The Professor of psychology, Metropolitan State College of Denver, Harvey B. Milkman, Ph.D. questions if Alcoholics Anonymous is enough to curb the natural tendencies of people to attain pleasure. Are we doing enough and is Alcoholics Anonymous effective for after care? How can we attain our need for pleasurable experiences?
Natural Highs: A Positive Approach to Mood Alteration
Harvey B. Milkman, Ph.D.
Professor of psychology, Metropolitan State College of Denver
Posted: 07/18/2012 9:06 am
"Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace." -- Eugene O'Neal
The estimated lifetime prevalence for alcohol and nicotine dependence in the U.S. is 12.5 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Pornography accounts for 25 percent of all search engine requests. Clinical obesity affects more than one in four adults in this country. Although we have developed effective technologies to track the epidemiology of these, and other, hedonic dependencies, strategies for their prevention and treatment remain sorely inept. Among many addicted individuals, the wisdom of AA (originally formulated in 1935) remains gospel. Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous (to name just a few) rely on minor tweaking of the original AA doctrine: "Stop drinking [or other compulsive pleasure-seeking activity]... Go to meetings... Get a sponsor... Ask for help."
We need new ways of managing pleasure that go beyond AA.
The evolutionary basis for positive feelings is a good place to start. The brain is actually a giant pharmaceutical factory that manufactures its own mind-altering chemicals. Being in love illustrates this point. Anthropologists at Rutgers University recruited students who claimed to be madly in love for an average of seven months and demonstrated that dopamine acts as our own endogenous love potion, creating intense energy, attention, and exhilaration. "Love makes you bold, makes you bright, makes you run real risks, which you sometimes survive..."  Without the powerful association between our reward system and romance, humans simply would not survive.
More specifically, pleasure is associated with an adequate flow of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the reward center of the brain. Managing our pleasures is possible by the pursuit of "natural highs" -- where we consciously, and in healthy ways, orchestrate the brain's natural chemicals to promote elevated feeling states that are beneficial to the individual and society. This new form of positive psychology emphasizes humans' capacities for resiliency, strength and making rational choices.
What are viable strategies for capitalizing on our existing neurochemical capacities for healthy pleasure?
First, is the realization of the traps around us. As Anthony Demasio explains in Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, we will need to be mindful that the routes to joy "can be falsified by a host of drugs [or compulsive pleasure-seeking activities] and thus fail to reflect the actual state of the organism."