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A Neuroscientist Debunks 5 Lies About Happiness That Can Lead to Depression

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February 25, 2022
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What's the secret to getting happier? Do you think that all it takes to put a brighter smile on your face is a bigger salary, an indulgent dessert, or a shoe-shopping spree? That's what our society wants you to believe. But it's not true.

Neuroscience research reveals that much of what you have been trained to believe will make you happy can actually harm your brain, mess with your mind, and make you more vulnerable to depression. As a neuroscientist psychiatrist, here are five of the most common lies of happiness that I've found ultimately drive depression.  

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Lies of happiness No. 1: Having more of something you love will make you happier.

Neuroscience research shows that due to something called "hedonic adaptation1," the more pleasure you get, the more you need to sustain feelings of happiness. Basically, your brain habituates to high-pleasure experiences, meaning you need even more pleasure to feel the same effect, similar to the way people need more cocaine to get the same high. This wears out the pleasure centers in the brain, which can lead to depression. I have witnessed this in several professional athletes, actors, and musical artists.

Lies of happiness No. 2: Money makes you happier. 

There is some truth to this; however, in the U.S. the relationship between money and happiness dissipates once a person earns over about $75,000. For a 2018 study, wealthy people were asked what they needed to be a perfect 10 in happiness. Their response? Most said two to 10 times more than what they had. A desire for more money zaps happiness because whatever you have is never enough. 

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Lies of happiness No. 3: Drinking alcohol makes you happier. 

Drinking cocktails, wine, or beer may give you a quick buzz, but it has lasting side effects that drain happiness. Having just one to seven drinks a week shrinks the brain, according to a brain-imaging study2 in JAMA Neurology. Alcohol can also impair decision-making, which can mess up your career, relationships, and health—a recipe for unhappiness. While it's possible for some to consume alcohol in moderation, you shouldn't rely on it as a mood booster or regulator.

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Lies of happiness No. 4: Marijuana makes you happier. 

People who smoke pot often say they love how it gives them a case of the giggles and feelings of euphoria. But I've found those effects are coupled with a downside. Our brain-imaging work at Amen Clinics shows that marijuana causes premature aging of the brain and decreases cerebral blood flow, which is a sign of an unhealthy and unhappy brain. Using marijuana as an adolescent or teen heightens the risk of unhappiness as a 2019 review points to an increased risk of depression and suicide3 in young adulthood.

Lies of happiness No. 5: Sweet treats and desserts—any sugar—make you happier.

Eating sweets can provide a momentary feeling of bliss, but it steals happiness in the long run. What makes sugar such an unhappy food? In addition to being pro-inflammatory and addictive, it is associated with depression, as well as dementia, diabetes, and obesity. Where's the happiness in those? As with alcohol, it's possible to enjoy dessert in moderation. Just be sure to tune into your hunger cues and be mindful of using food as a way to regulate your emotions.

In my book, You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type, I reveal an additional six lies of happiness that may be keeping you down and how to stop believing the lies and find your way to your own unique happiness.

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Daniel Amen, M.D.
Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist

Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.