Studies suggest psychedelics make you happier, with long-lasting results

Photo credit: Emre Öztürk on Unsplash

We’ve all read the latest headlines about the growing corporate interest in psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin: between overinflated multi-million-dollar valuations and hype from big-wig investors, these mind-altering substances are being hailed as the “next big thing”.

But before we get ahead of ourselves and start pouring other people’s money into business plans and start-up facilities that have been nowhere near proven out (sound familiar?), it’s worth considering why these once frowned-upon drugs are now getting so much attention.

Increasing positive mood and social connectedness

Four recent studies shed light on just a few of the potential therapeutic applications of psychedelic drugs. The first, a study conducted by psychologists at Yale University, investigated the effects of psychedelics on positive mood and social connectedness.

Led by senior author and assistant professor of psychology Molly Crockett, the paper used field studies involving more than 1,200 subjects who attended music festivals in the United States and the United Kingdom, to find out how their experiences were impacted by the use of psychedelics.

“Our new study demonstrates that psychedelic use is strongly associated with a sense of personal transformation and in turn is associated with positive mood,” she wrote in an email to the Yale Daily News.

Crockett and team found that by using psychedelics, subjects were susceptible to “transformative experiences”, or events that led to “a substantial change in one’s personal values and priorities that [are] practically impossible to accurately imagine in advance.”

What’s interesting about the way this research was gathered is that it involved real-world events; subjects weren’t tested or asked to complete tasks in a lab setting. Instead, researchers were able to paint a more “true to life picture” of how individuals who use psychedelics are affected from a social perspective. (It also lends credence to the trope of an individual who returns home after a weekend-long music festival claiming to be “forever changed”.)

Long-lasting reductions in feelings of depression and anxiety in cancer patients

Some of you might be saying, “so what if these experiences led to improved moods and sociability if the effects were just temporary?” In a recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers followed up with cancer patients who had participated in a previous study using psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. They found that when combined with psychotherapy sessions, just a single, moderate dose (0.3 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight) of the main ingredient in magic mushrooms provided long-lasting relief from cancer-induced anxiety and depression.

The original study, which involved 29 subjects suffering from life-threatening cancer, took place in 2016. Of the subjects, 14 were alive and able to participate in the follow-up. Researchers found that between 60 and 80 per cent of the participants continued to feel significantly less anxious and depressed in the years following their experience with psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. What’s more, the vast majority who participated in the second study ranked the single treatment as one of the most significant experiences of their lives.

In the five-year follow-up questionnaire, one participant wrote, “There’s a reckoning, which came with cancer, and this reckoning was enhanced by the psilocybin experience… I have a greater appreciation and sense of gratitude for being alive.”

What’s more, the vast majority who participated in the second study ranked the single treatment as one of the most significant experiences of their lives.

“The psilocybin experience changed my thoughts about myself in the world,” wrote another. “I see myself in a less limited way. I am more open to life. It has taken me out from under a big load of feelings and past issues in my life that I was carrying around.”

The new study’s lead author, Gabby Agin-Liebes, emphasized that the psychotherapy which occured in conjunction with the single dose of psilocybin played a major part in patients’ improvements, and touched on the importance of what most proponents of psychedelics refer to as “set and setting”.

“Psychedelic experiences are uniquely influenced by context in which they occur,” she wrote in an email to New Atlas. “The importance of context can not be overemphasized.”

Psychedelics may make you more psychologically flexible

While there is a growing body of work to support the idea that psychedelics can lead to improvements in feelings of depression and anxiety, the mechanism behind these effects is not quite clear. New evidence in another recent study, published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, suggests that the reason psychedelics can improve such mental health conditions is because they increase a person’s “psychological flexibility”, or one’s ability to connect with the present moment and manage their feelings.

“Psychological flexibility is described as an essential set of processes that help people manage stressors and engage in adaptive behaviors that promote values-driven action,” says lead researcher of the study, Alan K. Davis, of the concept.

In the study, nearly 50 per cent of participants who had used a psychedelic drug (psilocybin, LSD, or DMT) said that their experience led to a change in how anxious or depressed they felt. Participants who indicated that their psychedelic experience provided them with lasting insights reported being more psychologically flexible in the time following. Researchers found that increased psychological flexibility led to reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

Davis told PsyPost, “Psychological flexibility is about being open to your moment-by-moment experiences, being present in your life, and doing what matters in the face of barriers/obstacles including emotional ones. Psychedelic experiences are associated with increasing one’s ability to engage in this way.”

Impacting substance use disorder

Psychedelics are also gaining attention when it comes to substance use disorders. A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology has found that psychedelic experiences can potentially lead to a reduction in one’s reliance on drugs like opioids, stimulants, and even cannabis.

Led by author Matthew W. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the study recruited 444 adults who had overcome substance use disorders involving alcohol or drugs after a psychedelic experience.

According to the study, before their experience with psychedelics (most participants said they used psilocybin or LSD), 79 per cent of the survey participants met the criteria for severe substance abuse disorder. But after their perception-altering experience, just 27 per cent met the criteria for substance abuse disorder. Participants who reported using stronger doses of a psychedelic substance experienced greater success.

“I’ve previously published survey research with such stories regarding tobacco and alcohol, so these newer survey data about overcoming addictions or reducing use of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and cannabis add to the growing literature suggesting robust anti-addiction potential to psychedelics,” Johnson told PsyPost.

However, 10 per cent of those who participated in the survey reported experiencing adverse effects following their psychedelic experience, such as paranoia or anxiety.

Johnson said this finding should “not encourage the DIY use of psychedelics to treat addiction”, and that approved clinical use available in research studies, as well as the approval of psychedelics as medicine, would both “[increase] the odds of effectiveness and [minimize] risks to an acceptable level.”

The focus right now may be on investment opportunities, but it’s the ongoing research being conducted at academic giants like Yale and Johns Hopkins that will really set psychedelics free.

This article is available under a Canadian Creative Commons licence.