The wisest man of his time tells us that seeking pleasure is common—and, in many ways, fruitless. We seek it, but it does not give us what we ultimately need, which is to find our purpose and meaning in God. It is a temporary relief from pain.

We all want to avoid pain, and seeking relief from our everyday struggles leads to our everyday addictions. Seeking relief from our problems leads us to the very substances and activities that alter our brain chemistry and have us running back for more regardless of the negative consequences.

Brain Damaged

I’m being serious when I say that we’re all brain damaged.

Addictions have been clearly linked to certain chemicals released in the brain, thus leading us to seek certain forms of relief again and again. Because we’re all part of the mass of everyday addicts, we’re all, by definition, a bit brain damaged.

An illicit drug is taken the first time by choice to relieve depression or stress or for recreational purposes. We become involved in an activity because it is enjoyable. Soon, however, our ability to choose is weakened. Why? Because repeated drug use or certain repetitive and compulsive activities disrupt well-balanced systems in the brain. Repeated use of marijuana, cocaine, or alcohol causes a surge in levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, resulting in a feeling of pleasure. (And remember, we’re all suckers for pleasure.) The brain remembers this feeling of pleasure and wants to repeat it, thus creating a dependency that can soon become an addiction.

Brain researchers have discovered that particular activities can trigger the release of our own feel-good drugs called endorphins. Although these natural pain-relieving neurotransmitters make us feel good, we can also become addicted to them. Thus, when addicted gamblers or shoppers are satisfying their cravings, endorphins are produced and released within the brain, creating a high and reinforcing the people’s positive associations with the activity. As with illicit drugs, consistently engaging in addictive activities is also believed to cause excessive stimulation and leads eventually to tolerance and dependence.

Addictive substances and behaviors also affect regions of the brain that help us control our desires and emotions. The resulting lack of control leads addicted people to compulsively pursue substances or activities even when these substances or behaviors are no longer intrinsically rewarding.

Gerald May, in his wonderful book Addiction and Grace, helps us understand how all of this applies to our commonplace, everyday addictions. “The same kind of cellular dynamics apply to nonsubstance addictions. If we had been talking about addiction to money, power, images of ourselves or of God, we could have said much the same about what happens to our nerve cells.”

May goes on to offer us a very practical example of how little habits can become addictive.

Consider a very minor addiction, one that seems to harbor no special destructiveness. Let us say that I have established a routine of having a cup of coffee and reading the paper before starting the day. I enjoy the quiet, undemanding quality of this time and would be loathe to call it an addiction. But, I have been engaging in this little routine for years, and the cells of my brain have become adapted to it. They are used to the whole sequence of the time: the gentle slowness of waking up, the familiarity of my favorite chair, the gradual stimulation of the reading, the friendly jolt of the coffee’s caffeine playing out its own little addiction fix, the sounds of the house waking up all around me. All the countless sensations and behaviors of this time become mutually associated in patterned sequences of synapses, with billions of cells having become adapted to certain amounts of neurotransmitters in certain ways at certain times.

Were this pattern to become disrupted, May would feel the irritability and shakiness associated with withdrawal symptoms. Although his symptoms would be far less severe than those of alcoholics coming off binges or drug addicts coming down from their drug of choice, a vast number of brain cells would still be involved.