It takes a considerable degree of unlearning and unplugging to identify that satisfying our deepest cravings can create a cycle of repetitive harm. The scarcity of sugar in the natural world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors planted an evolutionary seed in their brains, leading them, and us in the modern day, to seek out and salivate at the mere sight of that sweet nectar. Our craving for sugar is not, in itself, a negative trope of homo sapiens’ ongoing evolution, but must be recognised as such in a different context. The abundance of food that we enjoy now, the extent to which our forebearers could not have imagined in their most gluttonous dreams, has not lead to a responsible adjustment in our lifestyles. We crave the same things, despite knowing that the severity and increased accessibility to our cravings is scarring our species.
‘The juice ain’t worth the squeeze’
Is the effort we put in worth the specific output we are hoping for? The lengths we push ourselves to achieve certain goals, are they really worth the sense of validation we expect to receive on completion? I’m not entirely certain that it is. It is a relatively common experience that people, when reaching the pinnacle of their ambitions, are not met with this surge of euphoria as they had once envisioned they would. Instead, it is often a momentary feeling of joy or pride, followed quickly by an almost instantaneous re-calibration to their resting mental state; in order words, the anti-climax sets in as soon as the elation has quickly evaporated. And this all happens much faster than we all expect.
Maybe this is why we indulge in substances and habits that prolong heightened moments of ecstasy because we understand from experience that striving to attain that next milestone doesn’t truly scratch that itch under our skin. This does not take away from the marvel of the accomplishment nor invalidate the justifiable sense of joy or pride that they have worked for, but maybe reveals that chasing that ‘high’ is, ultimately, a fruitless endeavour. The time you actually get to spend revelling on the summit of Everest is a blink in time compared to the ascending and descending journeys.
The imagined worlds we have constructed for ourselves online operate on the same reward system. The social media platforms that we all enjoy have primed an environment that taps into an age-old juice; attention and inclusion. Our evolutionary psychology has always driven us towards being valued individually and belonging to a collective, and for good reason. But this was organic and undisturbed, whereas the online spaces we interact in place us in a mousetrap with the juice we crave at the heart of the system.
By sharing more and more of your personal moments, experiences and opinions, you are rewarded by feeling that you are connected to this entity (masquerading as a community) that is larger than yourself. It doesn’t matter if it is the sole contributor to your recurring psychological exhaustion, crippling self-esteem or negative relationships with people offline, you will be rewarded with low-hanging fruit of fleeting validation and wealth at the expense of your privacy and mental wellbeing. Once we were chasing sugar in the jungle, now we are searching for dopamine in a false reality.
What’s more sinister, despite being patently aware of this through documentaries such as ‘The Great Hack’ and ‘The Social Dilemma’, influencers in positions of power on these platforms continue to promote the unhealthy satisfaction of these cravings by wilfully turning a blind eye. It doesn’t matter to them that their presence on the platform indirectly contributes to acts of genocide, greater political polarisation and sharp uptakes in teen suicide and hospitalisation rates; as long as they get their juice.
Like sugar, this juice isn’t, in itself, a negative thing. We just need to re-adjust our lifestyles to manage this craving in a world that is set to exploit it.