Polymorphic Bliss: How do you define happiness?

by | Jul 7, 2018

As human beings, we have an unrelenting tendency to categorize our perceptions and make broad generalizations. This is the means by which we filter the wide-open chaos of information in our environment and create anchors to which we cling for sense of mental and psychological stability. It could be said that the majority of us are constantly struggling against the entropy of not only our multicellular body and brain but also the tendency for the human organism to lose a grip on reality, as time passes. So even for the most resilient of us, there is a constant subconscious acknowledgement that around every corner could be unexpected surprises, good and bad. And based on a literally infinite array of psychological, behavioral, environmental, biochemical and other factors, we are programmed to respond to stimuli in a way that either paints us further into the corner of limitation and redundant living or somewhere along the line to the other extreme where one is constantly surfing the edge of possibility, challenging fears and awakening new capabilities.

But regardless of what our adaptation to life is, one thing can be said for certain — though we have common language to describe our experience and are frequently able to watch our desires and passions dovetail with those of others in our tribes, the internal environment, flavor, and character of perception is radically different from culture to culture, family to family, and person to person. And that is the mysterious and confounding thing we call “BLISS”.

What is bliss?

So that we are all on at least the same starting page, let’s confirm the common definition of bliss. As a noun, we call it “perfect happiness and great joy”. As a verb, “to reach a state of perfect happiness, typically so as to be oblivious of everything else”. Everyone, to one degree or another, can relate to these words. But if we step back a few paces and take a more critical look at their definitions, and ask ourself “what” is happiness and “what” is joy, we will quickly fall into the realization of not only the infinite variety in how we perceive the objects that supposedly confer bliss to us but also the wild variation in the subjective feelings that are evoked by them. And we have yet another twist to this puzzle when we speak of transcendental, transpersonal states that do not depend on objects but rather exist in self-sufficient, self-radiant, unconditional “space-time”. But let’s not fly clear off the limb of the tree here. I want to talk about the unseen problem — the itch that everyone wants to scratch but only makes worse through their actions; breeding discontent, desire, and hunger for more.

You see, almost everywhere you turn in our modern world today, you hear someone complaining or protesting that they feel incomplete, “half-made”, or discontent. It’s not so important why they may be unhappy or unfulfilled. The main problem here is that we are measuring our satisfaction by an ever-moving gauge that is as flexible and changeable as the face of every single human that ever was and ever will be. And the reason for this is simple: we not only have differences in what we perceive to be completeness but also cannot agree on how it might be resolved or remedied.

Where discontent begins

To explain how this tangled mess starts out, we would have to account for every possible thought, behavior, experience, and stimulus. That’s clearly impossible for a high-level understanding of where things go awry in human consciousness. So let’s keep it simple. I have encountered almost every type of human being in the course of my life’s research, and the ones that could generally be called “content” and “happy” are the individuals that have won the lottery of good genes, a nurturing childhood environment, lack of trauma, warm and loving mentors and friends, and encounters with experiences that only re-enforce these factors. That is not to say that there aren’t happy people that have not won this existential lottery. I have seen many pull themselves up by their bootstraps and re-engineer themselves emotionally, mentally, physically, etc. But let’s not complicate our consideration with those outliers. The majority of people out there have four basic complaints that are all, to one degree or another, playing into their sense of discontent:

Mind Fog – “mentally blunted, blurred imagination, trouble focusing and concentrating”

Depressed – “unable to derive pleasure from anything, regardless of stimulation”

Lacking Drive – “no motivation, no desire to create, move, or do things”

Low on Energy – “life is lacking intensity and vibrancy, feelings of being half-dead”

I am grossly oversimplifying here, but it is fairly safe to say that if you have a clear, lucid mind and imagination, are emotionally rich and high in hedonic tone, have ambition, drive, an endless impulse to create and are full of abundant energy … there is low likelihood that you will have many complaints. You may have your ups and downs just like everyone else, but you will charge through obstacles more easily than the rest of your tribe. The others that have not locked into this magical combination will be on an endless search of one kind or another that leads to “self-enhancement”. And this search is almost entirely based on subjective symptoms; read that – perceived weakness or “loopholes” in cognitive or physiological function. Truly, if everyone were walking around in a superhuman, hyperfocused, euphoric state of being all the time, we wouldn’t have a market for really anything exogenous (drugs, supplements, etc.), correct?

How we attempt to solve the problem

There is a vast market out there for self-enhancement. And regardless of whether or not the proponents of these approaches know it, they are manipulating to one degree or another neurotransmitters and hormones. You can have all the energy in the world and if your neurotransmitters and hormones are off, you will be guaranteed a large helping of psycho-emotional chaos. I absolutely guarantee it. It does not matter how much you meditate, how many mantras you chant each day, or how many Iron Man’s you have completed… if you don’t have the optimal cocktail of dopamine, acetylcholine, GABA, serotonin, oxytocin, testosterone, and estrogen, you are playing with a cut deck of cards. You have lost before you are even out of the gate.

I will not go into the myriad of ways people manipulate these human molecules. There are millions of ways – some of them deplete you, some delude you, others yet string you along, but almost always, there is some point at which we crash and burn because we haven’t fully understood how the pathways governing these “sacred molecules” work. The solutions are either targeted to the point of imbalance or “one-size-fits-all” nootropic train wrecks that more often than not create hypomania and a blunting of the higher, more subtle aspects of human psychology.

Let’s review the main players:

Dopamine – If you have too little, you are unable to keep anything together. You go through life weak-kneed, unable to make decisions, allowing others to push you around, and starting things but never finishing them. The juice has been completely drained out of life and you are left with little to no pleasure, regardless of what you do. Drugs that stimulate this neurotransmitter are cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and alcohol, to varying degrees. The higher up you drive dopamine, the closer you fly into the sun risking psychosis, mania, compulsion, addiction, and ultimately, a crash demanding even more stimulation.

Acetylcholine – This gives the speed and agility with which we analyze, manipulate, and navigate around problems. It literally defines our neurological bandwidth. The lower acetylcholine goes, the more deeply we fall into cognitive decline and dementia. Too much, and we antagonize dopamine and become unfeeling, blunted robots. Good for blindly checking tasks off a list, devastating for creativity.

GABA – The most tricky of all neurotransmitters to manipulate. It is the target molecule for alcohol and benzodiazapines such as Valium and Lorazepam. GABA is the breaks on our nervous system, the calm amidst the storm. Without GABA, we are not only unable to relax but are severely more prone to anxiety and panic. There is a reason that anti-anxiety drugs and substances are at record abuse levels in our time: oxidative stress of any source (e.g. illness, infection, trauma, lack of sleep, crossing time-zones, using mobile phones excessively, and even worrying) can damage and destroy the delicate GABA-ergic neurons in the brain. Using alcohol and anxiolytic drugs will only make the problem worse by downregulating neuronal expression further. For this reason, GABA is the most problematic of all neurotransmitters in modern times.

Serotonin – has gotten far more attention in the psychological health community than it deserves. While having too little of it can certainly engender tension, frustration, and disruption of well-being, too much runs libido into the ground and suppresses dopamine. Serotonin excess is a much more common problem than many would imagine due to the overuse and abuse of SSRIs for depression — a disease which, in many cases, is rooted in dopamine deficit.

Oxytocin – plays a role in social bonding and is released into the bloodstream during sex, childbirth and in response to nipple stimulation. Its secretion and receptor expression are controlled primarily by genetic factors, with cultures naturally higher in oxytocin displaying love and affection toward each other more freely. Any deficits in oxytocin expression and activity lead to impairments in ability to trust and bond with people and are often accompanied by intimacy problems.

How these molecules are orchestrated, in concert with the sex hormones, paints the picture of not only an individual’s sense of well-being in any moment but also their cognitive and physiological function. Quite simply, they are the ingredients that make or break a person’s ability to live a happy, content, and fulfilled life — at least from the conventional human perspective. This leads us to the main question at hand: is there a “golden standard” that could be used to properly “configure” a person’s brain and body to make them the optimal / superhuman version of themselves without side effects (e.g. being a control freak, hypermanic, self-obsessed, or chronically impatient)? That’s the paramount question and, as it turns out, the answer is not very straightforward. The reason is because bliss, or happiness itself, is “polymorphic”.

The many faces of bliss

Increasing energy, focus, and mood is a fairly complex task for someone that is anxiety prone. You can probably guess all the reasons why. As soon as you start impinging on norepinephrine, adrenaline, dopamine, etc., naturally high-wired individuals will start feeling chronically overdriven and stressed. That easily translates to hypermania if it is taken too far. We all know people like this — they get a lot of things done (they’re real movers and shakers), but in personal relationships, they can’t turn the volume down. They’ve only got one speed — hard, fast, and furious. And because of this, they can’t enjoy their accomplishments, which are usually quite impressive.

On the other extreme, we have the renunciates in society that embrace serenity and self-transcendence. It is no coincidence that “God Syndrome” has been correlated with high-serotonin states. How else could one enter into a life of celibacy and life-long meditation without suppressing dopamine, which creates drive, motivation, and libido? Whereas such practices do lead to transcendental states of consciousness, they are nonetheless imbalanced and non-reflective of a truly complete, grounded, vibrantly alive human being.

Regardless of where one is at on the spectrum from serenity to mania, bliss means very different things to different people. The traditional nootropic answer to increasing euphoria is to elevate norepinephrine and dopamine via PEA (one of the ingredients found in chocolate) and an MAOI such as hordenine. People that respond well to amphetamine-like highs will love the feeling of flying up on these two neurotransmitters. Such people also find their bliss jumping off cliffs and seeking out danger. If one is already naturally high in norepinephrine and adrenaline were to follow such a lifestyle, they would land firmly into a psyche ward in very short order.

The truth of the matter is that bliss, euphoria, or “happiness” is, indeed, polymorphic. It has many faces. What subjective freedom and bliss to you could be a death sentence for your neighbor. In my research, I have identified three broad interpretations (call them “types”) of what it means to be “in the feel good zone”:

Type 1 (stimulant bliss) – wildly alive, awake, in love with life, and ready to “take on the world” – cocaine, amphetamines, MDMA

Type 2 (opiate bliss) – warm, safe, relaxed, not a care in the world, worry and pain free – opium, heroin, morphine, kratom

Type 3 (GABAergic bliss) – serene, zero stress, uninhibited, intrigued by life and others – alcohol, GHB, Phenibut, benzodiazapines

I am using drugs as a means to clarify the neurotransmitter systems involved but, in reality, this should be interpreted as “broad brain types”, with people being closer to one of these extremes when in a state of “happiness”. It’s not always that simple, but everyone seems to gravitate to one of those groups and base their life on the feelings that derive from substances / lifestyles that promote them. My theory is — one of the reasons “speedballing” has been such a pitfall for so many illicit drug users is that for 99.9% of humanity, the “perfect feeling” is the sweet spot attained from a consummately balanced mix of stimulation and relaxation. And therein lies the secret:

Humanity is chasing after a delicate balance of being vividly awake yet relaxed at the same time. It is in this state that we achieve “flow”. As such, understanding our individual genetics for neurotransmitters, hormones, and stress response in general can give us the key to unlock the door to our particular pattern of “balanced optimal”. Finding one’s way to that “blissful zone” is like walking a tight-rope. Doing it with nootropics, lifestyle experiments, supplements, diet, and exercise? It’s an enormous target with millions of hits around the bulls-eye. You either end up strung out or sitting on a beach somewhere with no mind, no plan, and no direction.

The way forward

The majority of people that turn to high-powered nootropics or stimulants, extreme forms of exercise, sexual obsessions (masturbation, pornography, sex fetishes, sex addictions, etc) or any number of other neurotransmitter / hormone stimulating activities, are attempting to compensate for moderate to severe hormone / neurotransmitter imbalances and deficiencies. And THEY WORK. Temporarily. If you are lucky, you may have a long-streak, but as soon as you stop, you go back to baseline, or worse yet — life without the obsession becomes boring in comparison (because the brain’s reward system has been skewed in the direction of the obsession). Some nootropic drugs can increase peripheral BDNF-enhancement, neurogenesis, etc, but unless a person has profiled and quantified their hormone / neurotransmitter levels along with their DNA mutations and gut microbiome, they will be always shooting at a moving target. There are many other tests that can be done (such as vitamin / mineral levels, thyroid panel, organic acids, etc.), but your genome and microbiome are, by far, the most important.

Hopefully, this article will make you think about what motivates people to get addicted to catecholamine-stimulating substances like Ritalin, Adderall, Meth, and Cocaine. After all, a person could be starting out in life with genetic mutations that predispose them to low vitamin D and correspondingly depressed dopamine levels. When they find something that raises dopamine, they finally feel like a whole person, but continued use of such substances down-regulates dopamine receptors, making increased doses inevitable and, eventually, results in an inability to be stimulated at all by normal life events. Once you have exogenously altered your neurotransmitter profile, then life begins to center around the primary stimulation, be it drugs, pornography, exercise, or other source. We get into grooves, and the neural network becomes cemented (i.e. neuroplasticity decreases).

In order to find our “bliss”, we must understand ourselves at the physical, emotional, and psychological levels such that no rock has been left unturned. Are you looking for help in discovering what drives your own personal bliss? Join our program today or book a consultation to learn more.

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