Are we addicted to our iPads? Photograph: Getty Images
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Addiction: The key to all mythologies

From alcohol and cigarettes to Xboxes and iPads, modern life can be a minefield of addiction.

When people say they’re addicted to their iPads, they don’t mean addicted, addicted. In his recent book, The Fix (Collins, £18.99), Damian Thompson seeks to extend the meaning of the term, examining our loyalties to everything from iPads to Starbucks to 12-step groups.

While The Fix doesn’t actually upgrade our concept of addiction – there is no glossy new product – it does give the subject a symphonic treatment, with parts for experts and marketers, addicts and consumers. The findings of neuroscience supply the most plaintive high notes; its exotic vocabulary fails to account for our varied resistance to addiction, just as you’d expect it to fail to account for our varied capacity for love.

One contention of Thompson’s book is that prevailing norms can encourage the sense of being addicted. Had Nicotine Anonymous been formed in 1900, its members would have appeared paranoid. But in 2012 it seems obvious that smoking involves the addict’s cycle of anticipation, subversive thrill and shame. Overeaters are not merrily but morbidly obese these days, and a contemporary Marquis de Sade could have met Michael Douglas at a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting.

The distinction between normal and abnormal behaviour is not only changeable through time but questionable in essence. As Charlie Citrine says in Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift: “Once you had read Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, you knew everyday life was psychopathology.” Both Freud and Jung derived their descriptions of “normal” character from the observation of mental illness.

Take obsessive compulsive disorder. The belief of the person who crosses their fingers before a job interview, just like that of a person who relocks a door 60 times to feel calm, is that it’s possible to control the unknowable with magic. The difference is supplied by the range of application. Similarly, some of us have gone shoe-shopping when what we wanted was love – which required us to reason like addicts. On my way to psychotherapy college, I once chatted with a guy who slept rough. “This,” he explained, raising a can of nuclear brew, “is not a drink problem, it is a drink solution.” But to what? The motley bunch of issues that psychiatrists assemble as “addictive tendencies” are ready-made to greet addiction as a ready-made panacea. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution – and the addict’s behaviour continues to replicate the formula like spirals of manky DNA.

All addictions arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack – of heroin, vodka, or new shoes. An addict tries to get “clean”, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.

But heroin is physically addictive, while shoes, surely, are not. The distinction between substance addiction and “process”, or behavioural, addiction might be less tidy than the categories imply. In a process addiction – to sex, for example – a person may well be addicted to the biochemicals she shoots up in the privacy of her own body. The biochemical element in exercise addiction is accepted. Why not in serially unrequited love affairs?

Consumer addiction has required a deep-rooted aetiology. Technology and muffins are now “irresistible”, not only because they are designed to be derangingly cool or delicious but also because we are all more susceptible to the kind of thinking it once took an old-fashioned traumatic childhood to initiate.

The psychiatric term for narcissistic traits developed in adulthood is “ASN” – “Acquired Situational Narcissism”. We recognise it without the fancy definition: raging pop stars who asked for white roses but were damn well given pink, or the supermodel who whops a stern flight attendant in the eye. It’s unlikely that all of these people had abusive parents; more plausible that this is what celebrity can do to personality.

Should fame prove elusive, the delusion that everyone “hearts” you can now be fuelled by Facebook, blogging and Twitter. If only this were a mere 15-minute experience. Even if you don’t semi-religiously pimp up your profile, you can distort your psyche by other means. In the days when wrinkles formed and richly deserved fat could not be suctioned out in your lunch hour, people knew their mortal limitations by looking in the mirror.

Now we live in a time of purchasable miracles – Fat-free! Carb-blocking! Age-reversing! – that diminish our acceptance of ageing, illness and death. Even our workouts are subtly exalted. We are “training”, apparently – but for what? Jennifer Aniston probably had no idea she was endorsing the narcissistic defence of our times when the phrase “because I’m worth it” sprang from her honey-sweet lips.

Once, during the agonies of a slow download, a friend referred to the spinning-wheel Apple icon, which signifies a technical hitch, as “the wheel of death”. When an Xbox crashes, gamers refer to the warning ring around the on/off switch as the “red ring of death”. There’s an existential theme here: what if the download or the game never restarts? Strong-hearted Buddhist monks cruise an analogous mental purgatory every day before breakfast, and a stray pulse of enlightenment has led some western psychiatrists to think meditation may help treat our “pandemic” of mental “disorders”.

For those deprived of a neat diagnosis, meditation can make train delays, or a tardy side order, seem much less injurious to the heart. The Buddhist view of patience as a virtue might be stated like this: every mochaccino you do not send back in anger for a fairer share of foam will gentle your relationship with death.

Marketing has always dealt in wish-fulfillment but it now offers eerily deep reassurances. Of its iCloud, Apple says: “This is the cloud the way it should be: automatic and effortless.” This isn’t a response to need, it’s a drip-drip sedation of angst. How have consumers allowed Apple to feel both appointed and required to offer this? The answer may be familiar. Anyone who believes that anything “should” seem “automatic and effortless” will have a hard time living – and dying. But they will consistently purchase technology. In other words, if this is a problem, then that is a solution.

Our relationship with technology firms may have an impact on evolution, because what we are encouraging is a survival of the weakest. Those of us who can tell the difference between an online relationship and a real one, those who are not interested in spending their days off finessing their software are, increasingly, seen as oddballs or kooks.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad depicts the future of affectionate interfacing: “He hadn’t seen or spoken to Lulu since their meeting three weeks ago; she was a person who lived in his pocket.” Alex and Lulu communicate via text, which they abbreviate as “T”. After relaying to Lulu his childish response at the sight of a rising skyscraper – “up gOs th bldg” – Alex remarks “how easily baby talk fitted itself into the crawl space of a T.”

Novelists have long held this broader, scarier view of addictive behaviour. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published in 1874, portrays a workaholic in the form of Casaubon, who neglects his marriage in order to squint in libraries. The toil of writing his “Key to All Mythologies” (an excellent shorthand for any addictive object) is more compelling – and less demanding – than the charms of his youthful wife.

Most novels are, in this expanded sense, about addiction: a sacred or fetishised object or behaviour is used by a character to displace or to eliminate more overwhelming anxieties. The character either cheats himself to a bitter or bitter-sweet end, or reforms, according to the author’s sensibility.

Jane Austen’s heroine Emma lived in 19th-century England, where well-to-do women were conditioned to addictive thinking on the subject of love. Emma’s struggle to attain self-knowledge is marred by “a disposition to think a little too well of herself”, and demoralised by a society that marketed trinkets, bonnets and red-coats as the proper objects of female concern. Emma’s friends needed husbands then in the way some of us need mobile phones now: in order to feel that they existed.

In F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Jay Gatsby’s desire to win back his ex-girlfriend Daisy, a goal of religious significance to him, turns his criminal activities into acts of supplication. Attempting to prove his piety to Daisy he displays the wealth it has generated: “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green . . .”

It is a gorgeous evocation of narcissism; Gatsby literally calls attention to his colourful surface. And Daisy sobs to see it, not because she understands Gatsby’s impoverishment but because she is overwhelmed to learn she is a goddess. Hollywood actors ought to scroll their fan sites with the same degree of amazement. Fitzgerald has Gatsby die off-stage, face down in a swimming pool, as would have befitted poor Narcissus himself.

It is very disappointing that, as Thompson points out, the reasons for addictive behaviour are so hard to quantify. But it’s not surprising. Their discovery requires a highly trained and peculiarly sensitive human mind. A live brain scan is too primitive an instrument.

Talitha Stevenson is a psychotherapist and writer

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood