07/18/2012 09:06 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Natural Highs: A Positive Approach to Mood Alteration

"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.[1] "Love makes you bold, makes you bright, makes you run real risks, which you sometimes survive..." [2] 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.[3] 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."[4]

"Mouse Party" is a web-based, interactive demonstration designed to show how chemical interactions in the brain cause the drug user to feel "high."[5] This site is appropriate for the general public and would be useful for anyone trying to help youth understand how alcohol or other drugs compromise normal brain functioning.

Second, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the principal alternative (and sometimes complement) to the AA approach. CBT is a technique for self-regulating emotions and behavior by how we think: We can make better and conscious choices by correcting or more effectively managing our thoughts. Rather than seeking help from a "Higher Power," CBT emphasizes an internal locus of control. There is strong evidence that CBT is effective in the treatment of a wide array of conditions including anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and depression.[6] CBT also is a self-mediated alternative to "self-medication" and mood control otherwise sought through AOD abuse, compulsive eating, excessive gambling, sexual acting out, etc., etc.[7]

Third, you do not need to formally enroll in a program of psychotherapy to dramatically improve your quality of life (though some may if self-directed efforts do not work). A plethora of CBT guidebooks designed for the general public is available through the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists.[8] Examples are: Maxie Maultsby's Stay Sober and Straight, a cognitive-behavioral approach to helping people overcome alcohol and other drug problems, and Thomas Horvath's Sex, Drugs, Gambling, and Chocolate, which guides readers through exercises and self-study questions as alternatives to 12-step recovery programs or surrendering to a "Higher Power."

Fourth, we can live life more fully by learning techniques for being "present-focused"; these are embodied in a broad array of relaxation exercises as well as through meditation and yoga.[3],[9],[10],[11] Common to these approaches is the principle of "mindfulness." By attending non-judgmentally to all stimuli in the internal and external environment, positive psychological processes then enter consciousness. These include empathy, diminished stress, fewer value judgments, patience, trust, a deeper sense of beauty and contentment, and non-attachment... all antithetical to addictive behaviors. There is a spontaneous appreciation for discovering healthy means for achieving prolonged pleasure and fulfillment.[12]

By following the above precepts, Kalidasa's third-century Sanskrit revelation can become real!

Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision
But today well lived makes
every yesterday a dream of happiness
And tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore to this day!
Such is the salutation of the Dawn.

Harvey Milkman, Ph.D. is professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

He is the author of books, community programs, and curricula for prevention, intervention and treatment of social problem behaviors. Email:

He is co-author of Craving for Ecstasy and Natural Highs.

For more by Harvey B. Milkman, Ph.D., click here.

For more on addiction and recovery, click here.

Further Reading:

1. Slater, L. (2006, February). Love. National Geographic Magazine, 32-49.

2. Fisher, H., Aaron, A., & Brown, L.L. (2005). Romantic love: An fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493 (1), 58-62.

3. Milkman, H. & Sunderwirth, S. (2010). Craving for Ecstasy and Natural Highs. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc.

4. Demasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. New York: Harcourt

5. Genetic Science Learning Center, University of Utah (2012). "Mouse Party."

6. Wright, J., Fasco, M., & Thase, M. (2006). Learning cognitive-behavioral therapy: An illustrated guide. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

7. Khantzian, E. J. (2001). "Understanding addiction as self-medication: Finding hope behind the pain." Keynote Address, 2000 American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry Annual Meeting Proceedings.

8. National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists

9. Benson, H. (2000). The relaxation response - updated and expanded (25th anniversary edition). New York: Avon

10. Goldstein, J. (1993). Insight meditation: The practice of freedom, Boston, Shambala.

11. Novotney, A. (2009), "Yoga as a practice tool." American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology. November 2009, Vol 40, No. 10

12. Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S.J. (2007). Positive Psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.