I heard a quote a couple of days ago that has stuck in my head and incessantly keeps repeating in my mind. It is this simple phrase:
Addiction is a progressive narrowing of the things that bring you pleasure.
It was stated by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neuroscientist. It hit me between the eyes and I can’t stop thinking about it. It struck me because I’ve noticed over the past few years that I’m finding less pleasure in a variety of things that formerly may have energized me and immense pleasure in a few activities and people. The problem has become that when I’m not doing those things or with those people, I experience a sense of dread—sometimes mild, sometimes pronounced—because what I’ve come to label as the mundane simply don’t do it for me anymore. In other words, I’m experiencing the narrowing that Huberman talks about.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that I’ve also gotten more particular. I have far less tolerance for bullshit or inane conversation so the people I enjoy hanging out with has been narrowing. I can’t stand the nonsense on social media so I generally stay off of it. I find a lot of the news media manipulative, hyperbolic, and much of the time, just dishonest so I don’t read or listen to it. I pick up a popular book and find it superficial or repetitive against everything else I’ve read so I read a couple of chapters and set it down. I even find the attempts to be creative tedious because I continually remind myself how many past attempts to produce something I’m proud of have failed.
As this list gets longer over time, I find myself gravitating to the much shorter list of things I actually do enjoy. Those few friends that challenge me. Travel to places I love or have never been. That rare book that opens up dark corners in my intellectual and emotional life. In a way, I’ve become addicted to these things and that addiction has progressively narrowed my ability to find pleasure in everything else.
In a very real sense, this is a disease of getting older. When I was a young man I couldn’t figure out why a lot of older people I met seemed so grouchy and intolerant. I’m realizing that as people age (or, let’s say charitably, become more mature), many just start selectively filtering what they’ll allow in their lives and they have come to appreciate and focus on the things that bring them happiness. They’ve learned, either intentionally or subconsciously, to say no to everything else. If not managed this can turn into intolerance and rigidity. And, what the Huberman quote brought to the surface is that it can be a kind of addiction.
So perhaps the key is to learn to selectively filter but also to find small pleasures in anything you decide to spend time on and, perhaps most importantly, open yourself up to new things—create a progressive expansion of the things that might bring you pleasure. In thinking about the Huberman phrase this week, I came to appreciate the selective filtering that aging and maturity has brought. But I also realized that I’m leaving a lot on the table if I don’t allow myself to find pleasure in dozens of other ways that I may not have experienced yet.
I’ve become addicted to the things I love. But perhaps there or more addictions I haven’t yet found. Between the two is, perhaps, the sweet spot.