Better Living Through Chemistry?

By Larry F. Waldman, PhD, ABBP

All living things, human and animal, strive for homeostasis—keeping things balanced.  If hungry, we eat; if thirsty, we drink; if sleepy, nap; etc.  Humans, though, take this one step further:  Not only do we want our biological processes balanced, we want to feel good.  (We feel good when the pleasure center in our brain is stimulated.)  Alcohol, drugs, fatty greasy food, jewelry, fancy cars, expensive clothes, sex, video gaming, etc. have little to do with balance but everything to do with seeking pleasure.

To a large degree, our health care system operates in a similar manner.  If the patient doesn’t feel well, prescribe them a pill and hope they feel better in the morning.

Unquestionably, the number one killer of US adults today is lifestyle—bad diet, overeating, lack of exercise, drinking and drugging, and smoking.  All these habits are aimed at feeling good.  Approximately 50% of US adults today are overweight; accordingly, there is an epidemic of diabetes and hypertension.  How much will the next generation of adult men weigh when most of them spent their entire adolescence seated staring at a video screen?  Interestingly, the recreational use of marijuana—to induce pleasure–has been legalized in several states and it stimulates binge eating.

What has been the response to this situation?  Bariatric procedures and—you guessed it—more pills.  I remember a fertilizer/chemical company in the 60’s named Monsanto.  Their business motto was, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”  We had no idea how true that would become.

The primary treatment today for depression and anxiety, the two most common mental health issues, is, again, medication.  Antidepressants certainly have a role in the treatment of these major maladies but pills should not be the only intervention—as often is the case.  Changing behavior and thoughts have been shown to be quite helpful in managing depression and anxiety but rarely are used.

Recently a friend of mine noted he was depressed and his GP had prescribed him Zoloft, a common antidepressant, several weeks ago.  He still was not feeling well.  I asked him, “What is the number one thing you would like to have happen that would might make you feel better?  He answered he would like to be in a relationship.  When I next asked him, “What have you done to find a relationship?” he admitted he had done nothing.   (I was unaware that Zoloft can bring you a girlfriend.)  We discussed ways to increase the odds of finding a partner.  Several weeks later he reported he was feeling better.  He had met a woman and they were about to have their third date.  Was it the Zoloft or the behavior?  I don’t know for a fact, but my vote is for the changed behavior.

As a long-term behavioral psychologist, I am fond of the statement, “It is easier to behave your way into a new feeling than to feel your way into a new behavior.”  I submit lots of people today are taking pills and/or drugs hoping to feel better.  I suggest the next time you wish to feel better, don’t pop a pill, down a beer, or smoke a joint.  Instead, tell your significant other you love them; read a story, take a walk, or have a bike ride with your child; stroke your pet; call your parent and tell them you were thinking of them; go to the gym; write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been kind or helpful to you; meditate; do a yoga practice; do some rhythmic breathing; etc.  All of these examples, and there are many more, are healthy, natural behaviors that can effectively change our feeling state.  “Better living through chemistry” has led us down a dark path.  It is time to take a new direction.

Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist who practiced in the Paradise Valley area of Phoenix for nearly 40 years.  He worked with children, adolescents, parents, adults, and couples.  He also provided forensic consultations in the areas of family law, personal injury, and estate planning.  He speaks professionally on marriage, parenting, private practice development, psychotherapy, and wellness to laypersons, educators, corporations, attorneys, chiropractors, and fellow mental health professionals.  He teaches graduate courses for the Educational Psychology Department of Northern Arizona University.  He is the author of “Who’s Raising Whom? A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline;” “Coping with Your Adolescent;” “How Come I Love Him but Can’t Live with Him?  Making Your Marriage Work Better;”  “The Graduate Course You Never Had:  How to Develop, Manage, and Market a Flourishing Private Practice—With and Without Managed Care;” “Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Your Fortune?  Discover the Psychology of Achieving Your Life Goals,” and “Overcoming Your Negotiaphobia:  Negotiating Your Way Through Life.”   His contact information is:  602-418-8161; email–LarryWaldmanPhD@cox.net; website–TopPhoenixPsychologist.com.