18 January 2018

Cell phone addiction. Sugar addiction. Alcohol addiction. Social media. Cigarettes. Marijuana. Email. Drugs. Social media. Caffeine.

I think these are bad when taken to the excessive.

But when consumed in reasonable amounts all of the above can be beneficial. Hospitals use morphine as a pain killer in extreme situations. Alcohol, with all its toxic effects on the body, can still serve as a “social lubricant”, and a fast way to relax from stress. Online media can help you connect with people and ideas you care about and even the proverbial cat and dogs photo can make you smile and might have some psychological benefits. Caffeine is a great productivity booster in the moment you need it.

How much to have? Just enough to get the benefit. And then stop.

But that’s easier said than done. All of these activities are slippery slopes. It’s easy to do them a little bit, get the benefit, and get hooked. It’s easy to develop a taste for them. It’s hard not to build tolerance. It becomes a habit. It gets hard wired in brains. It gets soldered in our brains. Then it gets heavy duty welded in.

welded metal

Once it’s welded in there, we can’t forget about it and expect it will go away. We have to angle grind it out.

But should we? For ourselves? For society?

I think society doesn’t want that. It runs on addictions. If I ask in the abstract a single person if I should stop any of the above addictions for myself, they’ll answer yes. Stop it. It’s bad for ya, buddy. But the habits formed by all our addictions are the fuel that keeps the engine of the economy running. And we, the people, are the engine.

For example, the “Gear Acquisition Syndrome”. Wanting to get one more guitar to the set, a more ergonomic backpack for hiking, a fancy new cardio machine, newer iPhone than the one I already have. Each of those would have a very small positive effect on guitar playing, hiking, fitness or phone utility. Very small. Miniscule.

Even though the optimal approach for each of is to play the existing guitar more, or to go hiking more, or to use the existing fitness equipment or run, or to use the existing iPhone until the battery starts dying and Apple slows it down too much.

But our brains get immediate reward by browsing and shopping and dreaming about all this gear. We get that sweet hit of dopamine. Appreciating what we have is harder, and requires upfront effort, and has hard time competing against the low glycemic index of the browsing for new gear. We love the idea of hiking and playing guitar, more than actually doing those.

We go and spend any of the money we earn and we think we can afford to spend on things that feed our addictions. And some of those money goes to pay the people who build these addictions, and they spend it on their addictions, and it comes back to us. Because many of us might be are working on a product which takes advantage of some of these addictions. Even if we don’t realize it. We might think we are solving a real problem for people, and providing value, yet most of our customers are buying what we sell because of their addiction to something, and not because they truly derive value and make their lives better.

And while we do provide some value in some cases, a significant amount of work goes toward satisfying the cravings of addiction for others. With one hand we are building houses, developing systems, growing food, inventing medicine, and so on, and with the other hand we are masturbating others whom we’ve tricked to believe that this is what they can’t live without. And they masturbate us back. That’s how the engine works, and how the sausage is made.

This is my perspective on addiction’s role in society. There is a lot of waste, but the engine is working. The engine is solid, with all the welding, and tough like a squat rack. We can imagine replacing or at least reducing addiction as a driving and structural force, but thats a long and complex topic and I have to stop somewhere today.

America runs on Dunkins. I wrote this post with the help of caffeine.

One short post per week, discussing actionable mental models. Join a community of readers, who receive these posts over email.