Note: This post DOES NOT endorse opioid usage and is not telling you to use opioids to find happiness!
Over the past few years there has been an increase in stories about opioids like heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone. Specifically, stories about how dangerous these drugs are, whether it be in terms of addiction or actually causing the death of many people. These claims on the danger of opioids are certainly warranted, as in 2021 alone, synthetic opioids (like fentanyl), prescription opioids (like oxycodone and morphine), and heroin caused a combined ~90,000 deaths (NIDA, 2023).
But there’s a reason people use these drugs. They provide a profound sense of euphoria and pain relief, which is sought after by many people (NIDA, 2022; Dole et al., 1966). So this leads to the question: can opioids, like heroin, be good for you? Can opioids make me a happier person if safely administered? To understand this, we need to understand what opioids are doing in the brain and also see how people who use opioids report its effects on their well being.
In a study examining blood flow in the brain of people who are dependent on heroin, they used single-photon emission topography (SPET) to measure blood flow in regions of the brain (Botelho et al., 2006). The idea is that more blood flow to a certain part of the brain indicates more activity, since that region of the brain is using more oxygen and energy and needs to be replenished. What they found was that heroin dependent participants (who were free of any drug in their system except for three participants on buprenorphine, a mild opioid for treating opioid dependence). As a control, they compared the blood flow in regions of the brain to a database of brain scans of people not classified as heroin dependent. What they found was that the heroin dependent participants had less blood flow to the frontal cortex, temporal regions, parietal lobes, occipital lobes, basal ganglia, and the cerebellum (Botelho et al., 2006). What’s notable about this study’s findings is that the effect heroin seems to have had on the brain is very wide spread, affecting many different brain regions. While we shouldn’t conclude that heroin is actively reducing activity, since this study measures activity of heroin users with no heroin in the body, we can conclude that these regions are likely affected by heroin use.
The reason it’s important to understand what regions are affected by heroin is because it gives us the first step in understanding how heroin, and other opioids, might influence our general happiness. This leads us to our next point of research done by Tanzer and Weyandt (2020). They tested a theory as to what happiness is. Specifically, they were interested in the question: What is happiness? Is happiness an affective state or is it correlated with behaviors and actions? What they concluded was that happiness seems to be more related to actions being performed. This is because happiness was found to be associated with 33 brain regions, such as the frontal cortex, basal ganglia, temporal gyrus, parietal lobes, the cerebellum, and many many more regions (Tanzer & Weyandt, 2020). Based on the two studies, happiness brain activity seems to heavily overlap with the modified brain activity seen in heroin users (Botelho et al., 2006).
So, can heroin usage lead to happiness? It’s hard to say. While there aren’t strong studies comparing the happiness of heroin or opioid users to non-drug users, there’s certainly evidence that opioids may influence general feelings of happiness, especially with such effects like euphoria (Dole et al., 1966). Additionally, in one study of people who are dependent on heroin and cocaine, they found that the drug dependent users were actually happier at work than in other aspects of their life, especially if their job was a skilled job (Epstein & Preston, 2012). Does this mean that the drugs are making them happier? Not necessarily but it does show that they are promoting happiness in situations we don’t typically expect.
My goal is not to tell you that opioids are going to make you happier and that everyone should be using them. I actually don’t believe that at all. Opioids are extremely dangerous drugs which can and do cause the deaths of thousands of people a year (NIDA, 2023), but what the evidence shows is that there may be positive effects of opioids on promoting happiness in people who use them regularly. With more research, we may find that they do in fact cause people to be happier, and maybe one day, with enough education, destigmatization, and safety systems in place, opioids may develop a purpose of helping people find a greater sense of joy in life.
Abuse, N. I. on D. (2022, December 16). Heroin DrugFacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
Abuse, N. I. on D. (2023, February 9). Drug Overdose Death Rates. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
Botelho, M. F., Relvas, J. S., Abrantes, M., Cunha, M. J., Marques, T. R., Rovira, E., Fontes Ribeiro, C. A., & Macedo, T. (2006). Brain Blood Flow SPET Imaging in Heroin Abusers. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1074(1), 466–477. https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1369.047
Dole, V. P., NYSWANDER, M. E., & KREEK, M. J. (1966). Narcotic Blockade. Archives of Internal Medicine, 118(4), 304–309. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.1966.00290160004002
Epstein, D. H., & Preston, K. L. (2012). TGI Monday?: Drug-Dependent Outpatients Report Lower Stress and More Happiness at Work than Elsewhere. The American Journal on Addictions, 21(3), 189–198. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1521-0391.2012.00230.xTanzer, J. R., & Weyandt, L. (2020). Imaging Happiness: Meta Analysis and Review. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21(7), 2693–2734. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00195-7
One thought on “Can Recreational Opioid Use Make You Happier?”
This is a wildly irresponsible article. Neural overlap (for example between heroin and happiness) does NOT imply that the states are similar at all. You’ve made this argument seem legitimate and superficially scientific based on a misinterpretation of brain data, without presenting any of the (VERY OBVIOUS) reasons why heroin doesn’t make people happier. I think this is best taken down.