Happiness vs Pleasure Seeking in CrossFit


I recently watched this interview with Dr. Robert Lustig promoting his new book The Hacking of the American Mind (author of Pure White and Deadly, and Fat Chance). In this discussion, he points out key differences between Pleasure and Happiness and this has had my mind churning about how this applies to what we do in CrossFit.


Pleasure is short lived, fleeting. It comes from external sources and it happens in isolation. Physiologically, it is providing hits of Dopamine to the brain. But the brain easily becomes desensitized to dopamine and so the pleasure experienced decreases over time. Dopamine is the stuff of destructive, unsatisfying, but ultimately addictive behaviors like gambling, shopping, and opiates.

Happiness, on the other hand, is long lasting. It must be cultivated from within and it comes through contributions outside yourself and connecting with other people. In the brain, it comes from doses of Serotonin. Where Dopamine is "excitatory", Serotonin is "inhibitory", meaning it provides a feeling of contentment and you do not build up a tolerance. It is impossible to become desensitized to or addicted to Serotonin.


In our culture we have deeply confused pleasure with happiness. We are lead to believe that we will find happiness in buying things, taking a better mirror selfie, delighting our palettes, and indulging our transient sexual desires. But interestingly enough, the more we seek out hits of Dopamine, the more we down-regulate our production of Serotonin. In other words, the more pleasure we seek, the less happy we actually are.


CrossFit provides us the opportunity to cultivate Happiness or to seek out Pleasure. It can be one of the most positive things you will ever add to your life, or it can lead down a road of dissatisfaction and negativity.

Pleasure seeking in CrossFit takes several forms. It might be living and dying by your score on the whiteboard. You bested your rival today? Ahhhhhh there's that sweet, sweet hit of Dopamine. But what about when you don't or can't win? (legitimately at least) This leads to cheating through rep skipping and shorting range of motion. The most egregious example of this being Trevor Bachmeyer submitting a completely fake video of his performance in The Open. Somehow he still got satisfaction out of seeing his name at the top of the world leaderboard despite having not actually done the work. It might also lead an athlete to cheat with performance enhancing drugs. Three athletes at this year's CrossFit Regionals and one on the podium at the CrossFit Games needed to have a top performance so badly that they were willing to risk taking banned substances for that fleeting release of Dopamine.

Gauging your success only relative to the performance of others is doomed to rob you of the genuine happiness you could experience from your personal progress.


Pleasure seekers cherry pick workouts or they 'scale up' the workout to feel better about being slower.

Chasing that "hit" also manifests in those who are constantly maxing out their lifts, needing to PR to get that rush.

Or maybe it's posting those PR videos to social media and needing "likes" to feel validated, getting that sweet, sweet release every time a notification pops up.

Happiness, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, comes from connecting with other people, contributing something to the world, and coping with stress in a functional way. Dr. Lustig calls it the "4 Cs of Happiness" (along with Cooking for yourself). I'd like to add a 5th: Cultivating something within yourself. CrossFit gives us the opportunity to do all these things.

Being a part of a CrossFit community allows you to make real, face to face, eye to eye connections with like-minded, health-oriented, positive people. We have very little real, human connection in our modern world. But an hour in a CrossFit class is an hour away from your cell phone, off your computer, and without Netflix. It's an hour with your tribe.

You contribute to the community by supporting others, cheering them on, and building them up. You view others for what you can do to help them, not what they can do to validate you.

The community as a whole can come together to contribute to charitable efforts, donating time or money to those less fortunate than us (and lets face it, we're a pretty fortunate bunch). This year alone the awesome people at BRIO have supported KidSport, Telemiracle, STARS Air Ambulance, and Movember just to name a few.

CrossFit also gives us an outlet for our stress. Stress is an unavoidable, probably even necessary, part of life. Our greatest opportunities to learn about ourselves and grow in to something better come from our darkest times. But that growth only happens if we cope in a functional way. Rather than isolating ourselves or pouring a big glass of whiskey, we can channel our stress into a workout. As Pat Sherwood says, we can "turn up the music, high five some people, and blow off some steam". For the 99.9% of us who do not make competing in CrossFit our career, it is meant to be the best hour of our day - a release from stress, not a source of it. The Dopamine seekers will inevitably find CrossFit to be a source of their unrest when the PRs run out and the Instagram likes start to fade.

And finally, CrossFit gives you the chance to grow from within. You put in work and become a better version of yourself. Each day is an opportunity to write in the "book" of you. Some days we write nothing and leave the page blank. Other days we've just scribbled nonsense and wasted a page. But by focusing on the process, by respecting human movement as an art, each day we can write a little piece of what becomes an engaging story. When you are satisfied you have put forth your best effort, you gain contentment from the process, regardless of how you stack up against other people.