Modern Addiction

In Chasing the Scream, author Johann Hari explores the root causes of addiction and potential ways to treat it through talking with doctors, drug users, and friends of family of those who have been affected by the drug war.

One surprising theory put forward by this book questioned the basic assumptions I had surrounding drug addiction and addictive personalities in general. There is lots of research backing the chemical explanation of drug addiction — your body gets hooked onto the release from taking a certain drug, until the point where there’s an insatiable craving for the release that can only be satisfied by the drug.

But that’s only a tiny sliver of the whole story. Hari also explores how addiction can be caused by traumatic childhood events, and isolation. Isolation from peers, social groups, or society at large. When one feels like they have nothing or no one in their life left to live for, many turn to drugs initially as a coping mechanism and then develop a close bond with both the drug and the subculture that comes a long with it.

Today, addictive behavior isn’t just injecting drugs — perfectly curating your image on social media, scrolling through flashy ads for the latest fancy product, or checking our notifications for the millionth time in a day have all been shown to produce the same biological response as drug addiction. Many of us have some sort of addictive behavior, though society only outcasts those addicted to drugs.

Humans have solved a lot of problems that plagued us in the past, especially for the privileged few — food and shelter is taken for granted by many, and we’ve never been wealthier or more technologically advanced.

Not much progress, though, has been made in making people feel less isolated. Today’s culture is full of misaligned incentives: looking perfect on Instagram or buying that latest gadget is like taking a hit out of a crack pipe — it provides temporary solace, but doesn’t change the extent to which you feel isolated or alone.

Therefore, it’s important to remember the power of connection, community, and strong bonds. No matter how small it seems, simple acts such as reaching out to a friend or family member and asking about their day, or even making small talk with a stranger on the bus can have a disproportionate impact. So can turning off your phone to be fully present with your family at the dinner table, or scheduling an extra hour to spend with friends.

And when we interact with or build technology, asking whether it can promote feelings of isolation and addictive behaviors is well worth the time. Over time, I’m hopeful that we can adapt and use the tools of the modern day to no longer encourage addictive behavior, and instead improve connection, provide a sense of belonging, and reduce feelings of isolation.