Addiction and balance

I’ve started thinking more and more about addiction. I am not, in the classic sense, in any way an addict. But I think my addictions are taking up too much of my life.

I first realised how common addiction can be compared to the classic idea of drug abuse when I read Andrew Wilkinsons startling introspection:

Dr. Lembke explained that most addictions arise from substances or activities that release dopamine.


Things like video games. Food. Social networks. Porn. Email. Exercise.
Even romance novels. Yes, romance novels.


People can be addicted to ANYTHING that releases dopamine. And we are all doing it constantly in an unnatural way.

Andrew Wilkinson on Twitter

This means that everything that triggers in you an excited, focused, joyful moment can be addicting. And wow does that mean the normal world we live in is full of addictive things and addicts.

Here is Scott Alexander talking about how even eating could be viewed as an addiction cycle.

Everyone always says you should “eat mindfully”. I tried this once and it was weird. For example, I noticed that only the first few bites of a tasty food actually tasted good. After that I habituated and lost it. Not only that, but there was a brief period when I finished eating the food which was below hedonic baseline.


This seems pretty analogous to addiction, tolerance, and withdrawal. If you use eg heroin, I’m told it feels very good the first few times. After that it gets gradually less euphoric, until eventually you need it to feel okay at all. If you quit, you feel much worse than normal (withdrawal) for a while until you even out. I claim I went through this whole process in the space of a twenty minute dinner.

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten

I think he’s right. Addiction is not a digital state, but an analogue gradual scale, and everything we indulge in slides around on that scale. Which means that life is full of addictive traps. Paul Graham says it well in this tweet:

Which means we will increasingly have to make a conscious effort to avoid addictions — to stand outside ourselves and ask “is this how I want to be spending my time?”

Paul Graham in Life is short

The hardest things to avoid are the ones that feel personal, without actually being personal. Things that trigger fear:

Things that lure you into wasting your time have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life.

Paul Graham in Life is short

Graham is as usual a vivid observer of life, and I think he nails it when he says:

The things that matter aren’t necessarily the ones people would call “important.” Having coffee with a friend matters. You won’t feel later like that was a waste of time.

Paul Graham in Life is short

To take it back to Wilkinson, he echoes a similar observation:

After a month of this, I came home and had coffee with a friend.

I felt like a new man. Whereas before NOTHING made me happy, a month of quiet had flipped things on their head.

Suddenly the muzak playing in a cafe sounded like the best song I’d ever heard.

Andrew Wilkinson

What can we learn from these interesting people?

I think addiction is a slippery slope of immediate responses to emotions, enjoyment, stress, fear. The trick is to decide if this is really how you want to spend your time. Your life.

To do that, we have to look at things at a longer timescale. Is this an activity you will remember fondly, or time passed in a blur?

It’s easy to let the days rush by. The “flow” that imaginative people love so much has a darker cousin that prevents you from pausing to savor life amid the daily slurry of errands and alarms.

Paul Graham in Life is short

How do you want to spend your life? Is that notification really worth 10 minutes of your day? Is that extra drink worth being sluggish tomorrow?

Here’s Mario Merz explaining how intensity of living might be a better way to frame it:

It’s clear to me that in some moments we feel more purely alive than others: years unfold in minutes. The most popular refrain when someone is in the first flush of love, after all is, I’ve never felt more alive. Intensity is the pursuit of aliveness.

Mario Mera in Permitting Intensity

All addiction starts out as vivid examples of being alive. But we can’t chase the high like addicts. Because every experience quickly stops being rewarding and instead turns into the pain of withdrawal.

We need to be aware of this, and continue to explore vidid experiences of aliveness. But not chase the high.

Balance intensity of action with reflection and rest. Balance addictive input with boredom.

If you have any good ideas about how to do this, please let me know. Because I’m definitely not bored enough.