Why Does Distraction Feel So Good?
Have you ever found yourself pulling out your phone to look something up or send a quick email, and then thirty minutes later, you’re wondering what just happened? How did you just eat up a half hour of your time scrolling through social media or thumbing through clickbait headlines?
I have certainly tumbled down the wormhole of enticing articles and spent way more time than intended on my device. I often feel like I’m researching the work I’m just about to start, or that I have a few minutes to spare and I’m keeping in touch with friends and family through social media. After the screen goes black, however, I feel regret, and often wish I had that time back. Why did I follow that same bait once again?
I just heard a podcast that illuminated why we keep falling for it. Ellen Petry Leanse wrote a book called The Happiness Hack, which explains our reward systems, and how to work with these natural tendencies of our minds in order to feel happier.
Dopamine provides a short-term reward each time we get that notification, or scroll to the next picture. We are hard-wired to scan our environment for treats (back in the day, this might have been a grub on a tree), and each time we find one, we get a dopamine hit. In that moment, it feels good. Habits develop and fuel themselves, and we find that we’re using basic behavior training (think Pavlov’s dogs) to reinforce that reach for the device.
Leanse argues that serotonin is the hormone that creates a longer sustaining sense of happiness and fulfillment. We get serotonin rewards for making sacrifices toward long-term goals, especially those that resonate with our personal integrity or sense of purpose. For instance, sacrificing a lazy Saturday morning to volunteer in service to others creates a sense of meaning in our lives, and in the long run, this makes us happy.
This made me think about Victor Frankl dedicating his life to making meaning. His seminal work began while surviving in Nazi concentration camps. He learned that even in these dire circumstances, surrounded by the most grotesque cruelty and suffering, he found meaning in his life by acting generously toward his fellow captives, and helping them sustain hope. This gave him the will to live through the experience. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he tells this story then goes on to talk about his work developing logotherapy, which centers around the belief that our primary motivator is our “will to meaning.”
Leanse worked for Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, and she knows very well the ways that marketing has directly tapped into our tendency to crave distraction. She claims that our dopamine experience has been hijacked by the onslaught of media and technology in our lives.
Most of us would say that this doesn’t actually make us happy. It feels like a trap, because it is. Distraction is manufactured in order to buy the valuable asset of our attention.
In her book, Leanse offers practical techniques to reclaim focus, have more time, and reduce stress by engaging serotonin cycles. “It’s the happiness you work for. It’s true satisfaction. It’s when you have done something that personally expresses you and your unique talents and purpose in a way that serves others, or allows you to grow,” says Leanse.
“Compared to what I call the tequila shot happiness of dopamine, which is on the counter and you shoot it, and then you go, ‘Oh, what was I thinking?’ This is the one where you go, ‘No, I’m pushing it away. I have to be with friends tomorrow. I have a hike in the morning. Or I have work tomorrow.’ And you have this feeling of satisfaction.”
It’s knowing you took the action that lines up with your integrity. “That’s the serotonin satisfaction that I believe is largely getting hijacked by these externally created dopamine experiences.”
Learning about these different reward cycles has made me think twice about picking up my phone in those “few spare minutes.” I’ve been contemplating instead what I’d rather be doing, such as noticing my surroundings, enjoying my food, or connecting with loved ones “IRL.”