Better Off Than Ever and yet Unhappier

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As a species human beings have for millennia struggled with the challenge of too little. Too few calories to survive and thrive. While many world-wide still face that struggle, lots of us have a different challenge: too much.

You’ve heard the line about “first-world” problems? Well, this may be the quintessential first-world problem: too much. Too many calories, too much stimuli, too many readily available ways to over do it. Such is the contention of the Stanford-based physician and psychiatrist, Anne Lembke, in her new book Dopamine Nation. The subtitle is, “Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.”

I listened to an interview with Lembke on the NPR show “Fresh Air” recently. As I did I thought about the many seductions of a vacation paradise like Wallowa Lake, our summer haunt. Just up the road, by the mini-golf, is the “Fudge Shoppe.” Great slabs of home-made fudge in all sorts of exotic flavors waft their aroma over all who walk by. In nearby Joseph, “Arrowhead Chocolates” offers too many delectables to name. In between the two, ice-cream shops and snack stores proliferate. You get the idea.

But its not just food that fires up Dopamine, the neuro-transmitter of pleasure, in ways that may prove problematic. It’s lot of things. Drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, smart phones, video games, excessive stimuli in a cascade of enticements. And the problem with all this pleasure? According to Lembke the human brain is wired for a delicate balance of pleasure and pain. Too much pleasure has a downside. One well-known version of that is a hang-over. But too many fun video-games, or pleasurable anything, can produce a hang-over of their own.

Speaking of over-consumption, here’s a bit from the Amazon site on Lembke’s book:

“This book is about pleasure. It’s also about pain. Most important, it’s about how to find the delicate balance between the two, and why now more than ever finding balance is essential. We’re living in a time of unprecedented access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli: drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, sexting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, tweeting… The increased numbers, variety, and potency is staggering. The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation. As such we’ve all become vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption.”

Lembke’s book may provide an answer to a question that has puzzled many analysts and observers in recent years. That question goes like this, most Americans are better off than ever and yet also report being unhappier than ever. Our homes and vehicles are bigger; our toys and stuff overflow garages and storage units, but we’re an unhappy people. Worse, we are full of grievances, hot with resentments. How does that add up?

Lembke’s research suggests an answer. Turns out grandma was right, there really can be too much of a good thing. But it’s a little more than that. Today’s technological devices are programmed to make us dependent. “The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle.” Just glance around to see all the people who are getting a hit.

What Lembke prescribes for her clients is a four-week dopamine fast. The first two weeks will be hell, but after that life gets better.

Like so many things, it strikes me that modern brain science is confirming what traditional and spiritual wisdom have long taught: moderation is wise. Fasting is a necessary complement to feasting. But we’re up against a culture and economy that tell us to indulge, to enjoy, and to feast all the time as we try to fill some deeper emptiness.

Another suggestion from the good doctor: tell the truth. Lembke says the average adult tells two lies a day. “We all do it. But I tell my clients, I want you to not lie, to tell the truth.” This, remember, is a psychiatrist. Her prescription, for human misery, is fasting from excess and truth telling.

It turns out telling the truth strengthens that part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, that helps us to make good choices and restrain our impulses.  Again, the old spiritual-ethical wisdom that we have been all-too-happy to jettison in recent decades of indulgence and grievance, was onto something — ahead off the brain science.

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Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.

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