GREY MUTTER: The problem is, smartphone games, movies and YouTube clips are so engaging, so interesting, so addictive. It’s hard to break away. And the reason for that could be that we may be addicted to a pretty powerful ‘drug’, writes Lance Fredericks.
RECENTLY, I had to make a tough decision. The results of this decision made me feel as if I had lost a limb.
To those who do not understand obsessive behaviour it may seem like a small thing, but what I eventually decided to do was to delete a few apps off my smartphone. And yes, when I say “apps” I mean games.
Look, a little smartphone game is pretty harmless in itself. However, if you notice that it’s taking up a bit too much of your time, and you end up neglecting other duties to play a quick round or two, or continue deep into the night to “complete the next stage”, then you may have a problem, and a hard choice has to be made.
But here’s the thing; after I bit the bullet and deleted the apps, I found myself with quite a bit of time on my hands – time that I had not budgeted for.
Without thinking of how I could spend this valuable resource, I decided to watch a quick YouTube video clip, no longer than three minutes, then another, and another and more and more, until I had spent almost three hours watching everything from why gluten is bad for you to a sure-fire cure for tinnitus … and I don’t even have tinnitus!
Though I wasted so much time, there was one good spin-off when I stumbled across a short fable.
The story was told of a lazy vagabond that spent his days either begging from or cheating villagers as he travelled around the countryside.
One day this rascal hopped over a garden wall and started digging up turnips in someone’s backyard. His dishonest plans were derailed when the homeowner caught the thief in the act and chased after him. The scallywag bounded off across a field and ran into a nearby forest. He could hear the voices of a few people pursuing him, so he ran deeper and deeper into the foliage.
Soon he was quite lost, and as he wandered around he came face to face with a large wolf, with fur as black as the night, eyes a piercing yellow and teeth that looked very, very threatening. The horrible little man had a ‘lekker skrik’ and turned to run, but then noticed, to his amusement and relief, that the wolf had only two legs; it was quite cripple and completely harmless.
He started to laugh at his silliness when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a massive able-bodied male lion approaching, carrying a huge slab of meat in its jaws.
This time he didn’t think twice, the terrified rascal scaled a nearby tree, climbing as high as he possibly could. He was sure the lion would dismember anything in its path, including the hobbling wolf.
He was wrong. The lion laid the slab of meat down and allowed his disabled friend to eat his fill.
“That’s what I need,” the young man said. And a few hours later, when he was sure that it was safe, he climbed down, found a clearing a safe distance away from where he had seen the lion and sat down.
He said a short, clumsy prayer, not being used to praying: “Lord, I am hungry. I need food, please.” And then he sat and waited.
And he waited.
Two days later, with hunger gnawing, he got up and started toward the village again, pretty sure that the whole ‘religion-thing’ was a lot of nonsense. As he walked, however, he came across a wise old sage – staff in hand, flowing robes and long, wispy beard – going in the same direction.
As the pair walked, the young man told of his experience of the last couple of days, questioning why he was not provided for like the wolf. The old man listened attentively, kept silent for a while and then stopped as he turned to the famished young lad.
“My boy,” he said with a firm, yet gentle voice, “The lesson you should have learned is not that you are like the crippled wolf; after all you are an able-bodied young man. Don’t be a dope! You are actually supposed to be like the lion; why are you not using your strength to help others?”
The penny dropped. I realised that there are better ways to utilise time.
The problem is, smartphone games, movies and YouTube clips are so engaging, so interesting, so addictive. It’s hard to break away. And the reason for that could be – medical people, please check my reasoning – that we are addicted to a pretty powerful ‘drug’.
You see, a substance called dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain, involved in various functions, including movement, motivation, reward and pleasure is released when we engage in certain behaviours. But sometimes we get what is considered an unhealthy boost of this chemical.
Unhealthy dopamine ‘hits’ are activities or substances that cause a large and unnatural spike in dopamine. These hits can lead to addiction, intolerance and mood disorders. I learned that some examples of unhealthy dopamine hits are activities such as gambling, viewing naughty pictures and videos when no one is around, as well as the obsession with social media and video games.
Additionally, substances that spike dopamine are drugs such as cocaine, heroin, nicotine and, would you believe, caffeine? Also alcohol and consuming junk food and sugary treats will result in dopamine surges.
The problem here is that, sure, you’ll feel good for a while, but when the dopamine subsides, so does your mood, joy, motivation and ‘lus’. Over time, with all these unhealthy dopamine hits, the number of dopamine receptors are reduced, making it harder to feel pleasure from normal, healthy sources.
Then what we’ll end up doing is engaging in the activity, believing that we are enjoying it or addicted to it, when in actual fact, we are addicted to dopamine. We then end up in a loop of diminishing returns, doing more and more of an unhealthy activity and getting less and less of a dopamine buzz.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what healthy dopamine sources are, wonder no more. Simple things like physical activity, doing music and art, volunteering and engaging in acts of altruism, socialising and bonding, and setting goals and reaching achievements can do wonders for the body, brain and spirit, without the harsh crash afterwards.
I suspect that the reason one’s mood stays elevated after engaging in these healthy activities is because of the gratitude associated with these actions.
I need to mention this, gratitude is a powerful remedy for all sorts of ills. In fact, I read that expressing gratitude can improve sleep, enhance mood and boost immunity.
It helps decrease the risk of depression, anxiety and chronic pain, while another source suggests that practising gratitude benefits both the brain and body by reducing the heart rate, enhancing one’s emotion regulation and boosting motivation.
So, rather than us engaging in narrow, time-guzzling, pointless pursuits, why don’t we rather get out there and – like the lion – use our strength and talents to do some actual good, generating a wave of gratitude?
After all, we do not want to be like that rascal I mentioned earlier. Surely you don’t want to be a dope, I mean!