Our addiction to digital pleasure is making us more miserable
Despite all the technology that connects us, much of it there supposedly to make our lives easier and better, people have never been more depressed.
A case in point: the UK’s National Health Service disclosed last week that a record number of antidepressants were prescribed in England last year.
Worldwide the figures are no more reassuring. World Health Organisation statistics showed that more than 322-million people were afflicted with depression worldwide in 2015, about 4.4% of the global population.
What’s equally concerning is that the numbers keep increasing. In the past decade they have gone up 18.4%, affecting both developed and developing countries.
This state of global psychological misery runs counter to the message that greater digital connectivity, faster access to goods and services and instantaneous gratification through frictionless systems is the pathway to universal happiness.
Have the peddlers of hi-tech systems, in their obsession to quench our short-term desires for their own profit, inadvertently become part of the problem rather than the solution? In a forthcoming book entitled The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist with a background in neuroscience, makes a compelling argument that this may indeed be the case.
Part of the issue, according to Dr Lustig, is that in the modern age we have come to conflate pleasure with happiness. Pleasure, he notes, is all about the phenomenon of reward. This can be achieved by way of everything from impulsive shopping sprees to outright substance abuse. Happiness, on the other hand, is a state of general contentment that requires little in the way of a trigger.
The difference is important because chronic excessive reward eventually leads to both addiction and depression, the exact opposite of happiness. Moreover, a vicious circle is often created, whereby the victim attempts to deal with the resulting depression by indulging even more in the original activity. Dr Lustig’s most famous work in this area focuses on the role played by sugar addiction in the obesity epidemic.
Yet the marketing strategies of big businesses, which have perfected the art of exploiting our pleasure inclinations for the purpose of addicting us to their products — often through digital advertising and clickbait — hardly take these depressive consequences into consideration. In the process, many of us have become addicted to the cleverly constructed short-term reward hits these corporations have unleashed on us — think of compulsive phone, e-mail and social media checking, even clickbait, gaming and digital "nudging".
Why we may not have seen this coming is that many of these compulsive behaviours have little to do with traditional substance abuse, even if they may eventually lead to it. For the most part the dopamine hits delivered are more akin to those associated with extreme sports or gambling.
Nevertheless, the effects on our psychological state may be the same. Over time our brains become conditioned to hoping that each click leads to a bigger and better hit than the last, or that the next social media response will be more flattering to our ego than the one before.
The associated feelings rarely, however, lead to happiness or fulfilment. On the contrary, the constant approval and attention seeking on social media can leave us vulnerable when the responses aren’t what we hope them to be.
Should it, in that case, be a surprise that more connectivity, more social media and ever more instantaneous access to pleasure is leading to widespread depression?
Not convinced? Ask yourself how you felt the last time you had to be parted from your mobile phone. If the answer was anxious, restless and distraught, you may have more of a habit than you thought.
© The Financial Times Limited 2017