Why does pleasure exist? It’s the carrot dangled by the body to get us to do the things we need in order to survive and prosper. It’s what helps us reach survival goals and reproduce. But experiencing and appreciating pleasure is also necessary for true happiness and contentment. We’re not ascetics, living our lives like monks in rigid self-discipline and abstention. That is, unless you’re actually a monk, in which case I don’t know why or how you’d be reading this. Our genes expect us to feel good, and not just do the tasks that feeling good compels us to do.
The good news is that it’s possible to ‘get high’ the natural, primal way, and I’m not talking shamans and ayahuasca. Our bodies can naturally achieve mind-blowing, consciousness-expanding levels of elation and euphoria.
In the 1950’s, animal studies by Olds and Milner showed that electrical stimulation to a rat’s pleasure center was more reinforcing than food or sex. In 1974, Hughes and Kosterlitz discovered endogenous morphine (endorphin) in a camel’s pituitary gland, proving that the brain produces its own internal opiates. We’re not rats or camels, but the findings were important. By uncovering two key sources of pleasure – dopamine and endorphin – we gained a deeper understanding of addiction.
The research also supported the idea that long before we humans discovered the euphoric effects of MDMA or the blissful sleep of morphine, our ancestors were already developing complex internal systems for regulating pain and managing mood. Drugs activate these receptors, tapping into systems that have already been doing their thing for eons, serving up relaxation and reducing pain when we need help the most.
As we continue to learn more about our bodies’ diverse toolkit of built-in relaxants, stimulants, and pain-killers, we can get better at turning on a natural high right when we need one, served up for free by the highly advanced manufacturing equipment in our own bones, brains, and muscles. So, exercise, fall in love, take a walk through nature, play music, go hang-gliding, eat some really spicy food… They’re all great ways to tune into that natural high.