The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Difference Between Compulsiveness and Happiness

One of the most striking bits of research lately has been that every study I am aware of of social media finds a correlation between unhappiness and social media use. The more social media people use, the less happy they are. It’s really extraordinary.

I’ve been thinking about this recently. While ill recently I played some Civilization VI (the worst version  of Civilization in its history.)

I found it compulsive. I’d be sitting there, not enjoying myself, yet found myself playing “just one more turn.”

Social media feels much the same. You tweet or put up a Facebook post or comment, or an Instagram picture, or whatever, and then you wait to see if people respond. The responses are intermittent: you can’t entirely predict them, so it’s very strong reinforcement.

The feeling of posting on social media is compulsive. Like one has to check to see if there are responses: like on has to post something new.

It’s not a happy feeling, usually. Instead it feels like addictive behaviour. Perhaps mildly addictive in some case, perhaps seriously in others.

I find happiness, right now, for me, happens most often while listening to music. It isn’t compulsive at all. I enjoy it, I stop when I have something else to do. It’s relaxed.

Dopamine hits aren’t particularly enjoyable. They’re just demanding: compulsive. “Do more of this.”

Happiness is something else. Not compulsive. Optional.

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  1. scruff

    If you can break someone’s spirit at a young enough age, all sorts of ridiculous things can start to look like happiness, no matter how much they restrict a person’s present awareness or future potential.

  2. People with Parkinson’s are short on Dopamine. Pretty sure we don’t get “dopamine hits,” which may be why social media doesn’t really do anything for me in any general sense. I do mildly enjoy conversing with people who I know in real life, but other than that… I comment in discussions here and elsewhere, but not all that often, and not in lengthy conversations.

    Maybe my damaged substantia nigra is saving me some aggravation.

  3. Eric Anderson

    Happiness is predictability.
    The variable reward schedule works so well because it keeps us constantly chasing after what our brain thinks “should” be a predictable reward.
    Compulsion is the chase.
    It’s not happiness. It’s the chase for happiness, which, ultimately if not fulfilled leads to cortisol producing stress.
    Compulsion is simply the word we use for the efforts we undertake to alleviate stress.

  4. Herman

    Social media platforms are deliberately designed to be addictive. Given that and the negative mental health consequences of social media and smartphone use I hope one day we will see Silicon Valley as being as evil as Big Tobacco. There is no doubt in my mind that social media and smartphones are partially to blame for the big recent upswing in suicide particularly among young people who spend so much time online.

  5. highrpm

    what’s the difference between happiness & contentment. i think i’ll choose to pursue trying to stay contented. i like richard wiseman’s simple insight, self help is in doing. focus on the individual steps, i.e., the next step. rather than on the bigger/ big picture of the completed work. just do it and try to forget the consequent dopamine reward hits.

  6. Blogging is an ego trip, for sure.
    Randomly throwing out your self-expression is a capriciously crap-shoot manner, then pondering who might read or come across what you stated, and how certain types of people might respond to it .

  7. Stirling Newberry

    Work on your book.

  8. Jagger

    —-self help is in doing.—– I agree. Watching some entertainer doing is not doing something yourself. Having a project and the sense of accomplishment in completing a project is doing something. Completion that helps an individual achieve a sense of self worth, confidence, independence and self satisfaction. Excessive time spent on media, entertainment, social media, etc. is time not spent achieving something worthwhile. And we only have a limited amount of time.

  9. steeleweed

    @highrpm is on the right track IMO. Happiness is overrated and contentment lies elsewhere.

    Joe Bageant wrote:

    “All his life he had made his own world with his hands, and fixed it the same way. I’d watched him and [Uncle] Nelson make hickory axe-handles, hoe handles, and oaken mallets, and watched them smooth out the hickory and oak wood by scraping the handles with large shards of broken glass, a practice that went back to pre-sandpaper colonial times. They were quiet and thoughtful as they worked — with their long, patient strokes, handle in lap, pulling the glass along the contours — in what I don’t think it would be exaggerating to call a metaphysical, reflective space. … Pap had learned it from his father, and Nelson had learned it from Pap, and by watching, I learned it from them.”

    A farmer plowing a field engages his body and his mind in a soul-satisfying activity, meaningful and useful, which ties him to thousands of years of humanity. Contentment lies in getting down the the basics. The only other thing I know that provides the same level of total participation – mind, body, spirit – and with worthy results, is Art.

  10. Hoarseface

    I’m curious about your opinion of Civ 4. I’ve been playing since the original and IV seemed to me like a quite solid entry in the series. What bothered you about it?

  11. “Addiction” is a problematic concept to apply to MMORPGs and social media. Psych researchers overplayed the negative and it bit them in the ass with Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n. Then followed a moral panic, and repressive regulatory crackdowns, pathologizing and criminalizing gamer kids, mainly in China and other Asian countries. Meanwhile, the precise nature of the harm (impact on reading, thinking, prosocial behaviour) has not been adequately examined.

    I find university students fairly receptive to all this now but also very weary and worn down. They know they are casualties, that they were misled and damaged by parents and elders. What they may want is clear direction in a way forward, but their intuitions now are socially conservative (if not totally reactionary), and the people who offer appealing answers are the Jordan Peterson types. Canada has some shocks coming that should not be as surprising as they will be.

  12. Ian Welsh

    Good points Dan. I play games and don’t think they’re bad overall. Gamification can be problematic sometimes, is all.

    And yes, we have fucked up the youngs in certain ways.

  13. Eric Anderson

    Dan Knauss:
    Strides are being made in addiction research. Determining the mechanism is, of course, the first step. This link is fascinating in that regard:

    It is evidence supporting the disease model. That said, if you go to an open AA meeting you will hear participants talk about the “compulsion” to drink with great frequency. The compulsion is the disease, generally thought to impact 8% of people. The article pegs it higher in rats at 10-15 percent.

  14. Billikin

    “The more social media people use, the less happy they are. It’s really extraordinary.”

    It’s not so extraordinary if the causation works the other way: The less happy people are, the more social media they use.”

    OC, the causation can go both ways. A person with an impoverished social life in the real world can socialize online and be happier than otherwise, but still less happy than people with a full and rewarding social life in the real world. At the same time, people, for various reasons, can become addicted to online social media and waste time with less rewarding social interactions than they could get face to face.

  15. Billikin

    Let us not forget that the basic meaning of addiction is a bad habit.

  16. Jonathan

    When I was growing up, I was taught that the goal in life was NOT happiness, but contentment. It is mandated in the Bible.

    Philippians 4:11-13 King James Version (KJV)

    11 Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.

    12 I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

    13 I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.


    1 Timothy 6:6-10 King James Version (KJV)

    6 But godliness with contentment is great gain.

    7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.

    8 And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.

    9 But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition.

    10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

    Of course, advertising works because it is possible to sell goods for the pursuit of happiness. Hard to sell anything if the goal is contentment.

  17. bruce wilder

    Let us not forget that the basic meaning of addiction is a bad habit.

    Yeah, . . . hmmm . . . no.

    Habits get entangled with addictions all the time but the experience of addiction and habit are quite distinct and I expect are founded in completely different mechanisms.

    Non-metaphorical addictions — as, for example, addiction to morphine or nicotine or methamphetamine, and perhaps alcoholism in alcoholics — include powerful physiological phenomena as reinforcers or motivators of psychology and behavior.

    When I quit smoking a zillion years ago, I struggled with habits for sure: what to do with my hands, an almost compulsive need to suck on something, a pen, a fingernail, just wanting the ritual ceremony of “lighting up” and so on. Nothing compared to the deep longing to feel that surge of nicotine calming and focusing my nerves.

    Even loose talk about the role of dopamine or serotonin recognizes that social media and electronic devices are shaped around reinforcers in ways that can tap into some kind of physiological change that mimics better understood addictions to, say, pain-killers.

    Making habits into metaphorical addictions misunderstands both habit and addiction, I think.

  18. Billikin

    @ Bruce Wilder

    Sorry, Bruce. Addiction as a bad habit is not metaphorical; au contraire, addiction as, for instance, drug dependency is a specialized sense of addiction. The latter often involves permanent or semi-permanent brain damage. Addiction to detective novels or to TV game shows or to jogging or to social media does involve changes in the brain, but so does the formation of any habit.

    We may be seeing a language change in which addiction is losing its more general meaning, but that has not happened yet.

  19. Eric Anderson


    Did you, by chance, read the link I posted above in response to Mr. Knauss?
    You may want to.

  20. Billikin


    Thank you for the link. I am not surprised at evidence of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. But addiction is a broader term than disease or disorder. (BTW, I make no claims to be an expert, but I did make a study of addiction as an undergraduate some 30 years ago, so I am not clueless.)

  21. robotpliers

    Same, but for Civ IV. I’ve completely played out that game, but every so often I fire it up again, have fun for a day or two of playing time, then the same old grinding “let me just finish this game” feeling comes out and I keep wanting the next turn but feeling worse every turn. Been playing Fallout 4 after having it sit on my computer for three years gathering digital dust, but thanks to having kids I can’t play for more than two hours at a time every couple days. Much more enjoyable when you pull yourself away and play only a little bit instead of marathons.

    Growing up, my parents gave me near-unlimited time to play video games as long as I still did my school work and received good grades. In retrospect, I missed out on a lot of time to learn or hang out with friends–virtually all I did outside of schoolwork was play games. My kids will still be allowed games, but I think we’ll restrict it to a single morning or evening one day per week. Maybe Sunday morning video games.

  22. steeleweed

    I have written a good deal elsewhere about addiction, but the bottom line is that while genetics may play a role, it’s a small one, mostly affecting one’s physical responses. Some may be more affected by alcohol just as some are more likely to get diabetes – people physically process things differently, which changes the effect, making addiction to XXX more likely. That does not explain addiction to gambling, shopping, high-risk activity, etc.

    I smoked for over 40 years and quit several times, sometimes for months, but remained a smoker and for a week or so had withdrawal symptoms. A ‘dry drunk’ who hasn’t had a drink in 20 years is still an alcoholic. One morning I woke up and found that smoking was ‘ego dystonic’. I stopped being a smoker, which is qualitatively different from simply stopping smoking.

    Talking with an alcoholic friend, I said, “You can get up at AA and say you’re an alcoholic. Can you get up and say you’re 97 years old”? He replied that it would’t be true but he could certainly say that’. I asked if he could say he was a pedophile who raped babies. He was horrified and vigorously protested he could never say such a thing. I said, “Why not? You could say you were 97, which wasn’t true. Why not say you’re a baby-rapist when you know it’s not true?” He had no answer. I told him, “When you feel the same way about saying you’re an alcoholic, you will no longer be an alcoholic.

    Remaining addicted – to anything – requires an accepted self-identification. We may wish we weren’t an addict but we recognize ourselves as such. When that self-identification changes, we change.

    The implication, of course is that the best way to change behavior is to change the self-image.

  23. fcsquad

    I tend to agree with this Kurzgesagt video:

    Addiction is less about the physiology of the specific behavior involved than it is about, well, the rest of the person’s life, basically. Granted, in some ways our toxic society is a “given” and the person’s life environment might seem unchangeable (and therefore this perspective might seem theoretical), but I think it’s important to keep it in the back of our mind nonetheless. Good jobs and a nurturuing, just society would go a lot further to fight the social problem of addiction than, say, “cracking down,” as I think the relative experiences of the U.S. and Portugal demonstrate pretty well.

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