Are we addicted to rewards?
Journalist and author Damian Thompson’s book The Fix starts off with an interesting societal insight:
It’s not obvious to us now, but the most far-reaching social development of the early 21st century is our increasingly insistent habit of rewarding ourselves whenever we feel the need to lift our moods.
The concepts retail therapy, eating our feelings, and escapism come to mind. No longer are rewards saved for achievements or milestones – now they’re here to pick us up from boredom, sadness, or melancholy. For many of us, simply feeling bad has qualified us to reward ourselves. We’ve made these rewards as part of our habits, and some of us even unknowingly make rewards process addictions. Thompson explores the consequence:
Our problem is that we’ve built an environment that bombards us with rewards that our bodies don’t need and that do nothing to ensure our survival as a species.
While this might sound like a dire situation, Thompson highlights a few solutions. The first has to do with the environment, where he quotes highlights this study:
This is really powerful evidence that changes in social environment can dramatically affect people’s drug-taking habits.
Alcoholics Anonymous makes a more anecdotal illustration:
‘If you hang around barbers’ shops, sooner or later you’re going to get a haircut,’ is an AA saying – meaning, of course, that sitting around drinking orange juice in the pub is risky for an alcoholic.
Thompson quotes National Addiction Centre leading researcher Michael Gossop:
‘In its simplest form the availability hypothesis states that the greater the availability of a drug in a society, the more people are likely to use it and the more they are likely to run into problems with it [Thompson's italics]‘.
If you’re attempting to change your habits, you could start by adjusting these two variables – your environment and its availability. For example, if you’re trying to reduce your junk food consumption, don’t have any supply of it in your pantry. Conversely, if you’re trying to cook more, make sure you’re fully stocked.
If you’re trying to stop yourself from playing video games, cut your internet connection off for a few hours of the day. Understand if all your friends play games, and try to expand your social circle to those who don’t.
Beware of how frequently, and under which circumstances, you reward yourself.