Thursday, 27 February 2014

Face It, Everyone's Addicted To Something

It's not just cigarettes that are hard to quit – exercise, coffee, video games or shouting at Question Time are habit-forming too
Running addiction
The 'runner’s high' that drives exercise addicts on is just one of the pleasure stimuli that make exercise the most addictive pastime in modern life. Photograph: Cultura/Moof/Getty Images
It supposedly takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. But only 37 cigarettes to be an addict. A new study reveals social smokers actually smoke 37 cigarettes a week. At average rates that's over two and a half hours of solid smoking weekly. Social smokers are just addicts in denial. But the rest of us shouldn't be too quick to sneer. Addiction is part of the human condition. We're all addicted to something: it's just a question of owning up to your own particular poison.

Video games

In the anglophone west, there's a paucity of peril. Our ancestors accessorised their muddy robes with swords. Today we carry manbags. War was once a local event that once affected whole populations. Now it's outsourced to small specialist forces in distant countries.
But while society has changed immeasurably in the past century, humanity has changed hardly at all. We still crave excitement and danger. But now we can get the requisite stimulus without actually standing nipple-deep in mud and entrails. Entry-level games generally involve quite mild stimuli, such as collecting mushrooms or reactivating ancient superweapons, but all too soon progress into more dangerously addictive areas. Usually involving incompetent wildfowl. The compulsion to attain one last game achievement, even at the expense of a decent night's sleep, is well known to the most successful games designers and innumerable frustrated spouses.

Shouting at Question Time

Governing a country is hard. Pulling on the levers of one part of the economy can have a deleterious effect on a different, seemingly unrelated, part of the nation's finances. Foreign policy is complicated by the presence of cartoonishly priapic Italians and comically macho Russians everywhere you look. And what's worse, all the time that you're negotiating this minefield, there are 65 million people telling you you're wrong. Politics is football for nerds. And Question Time is its Match of the Day. The emotional catharsis of bellowing "No, you fool, that's the wrong economic stimulus", is catnip to many interested in politics. Question Time is addictive enough to draw strong audiences to a late-night schedule spot. A fact well known to the most successful TV executives and innumerable frustrated spouses (see above).


Three of the world's most powerful stimulants come from Latin America. They all begin with the letter C, and only one of them is illegal. While chocolate tickles the parts of the brain connected with romance, coffee works directly on the area associated by neuroscientists with "waking up after you were up too late watching Question Time".
The extraordinary disconnect between wholesale cost and retail price is lost on the perpetually twitching coffee addict. Admittedly coffee dealers don't adulterate their product with brick dust and horse medicine, but other than that it's just an accident of history that latte is legal and cocaine isn't.


Addiction is the compulsive repetition of a behaviour that gives short-term pleasure, despite the lack of any benefit. There are perfectly good evolutionary reasons why humans are predisposed to devotion. But then there are perfectly good evolutionary reasons why humans have toenails too.
Religion makes for an unquestioning, well-behaved society that pulls together rather than bickering unproductively. If the political radicals of the 1970s had offered communion wafers rather than vegan biscuits, it'd be a very different world today. Despite that anomaly, religion's work as social scaffolding is now more or less complete. We don't need it any more. Swallowing a wafer every Sunday morning isn't as bad for you asswallowing a smidgeon of MDMA every Saturday night, but in terms of helping you love your fellow man, there's little to choose between them.


The "runner's high" that drives exercise addicts on is just one of the pleasure stimuli that makes exercise the most addictive pastime in modern life. There's also the rush of glee that comes from enumerating the components of your workout in forensic detail when talking to fatter, lazier, workmates. Throw in the profit margins on gyms, figures that would make the Cali Cartel think twice, and you have one of the most pernicious addictions of our age. Luckily, I have a remedy. It's only twelve steps from your sofa to the fridge. There's probably wine in there. Take two large glasses. If the urge to exercise persists, take two more. If things get really bad, try crisps.

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