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Addiction Reality Check - The Pleasure Trap

In the first three chapters of The Pleasure Trap, we are presented with the idea that our choices are all focused on one of three goals: to seek pleasure, to avoid pain and to conserve energy. Drs Lisle and Goldhamer call this our Motivational Triad.


The Motivational Triad?


These are our treasures, goals which when reached provide us with an overwhelming feeling of happiness in the form of dopamine – huge bursts of ‘happiness’.


Our bodies are unable to sustain these bursts for long periods of time so in between the bursts we require some guidance along the way, just to keep us on track. That guidance comes to us through the sustainable release of serotonin which bathes us in small waves of happiness; reassuring us that we are on the right path towards our much sought-after treasures.


This is a great system. Symbiotic. Balanced. Flawlessly Designed.


 

Wrench in the System?


Well, it was a great system. Maybe it still is, but the world in which it functions is no longer hospitable or welcoming to its rhythms and needs. This action/reward system worked optimally when to attain our treasures, more than a click of a mouse or a scan of a credit card was necessary. A time when treasures were hunted not ordered online.


So, what happens to us when we no longer need to hunt but still have within us an instinctual action/reward system which is dependent on the scarcity of treasures for optimal functioning?


Our own motivational triad works against us, trapping us as we are faced with the hyper-conveniences of modern life. Our instinctual drives cannot keep up with our ability to find treasures in an instant.


Every instant. Of Every Day. Of Every Week. Of Every ... you get the point!



This level of dopamine driven happiness is not sustainable. We overload. We overdose. We gorge ourselves on dopamine and when our grey matter cannot handle the rush any longer, we crash into a deep pit of craving and desire; eager to find that next big treasure as quickly as possible.


Our bodies scream out for help, but it is too late. We are addicted. Over and over again, we repeat this deleterious behavior.


Addiction is a deceptive beast. And there exist more addictive substances, activities and beliefs than perhaps we would like to accept. First, what does ADDICTION mean? According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine,


“Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”




It is that last part that has guided me to consider which substances and behaviors I define as addictive. My first exploration is to identify what I would consider to be harmful consequences from my own choices. My definition has changed over the years, as I have changed over the years. As such, I find it prudent that I conduct a re-assessment of my new ideas.



One new ‘harmful consequence’ for my life would be poor health metrics like blood pressure or blood sugar. I am certain that in my earlier years I did not consider these metrics when deciding what to consume or how to behave, and my choices for both substances and activities were decidedly skewed towards the unhealthy. Harmful consequences? I am not sure I thought about ANY consequences!


In the past, substances such as heroin or cocaine or alcohol or cigarettes would come to mind as addictive. Indulging in these substances becomes compulsive for the user and use continues even though the consequences can be catastrophic. Pretty clear line from A to B with those, right?




In the past, I did not think twice about my behaviors having any long term, mortal, consequences. Maybe a bit of a hang-over, but nothing serious, right? Now I think about the impact on my liver and heart and find I am behaving differently.



All of these new perspectives about what it means to live well changes how I view which things in my life I now consider to be addictive (compulsive and harmful – using the definition above as our guide). Allow me to share two that readily come to mind.


Salt.


I know that when I have salt, I crave more salt the following three days and struggle sometimes with the temptation.


I know that my blood pressure rises and my kidneys work less efficiently (trying to be polite).


I know that my skin feels drier and my thirst is intense. I know that these are symptoms of what could be serious issues beneath the surface. And yet, I still have salt sometimes.


Compulsive consumption = harmful consequences = Yup, addictive1,2,3




Sugar.


I know that when I have sugar, I cannot stop until the sugar source is gone! And I mean ALL GONE!!


Literally (yes, I mean literally) finding myself searching the pantry for any processed sugar source that could be lurking in the darkness between the beans – a search undertaken as I am still enjoying the last bite of chocolate melting in my mouth.


I can easily enjoy an entire bar of vegan salted caramel chocolate – the SOS HIT SQUAD. A triple knock-out punch for multiple organs all at once.


Back to sugar – I want more immediately. I know that my blood glucose spikes and remains spiked through the night sometimes. I know that my heart beats more quickly and my blood pressure is unstable. I know that I feel nervous and sometimes a little irritated, especially when I cannot find more sugar! I know that these are symptoms of what could be serious issues beneath the surface. And yet, I still have sugar sometimes.



Compulsive consumption = harmful consequences = Yup, addictive4,5


 

But what about other substances? Cheese? Health Drinks? Processed Vegan Foods? Supplement powders and pills? Being confrontational?


What about other activities? Scrolling social media? Watching television? Reading only the headlines and summary of new information? Being unkind?



What about other beliefs? About optimal nutrition? About health? About commitments and goals? About relationships? About our purpose? Being judgmental?


To which ‘conveniences’ in our modern-day world of instantaneous happiness, are we addicted? We could think about any food – substance – activity – thought pattern – belief system – any thing which we do or feel compulsively; and in that doing or feeling our lives are not made better or healthier, instead we are left emptier and more needy. Are those not our addictions?



Remember the Motivational Triad? Drs Lisle and Goldhamer tell us that this is our instinctual feedback system, the driving force behind every choice we make. A system which relies on smooth waves of happiness combined with occasional, intense bursts of joy. Symbiotic. Balanced. Sensitive.


When we overload this delicate system and disrupt its balance, we mute our ability to properly decipher the messages. Over time our motivational triad’s goals are perverted. We confuse what is painful with what is pleasurable and we devote more time in fixing our health than in efficiently attaining it in the first place. We may very well have evolved into the antithesis of our natures; and the consequences are profound. We actively seek out Pleasure Traps and call that ‘the good life’. I suppose it all depends on how you define ‘good’.


 

Knowledge to Wisdom


Knowledge – our instincts could serve us well, leading us to optimal health

Wisdom – we can listen to our instincts and break free of our Pleasure Traps in order to truly live the good life


Note: this post was originally published in 2022


 
Citations
Morris MJ, Na ES, Johnson AK. Salt craving: the psychobiology of pathogenic sodium intake. Physiol Behav. 2008;94(5):709-721. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.04.008
Cocores JA, Gold MS. The Salted Food Addiction Hypothesis may explain overeating and the obesity epidemic. Med Hypotheses. 2009;73(6):892-899. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2009.06.049
Brown RB. Sodium Chloride, Migraine and Salt Withdrawal: Controversy and Insights. Med Sci (Basel). 2021;9(4):67. Published 2021 Oct 30. doi:10.3390/medsci9040067
Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
Wiss DA, Avena N, Rada P. Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:545. Published 2018 Nov 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00545

 

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