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Can Psychedelics Make You Happier?

Research suggests that psychedelics may be better than antidepressants, which tend to dampen or suppress psychological problems without necessarily curing them.

Mike is hunched over a pile of soggy wood chips at the bottom of a glade in Golden Gate Park. It’s a clear winter afternoon and sunlight filters through the eucalyptus trees, landing on grass still damp from a recent storm. Mike sifts through the wood chips, slowly and deliberately examining the soil beneath. Two paper bags fill a pocket of his Patagonia fleece jacket.

Mike is a 28-year-old engineer at a prominent software company in San Francisco. He is soft-spoken and self-possessed; on weekends he drives his Subaru Forester to his time-share in Tahoe to ski. He donates to public radio, and he has made himself into an aficionado of the city’s Indian restaurants. He is, or seems, like a well-adjusted member of society.

But what he is doing — sifting through wood chips in a damp, obscure corner of the 1,000-acre park that bisects the western portion of San Francisco — is a felony. He is searching for psilocybin, the psychedelic mushrooms that grow wild in San Francisco and neighboring Marin County from fall to spring. If he finds any, he tells me, he’ll stuff them in the bags, put the bags in his backpack and backstreet home on his bike.

Not long ago, Mike agreed to take me on one of his mushroom hunts, and as he scoured the ground, he explained his affinity for psilocybin. We were in the lower section of Golden Gate Park near its terminus at Ocean Beach, and aside from an occasional jogger, the park seemed empty, a forest in the middle of one of the world’s most famous cities.

Mike told me doesn’t do mushrooms very often-maybe once or twice a year-but when he does, it’s because he wants to explore a problem in his life that has been troubling him. “When I take them, it may be because I have a decision to make, or maybe I suspect that my outlook toward something is not as healthy or as loving as I would like it to be,” he said. “Psilocybin allows me to see things with a fresh point of view. When I’m on them, [I'm] not as burdened by cynicism or other self-protective layers in my psychology.”

Is Mike delusional about the power of mushrooms to refresh his worldview?

In the last decade, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs on consciousness has become a growing field of study in American academia. Psychologists at UCLA, Johns Hopkins Medical School and NYU, among other places, have published research showing that psychedelics can promote happiness in ordinary people, as well as alleviate depression and anxiety among the terminally ill. The positive effects of taking psilocybin Mike described are similar to many of the case descriptions contained in these studies (though no doubt none of the researchers involved would endorse his actions).

In the fall Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, published a study in the leading journal Archives of General Psychiatry finding that people with terminal stage-IV cancer reported feeling dramatically less anxiety after taking a small, measured dose of psilocybin during a carefully administered experiment. Grob and his team checked in with their subjects after three months, and then again after six months; in each case, the subjects reported more benefits as time went on.

“Many of the subjects told us that it helped them come to terms with the fact that they were going to die,” Grob said. “It gave them the strength to confront directly what was going on. They told us that their experience helped them to live in the moment, to take each day as it came in the time they had remaining, as opposed to feeling immobilized because of their predicament.”

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