - “Think Facebook," he says. "That slight pause between clicking on the icon and getting your messages is deliberately addictive."

Vide Sanford University's course, "Persuasive technology design:

"The purpose of the Persuasive Technology Lab is to create insight into how computing products­ from websites to mobile phone software-can be designed to change people's beliefs and behaviors. Our major projects include technology for creating health habits, mobile persuasion, and the psychology of Facebook."

One study shows, says Lustig, that just two weeks on Facebook lowers the feeling of happiness of the viewer.


While most of the above will come as no surprise to many, Lustig offers four steps we can each take to reverse the process and return our pleasure and happiness levels to a health balance. He calls them his "Four C's." These are evidence-based, accessible to everyone and free!

Step 1: Connect

Connect with people by meeting them face­ to-face, eye-to-eye.

We have "mirror neurons" at the back of the head that are in constant assessment when talking with someone face to face. We read the facial expressions of the person we are talking to and adopt them ourselves in a process we know as "empathy." And empathy is a primary driver of serotonin. If you’re not in eye shot of the person - e.g. on the phone, on social media, especially if you're anonymous, you

can't achieve that face- to-face empathy.

Step 2: Contribute

Giving for no gain or reward drives up serotonin and makes us feel happy.

Step 3: Cope

Cope by getting enough sleep and exercise and by being mindful. In our society, multi­ tasking is prized whereas in fact, only 2.5% of the population can multi-task; the rest of us fake it by serially uni-tasking. This spikes our cortisol leaving us more unhappy.

Step 4: Cook

Cook to get the nutrients you need in the right amounts. For example, the amino acid tryptophan. Because the body can't make its own tryptophan, it is referred to as an "essential" amino acid - it must be ingested as part of the diet. It is the key ingredient in making serotonin; without it, serotonin won't be produced.

Working on the Four Cs will lead to much more happiness and occasional pleasure, he says. The point is, pleasure is supposed to be once a week, not once a minute, or even once a meal.

Excerpted from a Radio NZ interview with Dr Robert Lustig

Recent Posts

See All

Tight Lips

Silence lingers, waiting. Patient. Unperturbed by our distractions. Empty thoughts beget empty words. Little theories govern Little men. In every mind a watcher. Noting, recording, judging. The Gold s


bottom of page