problem-solving, not worrying, is addictive

The main points I learned from Ezra Klein’s interview with Brown professor Jud Brewer may be very widely known already, but they were new to me. This is what I took away …

Anxiety and worrying can be habitual, even addictive. Most people are probably addicted to these behaviors at least some of the time. The mystery is why we would become addicted to something that brings discomfort, not pleasure. One answer is that we are not directly addicted to worrying. The addictive habit is problem-solving.

You wake up in the morning and realize you want coffee. Without expending much mental energy at all, you identify that need, locate the coffee, water, mug, and machine, make yourself a cup, and enjoy it. You experience an arc from the problem to the solution, which repeats many times every day. It brings satisfaction and is deeply habitual, partly because it is adaptive. Solving problems increases the odds of survival.

But what if you cannot solve the problem that you have identified? Perhaps it is beyond your control–you are powerless–or perhaps you cannot address it now. For instance, you will be able to deal with the problem during the meeting scheduled for next Tuesday at 3, but you can’t do anything about it until then.

In such cases, the addictive desire to address a problem causes your brain to turn it over and over, looking for a new way to solve it now. This is anxious worrying. It is unfortunate because it wastes the most precious scarce resource of all–the very stuff of life–which is time. It also tends to reduce your ability to deal with the problem at hand or other problems that may arise, because it may cost you sleep, confidence, mental sharpness, and other useful assets.

Jud Brewer’s recommendation is to replace the addictive behavior with another one that is equally or more compelling. One option is kindness: do something good for someone else. That seems right, except that there may be no available outlet for kindness when you need it. You can’t wake other people up at three in the morning to be nice to them. It is also challenging to shift one’s attention away from oneself when one is anxious.

A different option is curiosity. We are drawn to curious inquiry for much the same reasons that we are drawn to problem-solving: it is adaptive. Answering a question brings satisfaction. Brewer especially recommends asking curious questions about one’s own bodily state. The nervous system is the locus of the anxiety, and one can investigate it with curiosity. “Where do I feel nervous? How does my breath feel?”

I am certainly no expert in the science of happiness or psychological approaches to well-being. But I keep my eyes open for this kind of research, for two main reasons. First, I am always glad to learn useful tips. Second, I am fascinated by the interplay among three questions: 1) What are practical ways to enhance the quality of life (or to reduce suffering)? 2) What constitutes a good or admirable life? And 3) What are metaphysical and epistemological truths that pertain to those two questions? (For instance, is there a benign and omnipotent creator? Does the self exist?) Some people have argued that these three questions fit naturally together: an admirable person knows the truth and attains happiness as a result of believing and doing the right things. I am much less confident about such harmony.

See also: questions about happiness; why we wish that goodness brought happiness, and why that is not so; unhappiness and injustice are different problems; three truths and a question about happiness; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives), etc. etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.