Recently I read this sad/alarming article by Dr. Robert Lustig on our addiction to pleasure. He doesn't really say anything new in it about our tendencies to pursue, and then become addicted, to whatever spikes our dopamine levels and gives us that little flood of pleasure. The "whatever" could be drugs, alcohol, or sugar (his personal bête noir), or it could be video games, pornography, or shopping. We love that dopamine rush, and we do what it takes to feel it repeatedly. Of course, addictions cost money, time, relationships, and life in general, so they tend to get out of hand.
Forget dopamine. The brain chemical we should all be encouraging is serotonin, what Lustig calls the "contentment neurotransmitter." Serotonin makes you feel like you have enough, that life is fine. If you don't have enough of it in your brain, you get depressed. It's great to have both dopamine and serotonin circulating in your brain, but too much dopamine drives down serotonin levels. Too many pleasure spikes, and suddenly our overall happiness declines. You become the addict who derives diminishing pleasure from the substance/activity. Now you need the substance/activity to stave off the bad feelings, not to send you into orbit.
Fine, you say. But how do we boost our serotonin levels without antidepressants or trips to Maui? Glad you asked.
Here are five boosters of contentment, all to be found at the Bellevue Farmers Market:
- Exercise. You walk from the parking lot to the Market. You do a couple loops of the Market. You dance a little to the live music. You go back to your car, hauling several pounds of pastured meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, honey, and a beverage or two.
- Sunshine. "Exposure to bright light" leads to higher serotonin levels. As the Journal of Psychiatry and Neurosciences puts it, "Even on a cloudy day, the light outside can be greater than 1000 lux, a level never normally achieved indoors."
- Positive "mood inductions." Not only are exercise and sunshine natural mood-lifters, but so are being around people, smiling, and expressing gratitude. Go to the Market with a positivity checklist, such as: (1) I will have a positive conversation with at least one person; (2) I will smile at at least one person (hopefully the person I'm conversing with); and (3) I will compliment and thank at least one person. It isn't hard to do, considering the hard work our farmers and food-preparers put in, with such beautiful and delicious results.
- Diet. It turns out tryptophan, an amino acid found in many foods at the Market, increases brain serotonin levels, acting as a mild antidepressant. Even better, "in healthy people with high trait irritability, it increases agreeableness, decreases quarrelsomeness and improves mood" (same article from #2)! In other words, good food can make you happier. Which of these tryptophan-rich foods can you find at the Market?
- Cage-free eggs;
- Wild-caught fish;
- Pastured poultry;
- Grass-fed beef and lamb;
- Organic dairy (and raw is great);
- Beans and legumes; and
I will note that not all tryptophan in foods crosses the brain-blood barrier, but the article suggests, "the possibility that the mental health of a population could be improved by increasing the dietary intake of tryptophan relative to the dietary intake of other amino acids remains an interesting idea that should be explored."
So get out to the Market this week and increase your contentment levels. And if you have a grouchy friend or family member, take them along too!