When it comes to addictions during the pandemic, it is simply difficult to say “no”. Drink an extra glass of wine here, eat half a birthday cake while sitting there – whatever it takes to escape the constant tension of life under confinement. That seemed reasonable in March, anyway.
But nine months later, when experience has shown that smoking a pack of cigarettes over and over does not compensate for human interaction, why do bad habits continue to compel us?
The prolonged traumatic or “chronic toxic” stress that most people have been experiencing during the pandemic makes it harder to keep desires under control and, in turn, promotes the illogical pursuit of pleasure, said Dr. Robert Lustig, professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Metabolical”. In scientific terms: when the brains are flooded with the long-term stress hormone cortisol, it inhibits the function of the prefrontal cortex, leading to over-activation of the brain’s “reward center” – triggering overcooking, drinking, smoking and shopping that filled the idle hours of 2020.
“Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter. It is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. When this inhibition is released, the reward center looks for hedonic stimuli,” said Lustig. “These can be chemicals – cocaine, heroin, nicotine, alcohol, sugar – or behavioral – shopping, gambling, internet games, social media, pornography.”
Take the beloved sugar carbohydrate. At the start of the pandemic, a cooking frenzy swept the country, offering a relatively affordable quarantine hobby and a constant supply of carbohydrates. Like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, flour and yeast went from modest basic supermarket products to quick-sale items quickly stolen from store shelves.
But what exactly about roasting makes it so suitable for quarantine? Was it the fun of kneading the dough or something more hedonistic? While total sales of cookbooks in the U.S. increased by 15% in the first nine months of the year, sales of bread-specific books grew 145%, according to data from the NPD Group. That’s 200,000 more bread cookbooks than sold in 2019. Meanwhile, sales of cookbooks on vegetarian cuisine and other comparatively healthy cuisines were hit in March and April.
The preparation of quarantined baked goods was clearly motivated by more than just the pleasure of cooking, said Lustig. “Cooking means carbohydrates and mostly sugar – both for fun and addiction. And aren’t they really the same?” he said.
The leap from sifted flour to developed addiction may seem extreme, but it raises the question of why exactly people turn to certain things for comfort, even when they know the feeling is fleeting.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the podcast “The Happiness Lab”. “We know neuroscientifically that there is a disconnect between the types of things we want and the types of things we like. Wanting is a motivational process. Liking is how you will feel when you get it.”
She said the disconnect is strongest in the field of addictive drugs: desire, or “desire”, the drug will take people to extremes to get it, but the real reward, or “taste”, is low because they are already used to it to this.
Download the NBC News app to get the latest news about coronavirus
“The flip side is that we don’t have to ‘want’ the things that will work. Things like taking the time to experience social connection, doing good things for others, taking the time to feel gratitude. We just don’t have the mechanisms to look for those things. We don’t realize that this is what is missing, ”said Santos.
One thing that was widely desired during the pandemic: alcohol. Women, in particular, were more susceptible to drinking under quarantined stress. As a group, they experienced decreased job security and increased social isolation – factors that have historically driven alcohol consumption.
In April, with almost all Americans requesting to stay home, online alcohol sales increased more than 500% over the previous year. Online sales fell after the first days of the pandemic with the temporary opening of bars and restaurants, but even in October, online sales of alcohol outperformed sales of most other categories of consumer goods, according to Nielsen.
A more counterintuitive habit that returned to normal was smoking. Given the effects of coronavirus on the respiratory system, lighting a cigarette this year may have seemed incomprehensible to some, but sales indicate that the chemical incentive for nicotine has remained a draw for many. The overall decline in tobacco sales in the United States was slightly contained from March to October. And it is not just stress that is fueling consumption. The companies attribute higher sales to an increase in disposable income for Americans who received a boost from stimulus payments and spent less money on social activities like dining out – which meant they had more occasions to smoke at home.
While Americans dealt with discretionary spending fueled by the pandemic, it wasn’t just Big Tobacco that benefited: this Cyber Monday, November 30, the first Monday after Thanksgiving, became the biggest online shopping day in the history of the United States, with a total of $ 10.7 billion in purchases – a number as indicative of the collective brain’s quest for gratification as any other. And a category that has grown notably is self-care.
“Buying new material goods just doesn’t make us as happy as we think. In fact, it would be better to spend money on other people.”
“Self-care is the ultimate way to express self-love,” said Colleen McCann, author of “Crystal Rx” and founder of a fashion brand that finds mysticism, Style Rituals. McCann’s services include energetic wardrobe cleanings and crystal readings and self-affirmation Tarot, after which customers receive a highly selected “time for me” kit and a mood board. Even though it is a cutting-edge niche offering, Style Rituals has been gaining business, although its services have gone entirely online, McCann said.
RetailMeNot’s consumer spending projections indicate that people will spend more money on gifts for themselves than they do with their parents, in-laws or best friends this holiday season. But self-centered shopping doesn’t bring the holiday cheer one might expect, Santos said.
“Buying new material goods just doesn’t make us as happy as we think. In fact, it would be better to spend money on other people. Doing good things for others seems to make us happy over time,” she said.
With the help of vaccines, the return of society may be the only thing to replace gratifying habits instantly, such as checks for stimulus of impulse spending, with more lasting enrichment.
“After the blockade, we will get these incredible new beginnings in the routines we have, how we interact, with whom we interact,” said Santos. “It will really give us opportunities to create more positive habits and use what we have learned during that time to create a more nutritious life for ourselves.”