Name-Place-Animal-Thing: On Study Drugs, Burnout and Our Tech Addiction

This week’s column deals with how, sometimes, the very things that are supposed to make us happier end up doing the opposite.

Name-Place-Animal-Thing is The Wire’s culture newsletter.  If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing here

Adderall. Credit: Tony Webster/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Adderall. Credit: Tony Webster/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“I needed nothing and no one”

If 10/10 were a human feeling it would probably be the experience of overcoming all our distractions – no need for Buzzfeed/Facebook/Twitter, procrastinating through eating or chatting with friends, just intense, singularly focused attention for the task at hand. A state of “untrammelled focus” as Casey Schwartz calls it in her article for the New York Times. Wanting to be at our most productive and energetic is probably a universal feeling. When it comes to productivity, our parents encourage it, schools and colleges reward it and our jobs simply demand it of us. So obviously, meeting that expectation for others and for ourselves becomes a priority in our lives.

It was precisely this desire to be productive that first drove Schwartz to try Adderall – a prescription amphetamine commonly used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children and adults across the US – in college. When she first took it, she was in her second year at Brown University and needed to pull an all-nighter to read a book and then write a paper about it. (Who isn’t thinking “been there, done that” while reading this?). The state of intense focus and high engagement with her work soon had Schwartz hooked. As she said, “I needed nothing and no one.” The drug helped her access that much-craved level of productivity that most of us have desired at some point and probably achieved a handful of times. For a decade, seeking and then finding that feeling through little pills became Schwartz’s life.

As Adderall usage – both prescribed and not – continues to be ubiquitous in the US, the article raises important questions about the drug, such as how little is known about its long-term effects on the brain, especially on users in their developmental years since the drug is mostly prescribed to children.

But Schwartz’s commendably honest account of her own struggle with Adderall also raises deeper, personal questions about just how much we have come to expect of ourselves and whether pushing ourselves to be productive all the time is a sustainable way of living. And if it really does make us happier or more fulfilled. You might say ‘not all of us turn to drugs’ (especially in India, where all amphetamines are illegal – cocaine, meth, Adderall are all part of the same chemical family) but you can’t deny that the pressure to work as much as you can and as hard as you can is present in India as well.

In a column a few weeks ago, I commented on how toxic Nazi nationalism must have been since housewives, train drivers and soldiers all felt the need to take legally available amphetamines to go about their daily lives and be ideal citizens. I stand corrected – this phenomenon existed in the free, democratic US as well. It goes to show that we all want that 10/10 feeling and it is definitely not undesirable to enjoy working hard, but expecting to feel like that 100% of the time is impossible without a chemical push – Adderall, caffeine, nicotine or your preferred stimulant. It should be okay to have a slow day where you do nothing and also don’t feel the need to justify that laziness by saying “I worked really hard yesterday so I deserve this.” Maybe you just deserve some down-time because you’re human and have physiological needs that extend beyond finishing whatever project you’ve been working on.

We are taught that our worth as a human being is inherently attached to the work we do, how much of it we do and how well we do it. But that is also the metric we use for machines. Take a fridge for instance, how much food can it hold and how effectively can it keep said food fresh? This may just be me, but I don’t think that humans and appliances should be comparable in quite this manner.


Burnout. Credit: Tupinicomics/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Burnout. Credit: Tupinicomics/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What it means to actually burn out

And what happens if we don’t turn to drugs to get us through the day? We may still burn out and end up becoming an “inertial heap” with no desire to do anything. Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst uses two cases of burnout to make a larger point about how the condition is not just the result of being overworked but also indicative of deeper emotional crises. What else would a psychoanalyst say about a life problem, right? But as Cohen acknowledges, perhaps his patients turned to him over other more result-oriented mental health professionals was because they were exhausted from chasing set goals all their lives. If you’re at a point in life where you’ve checked all the boxes and still feel incomplete, you turn to your emotional landscape to see what might have gone wrong. That’s what landed Steve on Cohen’s couch. Steve burnt out and quit his illustrious banking job and is now struggling to re-conceptualise his life on his own terms rather than the set path his parents laid out for him.

Working hard and trying to improve upon your own achievements are desirable traits, more often than not they lead us to a sense of satisfaction and completion. As Cohen describes, “Run a marathon, paint your living room, catalogue your collection of tea caddies, and the tiredness you experience will be infused with a deep satisfaction and faintly haloed in smugness – feelings that confirm you’ve discharged your duty to the world for at least the remainder of the day.”

But burnout occurs when your hard work stops yielding emotional satisfaction. Note that this is not about professional success, it’s about the much ignored and more derided emotional sphere. Cohen continues, “The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced.” It’s like when you have so much to do you can’t bring yourself to even start any of the work you have piled up, so you sit and think about it instead, even as you try to ignore it. Imagine that stretching to every corner of your life for an indeterminate amount of time.

This condition of “melancholic world-weariness” is not an original modern production, it was around in the ancient world, continued to exist during the Renaissance and only became irrevocably linked to modern life in the 19th century. And now, the “cacophony of social media” leaves us more anxiety-ridden than ever. Cohen perfectly captures the excruciating problem of actually taking some time off, “A tormenting dilemma arises: keep your phone in your pocket and be flooded by work-related emails and texts; or switch it off and be beset by unshakeable anxiety over missing vital business.” Sound familiar?

Predictably, though no less significantly, Cohen arrives at the pervasive presence of social media and smartphones as one of the defining characteristics of modern-day burnout. He writes, “And while we wait for reactions to the messages we send out, we are bombarded by alerts on our phones and tablets, dogged by apps that measure and share our personal data, and subjected to an inundation of demands to like, retweet, upload, subscribe or buy. The burnt-out case of today belongs to a culture without an off switch.”

This is hardly new information, we all have complex dependency issues when it comes to our phones. Which partly arise out of the fact that we can’t give them up. We need them for work as well as for friends that we want to keep in touch with but can’t meet on a regular basis. And it’s not like you can just switch off notifications for your work email because your work stretches into your Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter and suddenly your entire life is a big, tangled cellular mess.


Scrolling down. Credit: uditha wickramanayaka/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Scrolling down. Credit: uditha wickramanayaka/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Who controls our phone habits? 

The obvious solution (and also the practically impossible option) is to disengage from our phones by exercising more self-control. But Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, actually thinks that software companies and tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat are responsible for our phone addictions. He told The Atlantic, “You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, but he explains, “that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

The article goes on to break down the processes and rationale that go into making us spend more time on apps and sites – the ‘attention economy’ as the author, Bianca Bosker, refers to it. Most of the software that we use is designed to tap into our “deep-seated human needs” to help us feel rewarded and keep us coming back for more. For instance, the random occurrence of likes, tweets, emails, messages keep us checking our phone at frequent intervals because it feels good to be sought after and connected with people and there’s also an obligation to respond when someone you know reaches out. And as Bosker notes, “rewarding someone with an instantaneous “like” after they post a photo can reinforce the action, and potentially shift it from an occasional to a daily activity.”

Harris’s whole point is that our attention, the thing that we think we have complete control over, is actually manipulated and conditioned by a large group of people who are not interested in us moving away from our phones at all. Their goal is, in fact, the exact opposite – to keep us engaged as often and for as long as possible. So how do we institute a change in the technology that we consume?

Harris has suggested the idea of software developers taking a kind of Hippocratic oath to be more ethical and consider consumer welfare while designing software but from a purely business-oriented perspective, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. So Harris’s immediate project is to create products (to be sold at a premium) that will help alleviate the constant mental din caused by social media. The immediate and obvious problem would be that the rich and financially secure, who can anyway afford to take time off and disconnect, would find it even easier to do so while the not-so-fortunate would continue struggling.

I may not agree with Harris on his commodified solution but I do agree with his vision of technology. According to Bosker, Harris thinks that “Technology should give us the ability to see where our time goes, so we can make informed decisions—imagine your phone alerting you when you’ve unlocked it for the 14th time in an hour.”

He adds, “technology should help us meet our goals, give us control over our relationships, and enable us to disengage without anxiety.”

If you think about it, that’s the original promise of technology – to make our lives easier, to enhance our interactions and connections to others and also increase our productivity. Ethical design would help us move back to that idea. I want my phone to help me feel more relaxed and not serve as the venue for fulfilling my sense of obligation to work, to friends and to society at large.

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.

Read Comments