Many of us know of people who are addicted to drugs. Many other people are addicted to pornography. Addictive drugs and pornography are harmful things that we would do well to go without. Some people are addicted to alcohol, and for these, even a simple social glass of wine or beer can trigger a relapse into self-destructive alcohol consumption. Others are addicted to tobacco. But even if we are not addicted to these things, we may be addicted to social media, to binge-watching shows or movies, or to playing video games. We can tell it is an addiction when we find we cannot do without, when we think about it much of the time, and want more and more of it. When we find ourselves in an addictive situation, what to do?
First, it helps to understand what is going on. In our brains there is a chemical called dopamine that drives both “liking” and “seeking”: we like something and dopamine is released in our brains, giving us positive feelings. But dopamine also fuels “seeking”, the desire to find more of the thing we like. This is well and good when gathering berries: “Yum, that berry was good, let’s pick some more!” It’s not so good when scrolling through social media: we can get caught in a “dopamine seeking-reward loop” that keeps us scrolling way longer than we had intended. The dopamine seeking-reward loop is the reason that slot machines exist at casinos. A slot machine is really a mostly-broken vending machine: most of the time we put in your money and get nothing for it. But the occasional win puts us into a dopamine loop that makes us want to put the money in anyway, over and over again. In the end, we put in more money than we win back, and the casino makes money at our expense. Not all dopamine loops are costly to us: consider a jigsaw puzzle, for example, where the occasional pleasure of finding a missing piece keeps us working on the puzzle where otherwise it would be frustrating. But dopamine loops, even about harmless things, are not so good when they keep us seeking too long. And when they become obsessive, when they impair our lives, they can be very harmful: they can enslave us.
The way to address an enslaving dopamine loop is to escape. When dopamine loops start becoming harmful, they need to be interrupted. This often requires a physical act of renunciation: walk away from the bar, turn away from the keyboard, turn off the screen. The first step in doing this is to recognize you are in a loop. The second step is to act on this recognition: stop the loop right away, and consciously and deliberately take yourself out of the situation where it can continue. If you find that you are in a loop but you can’t break it, ask for help, from others and always from God.
Following God is different from being in a dopamine loop. The seeking we are asked to do as Christians differs from the sort of seeking that goes on in dopamine loops in at least two ways. The first is that the reward may be much delayed, too long to sustain a loop; Christians are called to be patient.[2 Peter 3:9, James 5:7] Christians are called to persist in doing good anyway.[2 Timothy 4:2] The second is that the good that Christians are called to seek is often not a good for oneself, but for others [Philippians 2:4]. The main example of this is Jesus himself, dying on the cross while praying for the very people who put him there [Luke 23:34]. While doing good for others can sometimes give us a bit of a boost, by earning the approval of others, Jesus tells us not to do good so it can be seen, in order to avoid exactly this [Matthew 6:1-18]. Clearly dopamine loops are not the goal of the Christian life, which is in many ways structured to avoid them.
This is perhaps to be expected. Christianity is not enslaving, it is freeing. Dopamine loops drive our behavior and make us keep seeking for the desired thing. As Christians, our seeking for the good and the true needs to be conscious and intentional, not driven: we choose to seek for God, not so much because he gives us moments of pleasure (often he doesn’t) but because he is good and worth the effort. Moreover, as Christians, what we should seek should not be for ourselves, where we seek things that reward us and give us pleasure, but for others. Living like this is more difficult than staying in a dopamine loop where our own psychological makeup, fueled by momentary rewards, keeps us going. But living in a dopamine loop is not a deliberate and conscious life, it is life on “automatic pilot”. Unlike a dopamine loop, the Christian life is free, it is intentional, and it is, ultimately, a life truly worth living.