Happy Pills and Happy Hormones? If Only It Were That Simple

October 10, 2008 at 12:24 pm (Bad Science, Big Pharma, Recreational Drugs) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Simply checking on Google or Google News will bring up lots of examples of the use of the term “happy hormone”. There are several points of interest for me. One is that there seems to be no agreement on which hormone is the happy one. Between the first page of the Google hits and the first (and only) page of the News hits, I’ve got: Serotonin; Progesterone; Oxytocin; Dopamine. I get around 8,000 results on Google for the phrase “happy hormone” but zero for “no such thing as a happy hormone”. I did manage to find 60 or so results for “no such thing as a happy pill” – but then again, we have 1.3m results for “happy pill”. Clearly, we have bought into the idea that there is such a thing as a happy pill – and presumably some of us at least have also bought into the idea that they work by increasing levels of happy hormones. There are certainly more internet pages promoting the idea that there is such a thing as a happy pill than there are sites arguing the opposite. Happy pills? Ain’t nothing but a reductionist thang.

SSRIs such as Prozac and Cipramil (to give them their rock-n-roll names) are commonly prescribed to alleviate depression. They are also commonly described as happy pills. While Bad Science and Pyjamas in Bananas, to name but two, have some very interesting posts on SSRIs for depression, right now I’m more interested in why people call anti-depressants “happy pills”. There is certainly a lack of understanding among the public as to the nature of SSRIs and other anti-depressants, but I’m not sure why. It would be easy to blame the media*, but it’s also possible that this lack of understanding is due at least in part to doctors dumbing down their advice to patients or to the public themselves. Perhaps there is a tendency to avoid thinking too hard about things like depression and medication or perhaps there is a wishful thinking element at work – magic potions have always had a degree of popularity as far as I can tell. The druid in the Asterix books had a particularly good potion for making you stronger, we have steroids now; the Greeks had a potion to make you forget (ironically, I had trouble remembering what but a quick Google seems to point to the lotus flower as being the active ingredient) and I guess cannabis could perform that role today; the Oracle at Delphi was alleged to have sat atop some noxious, hallucinatory gases and had visions supposedly of the future, while in the 1960s wannabe seers took LSD to get to the other side maaan.

I suppose what I’m edging towards is the idea that perhaps people have a need to believe in magic pills, potions and panaceas. Maybe our naming SSRIs “happy pills” is a symptom of our seemingly pathological desire to have a pill for anything and everything – whether they are to prevent or cure bad things or to promote good things. Of course, it’s bollocks. SSRIs are anti-depressants, they are designed to improve your mental health. You may well consider that the opposite state of depression is happiness, but I don’t believe that SSRIs make you happy. They don’t – they just increase the circulating levels of serotonin. More serotonin does not automatically equal happiness. Perhaps the fact that many recreational drugs have some interaction with 5HT receptors has helped to mislead people into thinking that the euphoria experienced by (some) users is in some way similar to the feelings engendered in the depressed by SSRIs. I don’t know how else to say this, but… Prozac is not like Ecstasy. And E isn’t actually a happy pill anyway – context matters. If you are having a good night out with your friends then you will probably be quite happy and a sly Gary Ablett might bring you to a euphoric high on the happy side. On the other hand, sitting alone at home drinking whisky having taken a couple of Mitsubishis to cheer yourself up will probably not lead to joy unconfined. There is no such thing as a happy pill. Sorry.

It suits a lot of people to think that there is such a thing as a happy pill. Big Pharma get to sell “happy pills”, as do nutritionists (think 5htp or St John’s Wort). The public get to indulge their magic potion fantasy. The media get to write daffy, simplistic stories about substance x causing happiness. We all do the reductionist conga around the dancefloor.

* I had a look on a database of UK publications and found 676 mentions of “happy pills” in the last 24 months. Everything from St John’s Wort to Seroxat got a mention. So it could be partly their fault at least. That’s the thing with myths – even if the media don’t start them, they can be very, very effective at promoting and disseminating them.

Disclaimer: any good ideas in this post may have been prompted in part or in whole by a post Wewillfixit made on teh Bad Science forums. Any shit ideas are, of course, 100% mine.

1 Comment

  1. anandamide said,

    It’s an interesting point, and I do think ‘a pill for every ill’ mindset is culturally attractive. But with depression there are a number of other threads which enter the argument. I wouldn’t be surprised if the marketing strategy of SSRIs was to implant the idea of serotonin=happy transmitter, allowing an easy reductionist explanation to be sold direct to the public and increase acceptance that the drugs would work (gotta boost that placebo effect after all – especially with depression). And mental disorders in particular have a social and judgemental aspect to them; people ‘should just be able to perk up’. If the locus of control is clearly removed from the individual, then this attitude weakens its grip. And finally, treating depression as a ‘chemical imbalance’ neatly allows society to sidestep difficult questions about itself. Depression as a ‘chemical imbalance’ is a myth that suits many, many people.

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