You don't know it yet, but you are probably addicted 😱

"The modern devil is cheap dopamine" - Naval Ravikant

Throughout history, each generation has been ensnared by a distinct addiction. Alcohol, tobacco, and processed foods trace a familiar arc: celebrated innovations morph into pervasive vices. Initially hailed for their pleasurable effects, these substances soon trigger a race to enhance their potency and availability. This cycle of desire and overindulgence, fueled by profit-driven peddlers and consumers alike, inevitably collides with the limitations of human biology, leading to widespread harm before an eventual and slow course correction.

The Dance of Pleasure and Pain

At the heart of our individual and societal actions lies the intricate interplay of pleasure and pain, directed by our brain chemistry. Evolution has honed our brains to swiftly interpret stimuli as favorable or harmful, prompting corresponding reactions. Originally optimized for immediate survival, our neural pathways evolved over millions of years to include mechanisms for long-term planning and logical thinking, coexisting with more primitive responses.

Victor Finkl once noted, "Between stimulus and response, there's a space. In that space, we have the power to choose the response. In the response lies our growth and our freedom." Addiction erodes this space, allowing our primal instincts to dominate over the logical mind, especially when faced with stimuli that deliver rapid and intense pleasure. This disrupts our neural balance, rendering ordinary life dull and driving a relentless pursuit of more of the addictive substance. This cycle diminishes our capacity for logical thought and regulation to enhance long-term well-being and traps us in a destructive loop of addiction. 

Our Latest Addiction

Like the generations before, our generation now faces a new, insidious addiction. Tristan Harris, an early member of the Gmail team, saw it coming years ago, "We are living in an attention economy, and social media is addictive by design.” Ubiquitous devices flood us with dopamine, the neurotransmitter signaling desire, through endless social media feeds, streaming content, auto-playing 20-second videos, large chat groups, and incessant notifications. This digital deluge has profound impacts on our mental and physical health, diminishing our attention spans and cognitive abilities. We are swimming in it, and drowning.

A personal poll I conducted with friends revealed startling trends: most people reported using their phones for 3-5 hours daily, sometimes accounting for up to a third of their waking hours! They check their phones 6-10 times an hour, often automatically and without intention. On top of phones, they are also on their laptops and TVs. This overuse leads to sleep disruptions, mood swings, strained relationships, loneliness, cognitive decline, and a reduction in healthier, more fulfilling activities like exercising or reading books. Notably, attention spans have plummeted from 2.5 minutes to just 75 seconds over the past decade, mirroring declines in cognitive scores like PISA and ACT. These symptoms align with the classic definition of addiction - uncontrollable engagement in activities that detrimentally impact our well-being. The tools have become our masters. 

These platforms and apps, driven by highly profitable business models that monetize user attention, employ the brightest minds and continuous, large-scale experiments to further enhance their addictiveness. They are even supported by an army of street-level peddlers or "influencers". Meanwhile, reports of their detrimental effects are often dismissed or downplayed by the very corporations that benefit from them. They point to the utility of their platforms and defend every individual's freedom to choose, fully knowing that the upper brain of any regular person stands no chance against this assault on their lower brain. To be clear, there is indeed a lot of utility and joy through these services and devices. In fact, that only makes their addictiveness more dangerous, as they become a necessity that's hard to do without. There’s sewage in the water line. 

Tackling the Digital Devil

Lamenting at companies for following profits and at governments for not being effective regulators is futile. Ultimately, you are responsible for your life. 

If you spend more than 3 hours a day on your phone, unintentionally and automatically reach out to your phone several times a day, or feel fidgety when you are separated from your device, you probably have a problem. The first step to prevent or escape this addiction is the same one as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)'s proven 12-step program - to accept and acknowledge that we are addicted and we don't have power over these devices. 

Depending on your level of use, you will probably need to start with a few days or weeks of abstinence ("digital detox") to reset your pleasure-pain balance and dopamine receptors. You may experience withdrawal symptoms, but eventually, the fog lifts, and you regain the clarity and full capacity of your prefrontal cortex. 

This is a good start, but it isn’t sufficient because you will go back to using your devices again to do essential things - check your email, order an Uber, talk to friends, and read the news - and you will quickly be sucked into the vortex once again. Redefining your relationship with these apps and devices is crucial, and initiatives like The Center for Humane Technology offer some tips and tools here. The best tool that I have found so far is Clearspace. Unlike other unsuccessful approaches that try to forcefully block or restrict your app usage, Clearspace empowers your logical brain to make a decision - by creating a grounding pause after the automatic behavior of clicking an app and allowing you to consciously set a session time limit. 

Beyond technological measures, enriching our lives with engaging, fulfilling activities and practicing mindfulness is vital. Without other activities, the phone becomes the default option. These efforts reinforce our mental resilience, equipping us to resist the lure of digital distractions.

In this digital age of distraction and incessant stimulation, it is way too easy to zombie your way through life and wake up someday with self-doubt and regret. The supreme skill today for your mental health and life satisfaction is to be present, intentional, and indistractable. 

May we live every day of our lives!


1. In addition to personal and anecdotal experience, some of this is informed by Dopamine Nation and The Social Dilemma

2. Many activities and substances, like coffee or exercise, can cause pleasure. Pleasure and enjoyment are okay! Addiction is when: (a) The spikes in pleasure are high and rapid, (b) The extent of the activity isn't self-limiting, and (c) Prolonged and repeated engagement in activity is detrimental to the well-being. You can see how