Robert Lustig speaks at Kramer Books & Afterwords Cafe (Photo by Tanner Hackney)
Washington, D.C.—On Thursday evening in a corner of Kramer Books & Afterwords Cafe, Robert Lustig told a crowd that people in the United States had forgotten the difference between pleasure and happiness, and that it’s making us sick.
“The extremes of pleasure, whether they be substances or behaviors…all lead to addiction,” Lustig said. “You can’t be addicted to too much happiness.”
Promoting his new book, “The Hacking of the American Mind,” Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, said food and healthcare industries are spreading ideas that lead not only to a confusion between pleasure and happiness, but also a decrease in physical and mental health.
According to Lustig, some of the bigger culprits include Coca-Cola, which suggests you can buy happiness with their slogan: “Open Happiness.”
The difference between marketing and propaganda is the truth, and Coca-Cola, along with other food companies, are not telling the truth, Lustig said.
“They want you to think you can buy happiness,” Lustig said. “Because that’s how they sell.”
Lustig distinguishes pleasure and happiness with several characteristics. Pleasure is short-lived, “visceral,” an act of taking, and is experienced alone. It can be achieved through substances, triggering a rush of dopamine that can lead to addiction. Happiness, Lustig said, is long-lived, “ethereal,” an act of giving, and is experienced with others. It doesn’t require substances and it triggers a rush of serotonin, which you can’t get addicted to.
The key to knowing the difference is spending less time chasing pleasures, and more time investing effort in your happiness, Lustig said.
Lustig said suicide and suicidal thoughts are at an all-time high in the United States, especially among middle-aged white men. According to Lustig, the conflation between pleasure and happiness has lead to the abuse of illegal drugs and over-consumption of sugary foods.
“Addiction and depression—just two sides of the same coin,” Lustig said.
Lustig said sugar became a much bigger problem during the low-fat craze of the 1980s. He said food tasted “like cardboard,” so companies started adding more sugar. Lustig said the dangers of sugar are often overlooked by the idea that a calorie is a calorie, no matter where it comes from. This school of thought is less about being critical of what you eat, and more about balancing calorie input and exercise. Lustig calls this idea “garbage.”
“Turns out sugar is toxic, unrelated to it’s calories,” Lustig said.
Lustig conducted a study where he reduced sugar in the diets of children from 28% to 10%. He replaced it with an equal amount of starch and kept participants’ fat and protein levels the same. After the nine days, their liver fat, blood pressure and triglycerides went down. Lustig said the break in sugar also allowed their pancreases to “rest,” producing less insulin and thereby reversing their metabolic syndrome.
Lustig says we now face what he calls a public health crisis, with obesity and diabetes rates on the rise globally. And diabetes isn’t just a problem for the obese, Lustig said. According to his research, 40% of people with a healthy body mass index have the same diseases as the 80% of obese who are sick.
Lustig said there is no preventative medicine for chronic metabolic diseases like diabetes.
“We only know how to treat,” Lustig said. “They don’t teach prevention in medical school.”
Lustig said since the healthcare industry doesn’t offer prevention and the food industry is poisoning us with sugar, it’s the responsibility of the citizens to take preventative measures. Lustig proposed a DIY method of preventing disease and poor mental health in what he calls “the four Cs of happiness.” The four Cs stand for connect, contribute, cope, and cook.
“Connect” refers to interacting with people, which facilitates empathy, eliciting serotonin and a sense of contentment. Lustig said the interaction has to take place in real life, as social media generates dopamine and can lead to depression and social isolation.
“Contribute” refers to volunteerism, philanthropy, and altruism. He said helping people with no expectation of personal gain is a big part of being content.
“If money is the only thing that drives you, there’s never enough,” Lustig said.
“Cope” refers to how you deal with stress and depression. Practicing mindfulness can increase your focus and serotonin levels, and exercise can be as good as prescription drugs for alleviating depression, Lustig said.
Discussing the “cook” step, Lustig encouraged healthy cooking with an emphasis on avoiding sugar. He also said cooking can be a medium for the prior three Cs. If you’re cooking for a group of friends or your family, you’re simultaneously connecting, contributing and coping.
Each of these activities requires active effort and dedication. For many, following the four Cs may prove challenging.
“You have to want it more than you want what you’ve got now,” Lustig said.