Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Purify pt.1: The happiness fishbowl

When I wrote my obsessions post, I should have made it more clear that when I'm talking about obsessions, I don't mean addictions.

I wasn't planning on writing more about addictions after I did that one post on them, because this blog is supposed to be about things I suck at, and addictions are one of those rare things I excel at without equal. I mean that. Give me something, anything, and I'll turn it into an addiction right before your eyes. I was even accused once, at the tender age of ten (in my mom's patented thundering doom voice) of being addicted to Granny Smith apples.

In spite of that, I'm all about sharing my experience if it might help other people to suck less at stuff, so at the risk of ruining the concept of my blog, I'll share what I know. Hell, I'm even turning it into a series, because why not. This first part will mainly be about how addictions aren't the same as obsessions, why they suck so much, and also about fish.

On to the clarification then. The way I see it, obsessions are things that feed you, expand your field of interests, and generally open your world to new kinds of enjoyment. Maybe they'll inspire you to undertake creative endeavors of your own. Yes, even if it's just "fan art". Lord knows I've written enough slash fiction in my life to forego my right to look down on that even a little bit. I'm talking about things like cosplay and GOT dinner parties. You know, fun. I used to be massively obsessed with modding The Sims, which (among other things) ended up earning me enough knowledge about 3-D modelling software to enable me to design and build my own non-virtual furniture. Neat!
Obsessions are also subject to sudden and fickle change ("Done with fish."). Just like addictions, they can lie dormant for years, but unlike addictions, you can usually choose whether or not you want to rekindle them when the impulse arises. As I've argued before, they also tend to make people a lot less boring, but that may just be my personal taste.*

Addictions, on the other hand, work in the exact opposite direction. They narrow your perception down to a very claustrophobic state (as when you're walking around outside after playing Fallout for 18 hours and you have to suppress the urge to pick up every piece of trash to stash it back at your lair), and rob you of your ability to enjoy much of anything else. And instead of suddenly growing bored and moving on to other things, you're pretty much stuck with them.

The funny thing is, aside from substances that directly target the pleasure center of your brain (more on those later), people can vary greatly in the things they get addicted to. All that seems to be needed is that it is a thing that is pleasurable and that we can habitually seek out. Anything goes, from gaming to casual sex or buying shoes. It's not the thing itself that ends up mattering, but the way in which we become adapted to it.

Because our brain is only good at noticing change, anything that earns us an increase in happiness only manages to do so for a brief period of time, after which we get bored with it and move on to different things. (There's a great post about this over at WaitButWhy.) That's fine though, because there are tons of things in the world that have the potential of making us happy.

The problem with addictions is that, instead of becoming disinterested after a while, we only become more fixated on this single thing which then seems to somehow raise the bar for anything else to register as a happy making thing at all.

I even made a graph about this, which as far as I understand it, should do wonders for my presence on Pinterest.

What I'm trying to get across is that for anyone who is addicted to anything, the addiction screws up their ability to enjoy anything that falls below the happiness threshold as dictated by the thing they are addicted to. I picked nicotine as an example because it is the one I personally struggle with the most, but the fun part is that anything you can think of could be put in its place and ruin your enjoyment of the things below the line. Where a normal person's happiness threshold would be somewhere between "sunny day" and "having fingers", to anyone who is addicted to nicotine, none of that bottom stuff would even register as long as they are lacking their fix. If you are addicted to anything serious, you're shit out of luck, because your happiness threshold isn't even on this graph.

I know this isn't a very good graph. I don't even know why time is a dimension, and it makes it seem as though having fingers is just a momentary thing to enjoy before it is gone forever. Basically, I suck at graphs.

I was lying awake at 3 am last night thinking about this, and figured it would make a lot more sense if I drew it as a fishbowl...

I used to be an adventurer like you. Now I'm a fucking fish.

But now I'm not so sure anymore. I mean, it certainly seems more accurate (The nicotine fish is dead! The drug fish isn't even in the bowl, man! The sex fish... seems happy.) but now I'm worried that all I did was drop all scientific pretense and replace it with weird symbolism while also inadvertently illustrating the main difference between analytic and continental philosophy and completely losing sight of what I was going to talk about.

I can already tell this was an excellent idea.

Anyway! Obviously, the only way to reclaim the fun in your life is to re-learn to enjoy what's in the fishbowl below the water. So far, I've found only one way to successfully achieve that, and that's what the next post will be about. I can already give you a spoiler though: it sucks donkey balls!

Until then, I'd love to know about all of your obsessions and addictions. If anyone can beat Granny Smith apples, they get a cherry.

*All of this is of course very much based on personal experience, and should the freaking fishbowl not have tipped you off: there's absolutely nothing scientific about any of this.


  1. LOL! I love the continental fish bowl! I'm still wondering what the seaweed and the coral symbolize though...

    Anyhow, do you also experience this with other addictions? I've been addicted once to some kind of mmorpg (not just some temporary obsession), but I don't remember not being able to enjoy a sunny day or a smile...

  2. It's not that I don't enjoy the smile, it's that everything gets shrouded in this sort of sharp longing to be back in the game reality. As for the sun, I've devised several ways of blocking it out when I'm playing Skyrim in the summer (think multiple tablecloths - basically I turn my room into a blanket fort) :p

  3. Well I recognize the sharp longing to be back in the game reality, but I liked to sunlight as long as it didn't interfere with my ability to play the game...Never felt the urge to bite someone either. :P I guess addictions can manifest themselves differently... :)

  4. Good Lord. I don't know most of your references. Fan art, slash fiction, The Sims? Non-virtual furniture? Is that just actual furniture like the chair I'm sitting on right now?
    I feel like I do when I'm watching a two-year-old recite all.....I don't even know how many presidents there were to finish that sentence. Well in my defense, I am Canadian.

    Love your writing style though, so I guess I'll just have to stumble through feeling like my grandmother.....and use the Google a lot.

  5. You probably shouldn't Google any of those things if you don't want to find out how hugely uncool I am. But yeah, non-virtual furniture is just furniture that exists in our reality. In this case, it was a nifty loft bed with amenities. ;-)

  6. It probably says something about me that I looked at the graph and couldn't quite figure it out, but looked at the fishbowl and said, okay, that makes perfect sense. And I think the seaweed, coral, and bubbles represent those things that don't necessarily make you happy but are comforting parts of your daily life. The bubbles, of course, are ephemeral, like food, if food is something that makes you happy but not happy enough to really register.

  7. I've never heard anyone describe it like this, and I've been in therapy forever. This is perfect.. Thank you so much for this series of posts, unbelievably insightful.

  8. Thank you so much, Ben :-)
    That is truly the best possible compliment I could ask for!
    I have read your post on exercise addiction with great interest, and now I'm even more flattered by your praise. Hope you are doing better now that you were then! (it's 2 years later now, is it not?)