I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. Ecclesiastes 3:12
I attempted my own version of a long run yesterday. My stamina must improve before the Marine Corps Marathon, but, since my hip injury, I have to be very careful how I go about increasing it. I want to practice walking quickly since I will be doing a lot of walking at MCM and I don’t want to put undue strain on my already tender hip, but I need to work on endurance.
I decided to do the elliptical for an hour, then switch to an outdoors run/walk for an additional two hours. I tried to keep my speed up on the elliptical, to simulate fatigue in my legs and reminded myself to walk more often than I typically would on the roads to save wear and tear on my hip. It worked very well, except for one thing – nutrition and hydration (that’s what runners call food and drink).
I took a 24 oz. water bottle to drink while on the elliptical and nothing for the run. I had eaten a small piece of toast with honey before going to the gym, but I was on the go for three hours without consuming any calories. Oh, I know better. I was just so caught up with my endurance strategy, I didn’t think about fuel. My hip was fine at the end of the run, but I was parched (even after a water fountain stop at the church where I volunteer for Meals on Wheels) and woozy from hunger.
As soon as I got home, I chugged down a big glass of chocolate milk, my go-to treat after a difficult run, and felt better immediately. As I prepared my breakfast – fruit, yogurt, granola, and a hard-boiled egg that I split with my dog (he gets the yolk) – I craved another glass of chocolate milk. I am proud to say I resisted that urge.
It’s not surprising, from a biochemical point of view, that I would crave that second glass of chocolate milk. Chocolate milk does have some redeeming features. It contains proteins, fats, some fat-soluble nutrients, and lots of sugar. I just checked; the eight-ounce serving I consumed contained 28 grams of sugar. That’s a big pile of sugar.
Consuming sugar does something funny to our brains. It causes them to release a chemical called dopamine, the feel-good hormone, as a reward for ingesting this high-calorie substance. To someone watching his or her weight, this may seem counter-intuitive, but for most of the time humans have been on earth, we struggled to consume enough calories. Our brains are not wired to worry about us eating too many calories. When we eat calorie-dense food like sugar, our brains say “You hit the jackpot! Good for you. Eat some more.”
It’s a very similar mechanism to addiction. We naturally crave that hit of dopamine that sugar produces. As with any addiction, though, the amount of dopamine released decreases as we build up a tolerance to sugar. We eventually need a higher and higher amount of sugar to produce an ever-dwindling amount of dopamine.
There are, of course, a variety of objects we could substitute for the word “sugar” in the paragraph above. Various forms of drugs, of course, alcohol, or even, surprisingly, social media. Yes, getting “liked” on social media causes our brain to produce dopamine, just like drugs do. We can literally become addicted to Facebook (or blogging – think about how good it feels to receive a really insightful comment or another subscriber).
We are wired to be pleasure-seekers, all of us. We naturally crave that hit of dopamine. It’s how we have survived to pass our genes down for thousands of years. The question I have to ask myself, though, is does pleasure bring happiness?
Pleasure implies a short-term feeling. You get to feel pleasure by acquiring something – drugs, sugar, alcohol, a social media “like“, a win at gambling, even sex. The dopamine that is released, however, by any of these acquisitions, quickly dissipates, leaving us craving more. Pleasure is an emotion of want, selfish. It comes from the body. Pleasure needs something external. It is stimulation, excitement, the city.
Happiness, on the other hand, is a long-term emotion. Happiness does not need, it has enough. It is brought about by internal feelings. Happiness is compassionate, satisfied. You can be happy by being a kind, caring and gentle person. Happiness comes from the heart; it is internal. Happiness is relaxation, tranquility, the forest.
Not all pleasure is bad, of course. A soothing massage can bring pleasure, just like a warm bubble bath on a cold afternoon or seeing the toothless smile of a baby. I would never counsel anyone to forego all pleasure, nor am I advocating we all become ascetics. We all could use healthy pleasures in our lives. I appreciate a glass of hearty Zinfandel or a well-made panna cotta (my new obsession ever since my trip to Italy) as much as the next person.
Some pleasures, however, can only be enjoyed in moderation. One glass of wine with dinner, for example, not five; a handful of M&Ms, not a pound. There is a big difference in the quality of the pleasure inherent in an intimate encounter with a loved partner and unrestrained sexual excess. Little old ladies spending an afternoon pulling the lever of nickel slot machines for fun (like my mom used to do) are worlds apart from a desperate addict gambling away his family’s grocery money.
There are some destructive pleasures – a cocaine rush or heroin euphoria come to mind – that should, of course, be avoided completely.
One way that we can appreciate the distinction between pleasure and happiness is when we are faced with making a decision. If you are faced with a dilemma, ask yourself, “Will this bring me pleasure or happiness?” Foregoing momentary pleasure for long-lasting happiness is the way to a peaceful life.
I can, therefore, feel virtuous and smug about my decision to pass up the second glass of chocolate milk after my long run yesterday. I was giving up a momentary pleasure (deliciousness) for long-lasting happiness (keeping my girlish figure). Of course, I guess I would have been even more virtuous if I had passed on the chocolate milk altogether. That’s what happens to me when I am hungry – I tend to make bad decisions. I should have read Titus 3:3. I wonder if he had chocolate milk in mind when he was writing this verse.
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.“
I am linking up with Patty, Erika and Marcia for Tuesdays on the Run, Char at Trekking Thru, Shank You Very Much for Dream Team, Abounding Grace for Gracefull Tuesday, Eclectic Evelyn for Words on Wednesday, Meghan Weyerbacher for Tea and Word, and Shelbee on the Edge for Spread the Kindness.