Tuesday, February 17, 2009


We live in a society that actively promotes addiction. It isn't just chemical dependencies that seduce people, but behavioral addictions of all kinds. Obviously, you can be addicted to cocaine, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, but also to television, fashion, running, travel and mountaineering. Any behavior that is repeated impulsively detracts from one's quality of life, not matter how harmless it may seem on the surface.

Addiction lies at the core of the commercial agenda. It is the mode of human behavior that advertisers are always trying to promote. They want you to get hooked on their product—Diet Coke™, Playstation 2™, Major League Baseball™, etc.—and lust for it just as automatically as a smoker longs for a cigarette.

People may also say, with some pride, that they are addicted to apparently healthy things, like exercise, volunteer work, gardening or listening to National Public Radio. Aren't these good addictions to have?

I say, no, nearly all addictions are bad for you in the long term, even running or NPR. We all engage in addictive behaviors during the course of our lives, but our ultimate goal should be to live without them.

How do we define an addiction? It is a repetitive behavior that serves no functional need (at least compared to the alternatives) and that provides no real satisfaction when repeated. The behavior is engaged in not for its positive effects but mainly because of the anxiety one feels when not doing it.

Why does a smoker have to light up every hour? It is because of the anxiety that overwhelms him when he doesn't smoke. This is due to the reduction of nicotine levels in the blood, but all the smoker knows is that he is starting to feel really bad. The cigarette itself doesn't provide much pleasure, except in the sense of ending pain, but it relieves the smoker's unpleasant feelings by restoring his blood nicotine levels.

Smokers may say that the cigarette gives them "pleasure" or "relaxation," and for years cigarettes were marketed on those terms, but any smoker who is honest with himself (and any spouse of a smoker) knows that isn't true. It's the anxiety of deprivation that drives the activity, not the purported reward.

It's not much different with the addicted runner, traveler or public radio listener. They may talk about the pleasures or practical benefits of the activity, but it's really anxiety that pushes them to repeat it over and over.

All addictions are powered by the primitive parts of the brain that regulate emotion. At the basic neurological level, the runner's anxiety when he is blocked from his activity is similar to the cocaine addict's feelings when deprived of the drug. This brain circuitry exists because it regulates sex and human bonding. The unpleasant feelings of the runner or drug addict are similar to the anxiety of a young child separated from his mother or lovers separated from each other.

The longing for sex can be as powerful and addictive as cocaine, and for good reason: Nature wants to hold a man and woman together long enough for them to raise children. Couples have far more sex than is necessary for procreation because it is a bonding device designed to keep drawing the partners back to each other. In fact, love can be thought of as addiction in its purest form.

Love, sex and bonding are "good" forms of addiction—or at least they are so integral to the human species that they cannot be separated from us. All of those other addictions, however, are parasitic ones, riding on the same circuitry but not doing any useful work.

How do you identify an addiction? You know it because (a) the behavior deviates from functional need, and (b) you are drawn into it by an unnamed anxiety, not by reason.

"Functional need" is what you must do to survive and pursue positive goals. For example, your need for food isn't an addiction. You truly need it to survive, and your body is eventually going to shut down if you don't have it. Cheesecake, however, is not a functional need. You aren't going to die if deprived of it (provided you have other food available). The need for cheesecake is, in a sense, all in your head. It's a neurological problem, not a physical one.

Why do you eat cheesecake? You might say that the pleasurable taste draws you in, but this is true only for a while. True flavor is never sustained when you eat the same food over and over. Any food addict knows that it's really anxiety that drives him to eat: the unpleasant feelings when he thinks about cheesecake but tries to deprive himself of it. After he has broken down and eaten it, he doesn't feel good about himself, and he may acknowledge that the taste wasn't that thrilling, but at least the anxiety is reduced.

As long as you are obeying your anxiety and not what you "know" is good for you, you are going to be hurt by an addiction. The addictive behavior may not cause direct damage, but invariably it will displace more productive activities.

This is true even with seemingly good addictions. If you run for hours every day, you have far exceeded any true health benefit and are instead stealing time from the more important activities of living.

Are you listening to public radio because of all the useful information you are receiving or because of the anxiety you feel when the radio is turned off? Only you can say. The cost of a radio addiction is the opportunity to think your own thoughts and work through the problems of the day.

Even useful activities can be bad if repeated blindly, because you aren't exercising of your experience and wisdom. Just because the activity looks healthy doesn't mean it's the most important thing to do at the time.

Also see my essay on addiction: Words Don't Work.

Also see: caffeine, soft drinks, addiction treatment.

The illustration above is from a New York Times article: A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects (2/6/07)

No comments:

Post a Comment