Addiction, the Principle of Least Effort, and the Freedom from the Pursuit of Happiness

I think the greatest trick the devil ever played on us was to make us think we could—and should—be happy all the time.

But the reality of my life, and I suspect yours, is that sometimes I feel pretty good and other times not so much.

When we try to short-circuit these systems, to try to feel good all the time—to contort our lives into a giant highlight real—that way misery lies.

For many of us, that way addiction lies.

We’d be far better off acknowledging that sadness, boredom, stress, and suffering are inescapable parts of the way it feels to be human. That these emotions are our nervous system’s way of keeping us alive and in good health. But instead of accepting and appreciating that these negative emotions provide a key survival function, many of us try to escape. And since there is no internal mechanism that allows us to escape from our negative feelings, we go searching for external sources of comfort and happiness.

***

Addictions get a bad rap. But people don’t acknowledge enough why addiction is so prevalent in the first place.

Canadian addiction specialist Gabor Mate explains the attraction as follows:

Addiction is a deeply ingrained response to stress, an attempt to cope with it through self-soothing. Maladaptive in the long term, it is highly effective in the short term.” (emphasis added).

To borrow language from a couple of Mate’s patients, ‘“Nothing bothers me when I’m high. There’s no stress in my life,” one person said—a sentiment echoed by many addicted people. “Makes me just forget,” said Dora, an inveterate cocaine user. “I forget about my problems. Nothing ever seems quite as bad as it really is, until you wake up the next morning, and then it’s worse.”’

The reason that addictive substances are popular is not because people are stupid. Addictive substances are popular because, as a short-term solution to negative emotions like stress and sadness, they work.

***

What we know does not work, however, is the obsession with the pursuit of happiness. What research has shown time and again is that the more effort we spend on the idea of being happy, the more unhappy we become. Activities that are fulfilling have a way of capturing our attention in a way that, when we’re doing them, we’re too busy to think about whether we’re happy or not.

The way to get happy is to stop pursuing happiness directly.

***

I think part of the confusion is that we often jumble together unrelated concepts when we talk about the idea of “happiness.”

According to Daniel Nettle, author of Happiness, The Science behind Your Smile, there are three different kinds of happiness. The first level of happiness relates to the pleasurable sensations from food, sex, sunrises, and other immediate events (Level 1 Happiness). These are our immediate feelings and sensations, good and bad. The second level of happiness refers to our mental impressions of those immediate events. A sunrise can be beautiful, but if you’re worried about job stress while you’re watching the sunrise it might detract from your ability to appreciate it. Or, conversely, you might be in prison, but you might be at peace and remain upbeat regardless. Thus, Level 2 Happiness is not our immediate sensory experience, but rather how we process and react to the sensory experience. The final level of happiness is referred to as an overall sense of well-being or flourishing. This ties back to an ancient Greek concept called Eudaimonia, which was the principal focus of Aristotelian ethics. This is what Nettle calls Level 3 Happiness. This is the concept that tends to be the focus of positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman, who is perhaps the leading researcher in the past forty years on various concepts associated with happiness.

***

Working off Daniel Nettle’s three levels of happiness, here’s my theory on happiness:

Level 1 Happiness is mostly out of our control. Sometimes we are happy and sometimes we are sad. We can seek out positive Level 1 Experiences, but those are fleeting, and we adapt and develop a tolerance to them quickly. We can spend our lives chasing beautiful sunsets and the greatest restaurants on earth, but this will lead to hedonic adaptation. When pursued, Level 1 Happiness leads to a feeling of ennui and dissatisfaction. The more we try to make ourselves happy with pleasurable sensations, the less happy we feel.

Level 2 Happiness is the happiness of Stoics and Buddhist (though I suspect Stoics and Buddhists would not consider their philosophies identical). Tomorrow you may win the lottery or receive a diagnosis for terminal cancer. Those events will undoubtedly impact your Level 1 Happiness. But Level 2 Happiness reflects your ability to accept the bigger picture, and remain calm and content regardless of what circumstances happen to you.

Level 3 Happiness is the Eudaimonia of Aristotle, Maslow, and Seligman. The Level 2 Stoic is willing to accept that life may not unfold according to our pre-ordained plans, and can maintain equanimity in the face of it all. The Level 3 Happiness seeker is trying to make life better for himself and those around him. The Level 3 Happiness seeker is the domain of the dedicated activist, artist, or craftsperson.

Ultimately, I think you could break down happiness into three categories or thirty categories. These distinctions are arbitrary. But as George Box said, “all models are wrong but some are useful.” This model of happiness strikes me as useful.

***

Most of the intellectual study of happiness focuses on this last type of happiness, Level 3 Happiness. At the forefront of this study of happiness are those in positive psychology. Positive psychology, as defined by founder Martin Seligman, is the “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.” Indeed, Seligman’s most recent book, Flourish, is what most scholars consider to be the best translation of ancient Greek concept of Eudaimonia.

So how does Seligman believe that we can achieve this “flourishing”? He breaks down the steps with a five-part acronym, PERMA.

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

The details of PERMA are beyond the scope of this post. I will merely point out that Seligman is cautious to distinguish “flourishing” or the study of “well-being” with the notion of hedonic pleasure. For Seligman, well-being is not about feeling good, but about achieving a sense of life satisfaction.

***

Positive psychologists and self-help gurus focus on Level 3 Happiness. Stoics and Buddhists focus on Level 2 Happiness.

But I think where most people get stuck is in Level 1 Happiness. Ultimately, those are the types of emotions we feel in the moment, from pleasure to pain, to sadness to happiness, to stress and relaxation. For many of us, no matter what books we read and no matter how hard we try to think about elevating ourselves, we get sidetracked by immediate stresses and worries.

We want to feel good about ourselves, but we don’t. And so we reach for things that we hope might make us feel better. And that is for what many of us leads to addiction.

For many people, addiction is simply the pursuit of happiness gone awry.

***

Psychologists, philosophers, and scientists do not agree on a single definition of addiction any more than they do for happiness.

According to Mate:

Addiction is any repeated behavior, substance-related or not, in which a person feels compelled to persist, regardless of its negative impact on his life and the lives of others. Addiction involves: compulsive engagement with the behavior, a preoccupation with it; impaired control over the behavior; persistence or relapse despite evidence of harm; and dissatisfaction, irritability, or intense craving when the object—be it a drug, activity, or other goal—is not immediately available.

Carlton K. Erickson, author of The Science of Addiction: From Neurobiology to Treatment, abhors this open-ended definition:

People flippantly state that they are “addicted” to coffee, sugar, other people, computer games, shopping, tanning booths, or knitting. There is no doubt that over-involvement in any of these activities can sometimes mess up a person’s life, but such widespread use of the term reveals just how ill-defined it is . . . Addiction used in this way is colloquial and not scientific.

Mate’s argument is that “all addictions—whether to drugs or to non-drug behaviors—share the same brain circuits and brain chemicals,” namely, the mesolimbic dopamine system (or MDS). Erickson might respond that while this is true, only certain specific chemicals, such as cocaine, opiates, alcohol, and cannabis, actually create chemical dependence.

From what I can gather, addiction science seems very polarized among people who believe that addiction is genetically inherited, those who believe it is caused by environment, those who believe that addiction is a disease and those who believe it is not.

All of these questions are outside the scope of what I’m writing about here.

What I’m interested in is the generalized phenomenon of people who do not feel good about themselves reaching for something external for short-term comfort.

For the purposes of clarity, we can call the phenomenon of clinical substance dependence, such as drug addiction and alcoholism, “Addiction” with a capital A. We can then call the lesser forms of addiction, like shopaholics, internet obsessives, overeaters, “addicts” with a lowercase a. There are obvious differences between the two, but there are similarities as well.

My opinion, consistent with Mate’s, but probably not with Erickson’s, is that the person who seeks refuge in a whiskey bottle or opioids is engaging in the same general kind of behavior as the person who buys an airstream, quits his job, and decides to wander around the country. Both are seeking to escape the sadness and mundane stresses of normal life and to pursue (Level 1) happiness in something else. Both will be effective for a short while, but after the initial rush of adrenaline and excitement wears off, hedonic adaptation will set in.

Of course, the consequences for the person who seeks refuge in Addictions will be more severe, immediate, and irrevocable than for the person who seeks refuge in an Airstream, but the instinct is the same.[1] The pursuit of Level 1 Happiness is for many tied to the pursuit of something external to bring happiness, which invariably leads to even greater unhappiness. According to Thomas Hora, “The meaning of all addictions could be defined as endeavors at controlling our life experiences with the help of external remedies . . . Unfortunately, all external means of improving our life experiences are double-edged swords: they are always good and bad. No external remedy improves our condition without, at the same time, making it worse.” Beyond the Dream: Awakening to Reality.

And again, Mate: “When you get right down to it, it’s the adrenaline I’m after, along with the precious reward chemicals that will flood my brain when I hold the new CD in hand, providing an-all-too temporary reprieve from the stress of my driven state. But I’ve barely left the store before the adrenaline starts pumping through my circulation again, my mind fixated on the next purchase. Anyone who’s addicted to any kind of pursuit—whether it’s sex or gambling or shopping—is after that same fix of homegrown chemicals.”

***

A person can become permanently addicted to harmful substances because of peer pressure or as a response to trauma. Famously, many servicemen became addicted to heroin during their service in Vietnam. (Robins et al, 1980). According to R. Shanta et al (2003), the majority of hard-core substances abusers come from abusive homes. While not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, many believe that they can all be traced to painful experiences.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for addiction, just as there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for recovering from trauma. Many of those who came back from Vietnam recovered from addiction when they came back home, but many did not. (Robins et al 1980). Some stayed addicted to opiates, others substituted alcohol and other drugs. Others quit completely.

After reading a half-dozen books on addiction science in the past month, the overarching conclusion I’ve come to in addiction science is that there is not much consensus in addiction science.

***

According to most researchers on addiction, stress is the primary trigger for addiction-related problems.

Stress is our nervous system’s way of saying: “This situation is a threat. Do what you can to get out of here.” According to Mate: “What do all stressors have in common? Ultimately they all represent the absence of something that the organism perceives as necessary for survival—or its threatened loss.”

Most stressors are small and may not reflect an immediate threat to survival (financial worries, petty office politics) and then sometimes stressors may very well reflect an immediate survival threat (actual war).

This is why it makes such sense for soldiers in war to turn to substances to drown out their stress hormones: They’re in a situation where their stress hormones are in overdrive, and they are not usually in control of what to do in response to the stress triggers.

But there are many times when stress confers a survival benefit—that’s why stress exists. Sometimes your intense fear of snakes might give you a head start in avoiding a poisonous bite and your gut reaction to a work colleague might help you avoid a toxic situation that could get you in trouble. It’s not a pleasant feeling when your body contorts as it reacts to seeing a snake. But it’s not supposed to be pleasant.

That negative emotion is there to keep us alive. The more intense and undeniably unpleasant the sensation, the better.

People who have congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) (yes, that’s really a thing) have much shorter lifespans than people who have normal sensitivities. Many die in early childhood. While no one wants to see their child suffer, children who are incapable of feeling pain are in constant mortal danger. Our pain and emotional sensitivities have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to tell us when we are in trouble. And they are very effective at their jobs. If they are absent, or if we try to short-circuit them, our very survival will be in jeopardy.

Again, to quote Mate:

For all their complexities, emotions exist for a very basic purpose: to initiate and maintain activities necessary for survival. In a nutshell, they modulate two drives that are absolutely essential to animal life, including human life: attachment and aversion. We always want to move toward something that is positive, inviting, and nurturing, and to repel or withdraw from something threatening, distasteful, or toxic. These attachment and aversion emotions are evoked by both physical and psychological stimuli, and when properly developed, our emotional brain is an unerring, reliable guide to life. It facilitates self-protection and also makes possible love, compassion, and healthy social interaction. When impaired or confused, as it often is in the complex and stressed circumstances prevailing in our “civilized” society, the emotional brain leads us to nothing but trouble. Addiction is one of its chief dysfunctions. 

Happiness, in its rawest sense, is the emotion that makes us want to attach to something positive. Sadness and stress are the emotions that drive us to want to avoid something negative. But just as most of us conflate Levels 1, 2, and 3 linguistically, our brains struggle to distinguish between activities that will provide long-term well-being vs. short-term reward.

We know that we want to be “happy.” We just aren’t always so great at knowing what will get us there.

***

We know that certain activities that are more likely to lead to sustained well-being. But yet many of us repeatedly engage in behaviors that result in the opposite.

Why?

In 1949, Harvard statistician and linguist George Zipf published a book called Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort.

According to Zipf, the primary principle of human action is the expenditure of the least amount of effort to accomplish a task. Zipf was a linguist, and so he developed this theory in the context of language. As an example of the principle of least effort in etymological action, the word “goodbye” was previously written as “good-bye,” with a hyphen, which is also a contraction of the 16th-century expression, “God be with you!” Over the course of successive generations, the salutation has grown shorter, simpler, and easier to write. So, too, with to-day and today, to-morrow and tomorrow, e-mail and email, and Internet and internet. Over time, we make our language easier to say and to write.

But Zipf didn’t believe that this phenomenon was isolated to linguistics. He believed it was a universal principle of human action. If there’s a way people can achieve the same aim with less effort, or even if we think there is a chance that we can achieve the same result with less effort, we’ll make a beeline for the lower-energy expenditure option.

This sounds like a “just so” theory without any practical implications, but there’s hard data that shows this might be a universal phenomenon with fascinating statistical implications.

The principle of least effort is like Occam’s razor applied to human activity. If some human organization activity or design doesn’t seem to make sense, ask yourself if it can be explained by the principle of least effort. From the continued existence of the Electoral College to known wastefulness in secondary education to your least favorite road intersection on your daily commute. The reason it probably still exists is that would take more effort to change it than to just leave it as it is.

***

Applying the principle of least effort to the concept of happiness, it may be possible to shed light on why Eudaimonia is so rare, and why addictions are so common.

When we’re unhappy, stressed, or exhausted after a long day of work, we can meditate or work to achieve a state of flow in our favorite pastime. We can engage in healthy, nurturing activities with our loved ones. Or, we can get drunk or high. Or watch an average of five hours of TV a day. When asked about what brings us long-term satisfaction, we may talk about spending time with family or talk about certain childhood dreams, but that’s not what many of us do after a long day of work. Because those things are hard.

It’s just easier to watch TV. And since we are hardwired to find the easiest solutions to our problems, that’s what we do.

Aristotle, perhaps the most famous philosopher in history, wrote about Eudaimonia nearly 2500 years ago, but it seems the little-known George Zipf might have had greater insight into how we chose to spend our free time.

***

Addiction is a short-term positive and long-term negative in the goal toward happiness.

To a non-addict judging the Addict with a capital A, it’s easy to see that the method of happiness-seeking is counterproductive. But with lesser addictions, perhaps the tendency in our own behaviors is not as obvious. Who among us has not over-eaten from the dessert tray, or watched more TV than is healthy or satisfying, or fallen victim to short-term gratification at the expense of long-term well-being?[2] Again, Mate:

I have come to see addiction not as a discrete, solid entity—a case of “Either you got it or you don’t got it”—but as a subtle and extensive continuum. Its central, defining qualities are active in all addicts, from the honored workaholic at the apex of society to the impoverished and criminalized crack fiend who haunts skid row.

***

There’s a lot of money to be made in giving people what they want. Or, at least, what they think they want.

There are the obvious examples: Philip Morris makes about $75 billion a year hawking cigarettes. ABInBev makes $56 billion a year selling booze. And then Nestle and Coca-Cola make $89 billion and $41 billion a year respectively peddling sugar.

But it’s not just about mood-altering substances. Nearly all advertising and marketing targets a central craving at the core of all unhealthy yearnings: namely, the idea that to be happy, you need to buy this thing that we sell. From the luxury sports car commercial that sells the lifestyle of a handsome man in his 30s driving with his model-hot wife to the Airstream advertisement selling the outdoorsy lifestyle of total freedom[3], whenever we see an ad, the sub-text is always, “this is what you need to be happy.”

Says Mate:

Addictions, even as they resemble normal human yearnings, are more about desire than attainment. In the addicted mode, the emotional charge is in the pursuit and the acquisition of the desired object, not in the possession and enjoyment of it. The greatest pleasure is in the momentary satisfaction of yearning. The fundamental addiction is to the fleeting experience of not being addicted.

Indeed, in the last few years, the science of coopting our dopamine systems for profit has become nearly institutionalized.

In the recent highly-reviewed book Hooked, How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Nir Eyal provides a step-by-step process for making addictive software. By studying the science of addiction and playing on the mechanisms of the mesolimbic dopamine system (trigger, action, variable reward), Eyal provides a blueprint for how programmers can get users “hooked” to software.

In Eyal’s defense, he tries to deal with the ethical implications of this, and he tries to frame the book in terms of solving customers’ problems and making the world a better place. But unfortunately the book is too good for that, and there is no evidence that playing to the short-term dopamine reward system is going to really solve people’s long-term problems. What it does do is get people hooked to their computer screens. It gets people looking for one more short-term Level 1 Happiness reward, at the expense of the deeper aspects of well-being (Level 2 and Level 3 Happiness).

***

Addiction is fundamentally a problem of civilization. And I suspect the more advanced the civilization, the more challenging of a problem it will become.

We are born with certain instincts of attachment and aversion. These instincts were designed for one environment and we are now living in an environment that is very different. What’s more, every year, there is more incentive, and more people are competing, to design products and services to coopt these attachment and aversion instincts for profit.

It’s a wonder we’re not all addicts.

According to Randolph Nesse, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Michigan:

Whether or not selection has shaped some genes that prevent or confer benefits from drug use, it seems clear that we were never designed to cope with ready access to a wide variety of pure drugs. In the ancestral environment drugs were harder to obtain and harder to store and use. Now, every decade brings us new drugs, new methods of transporting them and new routes of administration. In this sense, drug abuse is a disease of civilization. This provides yet another source of wonder that drug use is not far more common than it is. Most young people now assume that normal people can resist addiction and only other weak people succumb. If the public perception was based instead on an evolutionary perspective that we are all designed in ways that make us vulnerable, perhaps this could foster a more realistic view of the risks.

***

This post isn’t about easy solutions, so I won’t pretend to provide any. I’m simply trying to lay out a framework that has been helpful to me in thinking about my own cravings.[4] Without pretending to offer any solutions for anyone else who might be suffering from addiction, I will argue that the first step toward recovery is a simple awareness of the problem.[5] The next steps depend the nature of the Addiction/addiction and the nature of your personality.

For me, I find it useful to adopt a straight-up paranoid perspective toward every business around me: the local brewery, the local dispensary, the local bakery[6], the car dealership, Amazon[7], Facebook, and Twitter. They’re all drug dealers to me. My smartphone is a den of iniquity. My iPad is a crack house. My laptop is an electronic red-light district. I must tread cautiously with all of these things or I will end up with brain syphilis.

They’re all angling to get me in trouble. They’re all trying to get me to part with my hard-earned health, attention, time and money.

I look at myself with deep suspicion every time I take out take out my credit card: What am I trying to avoid? What am I craving? What am I yearning for that probably won’t be satisfied by what I am about to buy?

This an admittedly exaggerated understanding of the concept of addiction. But it strikes me as a useful adaptation in a world that is relentlessly trying to get me addicted, when my brain is always looking for the easy way out.

***

Life is hard, even for those who appear on the surface to be the most fortunate. We all want to be “happy,” but what might on the surface seem to provide comfort and release might be the very thing that takes us away from a life of fulfillment and satisfaction. We all have the instinct to err on the side of lessor effort, even when the easy way out leads us toward moderately unproductive behavior or even lethal addiction.

***

As a final thought, I’ve recently grown fond of the expression, “The freedom from the pursuit of happiness.”

I think many would consider the “freedom from the pursuit of happiness” a rather depressing idea.

But to me, it’s a perfect turn of phrase to describe the healthiest way to approach finding peace. It connotes a letting go of the hedonic treadmill of Level 1 Happiness and the pervasive materialistic culture trying to sell us on the idea that we need some external thing to be happy, even when the last 100 things we bought failed to get us there.

And to the extent that Level 2 Happiness can be achieved, it’s by separating our thought process from the circumstances that require the need to feel good all the time. Level 2 Happiness, the happiness of Buddhists and Stoics, is not an act of pursuit, but rather acceptance and internal transcendence of circumstance.

Finally, the science of Level 3 Happiness shows that happiness cannot be achieved by fretting over our own mental states, but rather by pursuing “flow,” where the last thing on our mind is our own pursuit of happiness. Level 3 Happiness is achieved when we are fully engrossed in some activity, however arbitrary, that liberates us from the perpetual self-consciousness that sabotages our ability to be at peace.

So it would seem that there is much to be gained in the abandonment of the self-conscious pursuit of happiness. The freedom from the pursuit of happiness. The more I think about it, the more that feels right to me.

[1] Mate talks about how every addict in his clinic who abuses hard drugs is also addicted to nicotine. And my own anecdotal experience with addicts (I was a bartender for three years) is that people with the predisposition to get hooked on one thing are also more likely to have issues with other smaller addictions—whether those substances cause actual chemical dependence or not. In the old days of smoking sections and non-smoking sections, waiters always preferred to work with smoking sections, because the smokers invariably drank more and tipped better. Smokers who try to quit smoking tend to gain weight from overeating. Drinkers who give up alcohol tend to crave more sugar. For those with the predisposition toward addiction, the instinct to seek out something to soothe is strong to overwhelming. And when one addiction is removed, the tendency toward finding substitute fixes is nearly universal. This is why Erickson’s definition of addiction is not compelling to me. All of those urges have commonalities, and to deny that those with a predisposition toward chemical dependence also have a tendency toward compulsive behavior with lesser forms of addiction seems to deny reality.

[2] I’m not suggesting that enjoying pleasurable things is always a bad thing. What I’m commenting on here is the phenomenon of consuming more of a thing than we know is good for us, to the point where we regret the overconsumption.

[3] Luxury sports cars have no lure for me, but I’m a sucker for every Airstream ad.

[4] I will confess that my interest in addiction is more than academic. I tend to extremes in all activities, from running to eating to board games. From college to my early 30s, that also applied to drinking. Let’s just say it is much easier for me to abstain than to moderate. That said, I am happy to report that over the last five years or so, I have achieved a healthy equilibrium in my consumption habits. I’m not perfect, but I feel like I’m getting healthier almost every day.

[5] For me, daily meditation has helped with this in more ways than I could quantify. I now meditate an hour or so every day. I believe it’s the most important thing I do for my health.

[6] Actually, the owners of the local bakeries are super nice. And their treats are mostly harmless, reasonably priced, and delicious. They don’t belong on this list. I will continue to frequent their fine establishments.

[7] This particular drug dealer tends to get about 15% of my monthly income.