How psilocybin, LSD, and other psychedelic drugs could increase wellness in people without mental illness

When psychologist Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1998, he did something radical. Over the years, he had grown tired of his fields’ constant focus on the negative (mental illness, trauma, suffering, pain) and felt that more attention should be paid to the other side of the coin: happiness, well-being, and flourishing. He called this “positive psychology,” and made it the theme of his one-year term as APA’s leader. Instead of focusing solely on reducing ill-being, Seligman organized researchers and practitioners around the idea that people should also be given the tools to thrive.

According to experts, psychedelics could be on the way to becoming one of those tools. The past few years have brought a renaissance of research into the role of LSD, psilocybin (aka “magic mushrooms”), MDMA, ayahuasca, and other psychedelic substances in treating depression, PTSD, addiction, and other forms of mental illness. Now, there is a growing interest in bringing the purported benefits of these drugs to “healthy” people — those without diagnosed mental health disorders — in order to help them attain more aspirational levels of well-being.

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“[Psychedelics] open your mind to a different subjective state of experience, a different way of seeing things, and I don’t see any reason why people should not be allowed to explore that part of their subjective experience if they want to,” says J.W.B Elsey, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Amsterdam, who published a review examining existing research into psychedelics for healthy people. “I think it’s totally correct that they should be allowed to be explored in research for therapy, but also that really quite similar arguments apply for [healthy] people using them.”

This idea isn’t new, but it is gaining traction. In the 1990s, researcher Bob Jesse supported the use of psychedelics for what he called the “betterment of well people.” It’s an idea picked up by author Michael Pollan, who wrote the monumental 2018 book “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.”

“Who doesn’t sometimes feel stuck in destructive habits of thought? Or couldn’t benefit from the mental reboot that a powerful experience of awe can deliver?” Pollan writes. “One of the lessons of the new [psychedelic] research is that not just mental illness but garden-variety unhappiness may owe something to living under the harsh rule of an ego that, whatever its value, walls us off from our emotions, from other people, and from nature.”

That argument isn’t without pushback. Though attitudes are shifting, psychedelics are still highly stigmatized. Psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, and similar drugs are on the federal government’s list of Schedule 1 substances, which means they are highly restricted, considered to have no currently accepted medical use, and a high potential for abuse. The idea that they can help with serious mental illness is still legally unaccepted and controversial. To think that everyone should be allowed to use them to reach a higher level of well-being? Not on the federal government’s watch.

This hasn’t stopped the biohackers, Silicon Valley personalities, and self-optimization zealots from dabbling in microdosing, ayahuasca ceremonies, and psychedelic tourism. While most of the evidence in support of these claims — improved mood, increased productivity, heightened creativity, deeper insights, and more — has been anecdotal, some researchers have looked into psychedelics’ role in boosting the lives of healthy people and, so far, many of the findings corroborate the claims.

In a 2006 study, for example, healthy volunteers who had never taken psychedelics before were given a dose of psilocybin in a controlled, clinical setting. Afterward, the majority described having a ‘‘complete mystical experience” characterized by self-reported feelings of “unity,” “intuitive knowledge of ultimate reality,” and other measures. Two months later, 58% of those volunteers said the trip was one of the most significant experiences in their lives and 64% reported an increased sense of well-being and life satisfaction following the trip.

While hard to measure, there’s mounting evidence to suggest these things can improve mental health and overall happiness — and that they may be needed now more than ever.

In a 2011 study, a dose of psilocybin given to healthy volunteers lead to a significant increase in openness — a personality trait characterized by imagination and insight — in the majority of the participants, and a 2015 study similarly found that a dose of LSD in healthy subjects led to a subjective increase in well-being, happiness, closeness to others, openness, and trust.

Research has also shown that the claim that psychedelics can unlock creativity could hold up. In a 2012 study, healthy volunteers who participated in several ayahuasca sessions showed a greater capacity for originality in a standardized test of creative thinking, which was similarly shown in a 2016 study. Other research, published last year, also showed that microdosing truffles (a relative to psilocybin) can improve convergent and divergent thinking — two markers of enhanced creativity.

OK, but does access to this altered state of mind brought on by a psychedelic trip really lead to increased wellness in healthy people? It depends on who you ask, and what “wellness” means to them, which makes the debate around psychedelics for healthy people a complicated one without definitive boundaries.

Whereas the presence or absence of depression can be measured on a clinical, APA-approved scale, things like “betterment” and “self-improvement” in healthy people are subjective experiences that are hard to quantify. Wellness in this country is still measured against an absence of disorder rather than markers of self-actualization, and it’s not widely accepted that things like mystical experiences, creativity, and a sense of purpose are necessary for overall well-being. “It’s new territory for us as people measuring psychological effects, and it’s a challenge,” says Harriet de Wit, PhD, founder of the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Chicago.

De Wit recently ran an LSD microdosing study with healthy volunteers. She said the participants didn’t show any improvements in mood, but they did report small boosts in feelings of “oneness,” “awe,” and “connection to a higher power.” While hard to measure, there’s mounting evidence to suggest these things can improve mental health and overall happiness — and that they may be needed now more than ever. Western societies are on the brink of a loneliness epidemic, which some experts blame for the rise of suicide, and the United States does seem to be sliding further into a mass existential crisis caused by a sense of meaninglessness. This type of “garden-variety unhappiness,” as Pollan puts it, is hard to treat. Those advocating for the use of psychedelics for healthy people believe a consciousness-expanding trip could help.

Brad Burge, a spokesman for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), says that the organization believes that the mind-expanding benefits of psychedelics could “facilitate more holistic understandings of the world, and greater compassion for ourselves and for others.”

There’s another open question circling the use of psychedelics: their safety. Scientists still don’t have enough research to prove that these drugs are devoid of negative short- and long-term effects.

This concern has launched a separate line of research into psychedelics for healthy people — one specifically focused on examining safety. Though de Wit’s study used healthy volunteers, one main purpose of the research was to examine the potential risks involved in microdosing LSD as a treatment for depression. (No adverse risks were found). According to Brad Burge, the Beckley Foundation, a psychedelic research and policy organization, is also currently running a safety study to see if there are any potential negative side effects of microdosing LSD (though the researchers will also take measurements around creativity).

Knowing the risks associated with these drugs is a critical first step to considering a future where healthy people take psychedelics in the name of self-improvement. But it’s also foundational to psychedelics’ potential as a clinical intervention.

Researchers are taking a top-down approach to advocating for the use of psychedelics: first proving the drugs’ efficacy as a treatment for mental illness, then showing that their ability to push the human mind to new realms of understanding could be beneficial to all.

“Our long-term mission is to see these substances used in any setting by humans in which they can be used safely and effectively for any purpose,” says Burge. “But in order to do that, we need to work carefully and methodically to follow all the rules and regulations. That’s how we’re going to achieve the goal.”

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