The addiction term gets thrown around quite a bit, and what I’m starting to notice as I cull through google results, is that when people are talking about the non-substance-related addictions, they usually speak quite rationally. I think we can learn more helpful, genuinely useful ideas to apply to the problems of drug & alcohol addiction when we pay attention to these discussions of the “lesser” addictions (as opposed to the useless counterproductive ideas thrown around about drug addiction).
Exhibit A: Huffington Post published a piece about email addiction today by Tony Schwartz.
He seems to be speaking to a business crowd and addressing simple productivity increases rather than the sweeping desperate lifestyle changes generally associated with addiction – nevertheless, he gets to the true nature of addiction. One seminar attendee confessed the perceived compulsive nature of his email addiction to Schwartz “I believe everything you said, but I can’t do it. If I get an email, I have to look at it.” Schwartz talks about a general overuse of electronic communication and sums it up beautifully:
It isn’t overload we’re battling anymore, it’s addiction — to action, to information, to connection, but above all to instant gratification.
That’s it, that’s the key to understanding addiction of any kind. It’s about instant gratification. To express such an opinion when discussing drug addiction would get you in trouble. You’d be looked at as crude, ignorant, puritanical, and worse, such as being compared to a holocaust denier. There’s so much emotion and a long history of propaganda tied up in drug addiction, but the new realms of discussing addiction can offer us some sober rational thinking.
In this case, it appears that email addiction is a problem because it steals focus from more important work. There is an instant gratification of feeling like you’re connected and accomplishing things simply because you’re communicating. This can distract you from the longer term goals and more focus-intensive work with a more delayed gratification and rewarding outcome. So the email addict is giving up long term success and productivity for an immediate short term feeling of connectedness. To me, this fits perfectly with my history of substance abuse. I repeatedly used a quick cheap thrill to achieve happiness – rather than focusing on the harder work necessary to achieve a happier stabler lifestyle.
Schwartz brings up a wonderful behavioral study:
In the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel began conducting his famous “marshmallow” experiment. He placed a marshmallow in front of a succession of four-year-olds. Mischel told them they were free to eat the marshmallow simply by ringing a bell after he’d left the room. If they were able to wait until he returned, he told them they could have two marshmallows.
We’re pulled to anything that provides instant gratification, even when we know we’d get a bigger reward for delaying. We’re also quick to take up any excuse to stop working on something that is difficult and requires high concentration.
What Mischel found is that the low delayers quickly burned down their limited reservoir of will and discipline by staring directly — and longingly — at the marshmallow. The high delayers found something else entirely to focus on. They never looked at the marshmallow.
Mischel came to call this skill “strategic allocation of attention.” It’s a capacity many of us have lost when it comes to the Pavlovian pull of email.
I love that he’s bringing up focus. I wrote a whole chapter on focus for my upcoming book, because it really is key to moving away from the addictive behavior. If you focus on the bigger things, the important stuff, the more rewarding stuff – then it’s hard to get bogged down in the addictive stuff. It’s really an active application of values, you get in touch with what’s truly important to you, and aim right at it. He explains that there is hope:
Years later….he decided to teach the poor delayers the techniques of the high delayers…… Kids who hadn’t been able to wait more than a minute rapidly learned to hold out for a full 15 minutes.
We, too, can strategically train our attention.
Likewise, there is hope for people using substances addictively – when we get honest and admit that it’s about taking the responsibility of focusing on a better future, recognizing the cheap thrills and immediately gratifying activities for what they really are, and working for our happiness, then we can be free of addiction.