Are Your Favorite Things Actually Addictions?

From junk food to junky TV, it could become an addiction

I love coffee. A lot. I think about it before I go to bed at night and avoid any morning activities that might keep me from brewing and sipping my beloved beverage to my heart’s content. I’ve never gone long enough without coffee to find out if I would suffer from caffeine withdrawals, but I suspect that I couldn’t go more than a day without it. I realize that my behavior is a bit excessive, and that it might even border on addictive. But is it cause for concern?

A column on BBC News this week explores the idea that anything -- from Diet Coke to work to exercise -- can be addictive. If it stimulates the reward area of our brain, argues Mark Griffiths, Ph.D., a psychologist and gambling expert, there’s potential for abuse. Scientific studies back up his claim; over the past few years, for instance, we’ve seen headlines proclaim that our favorite guilty pleasures like junk food, Facebook and tanning can all be habit-forming.

So how do we know if our chocolate habit or love of bargain hunting has taken us to the dark side?

Griffiths explains it this way: “The difference between excessive enthusiasm and addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life, whereas addiction takes away from it. For any behavior to be defined as addictive, there have to be specific consequences such as it becoming the most important activity in the person's life or being the way they improve their mood.”

Well, when you put it that way, I think my coffee habit just barely squeaks by, on account of my drinking the stuff only once a day. But it does make me question one of my husband’s proclivities.

Ryan’s most loyal companion is his iPhone. He gets itchy when he can’t check his Facebook account or demolish his opponent in a game of Words With Friends. I used to enforce rules like, no iPhone when we’re out at dinner, but somehow his phone snuck its way back to the table. I think it had something to do with his excusing himself to go to the bathroom more often, and my sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t his bladder calling but rather the latest Red Sox collapse. Whereas I would welcome a vacation in the woods where there were no Internet access, Ryan would consider that less a retreat a more an excursion into hell.

Still, I’m not sure I’m ready to stage an intervention just yet. Cutting his iPhone use might mean I’d have to give my iPhone up as well. And even though I might not need it to function, it's uncomfortable to be without it, and truthfully, I can’t imagine going a day without it. Ditto my coffee habit. Since these compulsions aren’t wrecking my life (yet), for now I’m okay with them. Should I start mainlining my morning Joe or hiding cups of it in my closet, well, then it might be time to reconsider. Until then, I remain blissfully -- if not a little jumpily -- caffeinated. And my husband’s iPhone habit will live to see another day.

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