The only part of our body that is sentient is our brain. Within the brain we can formulate all sorts of thought, perception, significance and reason. The rest of our body is comprised essentially of water-filled protein sacs that are interconnected with electricity. And although you (as in, the “you” that exists in your mind) can experience something and respond in a thoughtful way, your body cannot. Your body “speaks” a language based on chemical reactions, and it functions without you having to understand how or why.
This chemical “language” is hormones. In our way of anthropomorphizing, we have a tendency to describe their function as “telling” such and such to happen in the body. They don’t tell, command, communicate or transfer anything. They induce other chemical responses, and the cascading causes and effects effectuate a physical response, not an intellectual one. If, however, it is helpful to think of hormones as speaking/telling, then something to know is that they can talk too much.
I’m sure you have had the experience where you wish someone would just shut up: “Please be quiet. I cannot take anymore. I’m now going to tune you out. I know you are talking, but I can no longer process everything you are saying. I am overwhelmed and burned out. Blah, blah, blah…”
In a metaphorical sense, this blabbering can happen with your hormones. One increasingly common example in industrialized countries is insulin insensitivity. In this instance, the physical receptors in cells that accommodate insulin are physically damaged by their constant exposure to it — the receptors get literally worn out. Insulin is the hormone that “tells” your body to store surplus food energy as fat. Poor quality diets tend to spike insulin levels frequently, eventually numbing cells to the “commands” being “told” to them. The cells begin to “ignore” the insulin, which causes the insulin to “yell louder.” Eventually the insulin is “screaming” so much that the cells become “deaf” to insulin. This need to generate more insulin to get the same net effect is the cause of diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
Although it is a different mechanical process, this should sound familiar. Having to get a larger quantity of something to maintain the same effect is common in addiction. Whether it be nicotine, alcohol, pain killers, illegal drugs or other substances, higher doses are required to satisfy cravings. Dopamine is often one of the hormones directly affected by addictive behaviors, and the spikes can be affected by emotional stimulation, in addition to physical ones.
All sorts of substances, situations, behaviors and experiences can become addictive, in the sense that if anything happens enough, your response to it will become diminished. Dopamine is the hormone that stimulates the part of your brain that processes something as gratifying, rewarding and/or pleasurable. We evolved to enjoy foods, situations and experiences that are good for us. Our brain rewards us with a dose of dopamine to encourage us to do something that is beneficial to survival. That is why energy dense foods are delicious, kindness is comforting, and sex and love create ecstasy. The challenge is to make sure we do not become “deaf” to dopamine.
In industrialized nations during the first part of the 21st century, anxiety and depression are becoming ever more common. This is happening, despite the fact that these places enjoy food stability, relative peace and security, prosperity and opportunities. Researchers speculate that the reason this is happening is because people have become addicted to pleasure and joy. Whereas we evolved to enjoy fleeting happiness in a dangerous world, we didn’t evolve to enjoy unending happiness in a boring one.
The hypothesis goes that (quasi-similarly to insulin insensitivity) overexposure to dopamine changes the functioning of the brain to such an extent that mood cannot be properly regulated without ever larger doses of it. Over time this addiction to joy becomes a cause of despair. It is a classic example of “too much of a good thing.”
Whether it be extreme sports, powerfully flavored foods, explosive movies and video games, multitasking, life hacking or any other number of examples, we live in a world that stimulates us far too much. And to make it even more complicated, this expectation of constant engagement and delight has been monetized and turned into one of the underlying principles of our economy and culture. Everything, everywhere, at all times needs to be comfortable, happy, delicious, beautiful, amazing and fun, fun, fun!
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there is no healthy place for hedonism. I mean only that we should be aware of anhedonia. At what point does a total excess of delight become a total absence of delight? Anhedonia is the inability to feel pleasure. And that can have terrible consequences.
It is known that the absence of joy and pleasure is a direct cause and/or symptom of depression and other mental health disorders. It is therefore vital to find the balance between stimulation and rest that fosters long term contentment, as opposed to unrelenting joy. It’s rather ironic that the same culture that sells stimulation has also commodified calm. We pay for access to overstimulation, then we pay for access to relief. One industry sells us sugar, the other sells us fiber pills. One sells boot camp exercise sessions, the other yoga class passes. Have you made your appointment for a massage during your layover at the connecting airport? We pay to get sped up and slowed down, but ultimately it’s our mental health that pays the bill.