Life is lived in loops. Here’s one you may know: we experience stress; to relieve the stress we do something pleasurable; when that pleasure exhausts itself, we experience more stress. Sound familiar? Psychologists tell us that when we run in this loop long enough, we may encounter something called “anhedonia” – the inability to experience pleasure from things we’d normally enjoy. Does binging on chocolate do it for you? Binge long enough and it probably won’t.
To this stinging realization we can add another, and—apologies ahead of time—it’s also a bit of a pill. Researchers have shown that not only does stress predispose us to wanting pleasure, it makes our desire for it drastically out of proportion to our enjoyment. The reward never reaches the level of our want.
To demonstrate this, researchers recruited two groups of study participants—all of whom were chocolate lovers—for some fun with water and sweets. (The chocolate-lover part will make sense in a moment.)
Members of the first group were made to experience stress by holding their hands in ice water (a well-tested means of inducing stress in psych research) while they were observed by the researchers. Those in the other group placed their hands in lukewarm water. After a little while, both groups were told to squeeze a handgrip that, they were instructed, would give them a nice stout whiff of chocolate.
As you might predict, the stressed group squeezed considerably harder for their chocolate – three times harder. Having received their dose of reward, the groups were then asked to rate their satisfaction. You might think that the group desiring the chocolate with three times the intensity would rate it proportionally higher, but in the end the groups’ ratings were really no different. Using stress to spike desire did nothing to increase enjoyment.
Quoting Dr. Tobias Brosch, professor of psychology at the University of Geneva and one of the study’s authors: “Stress seems to flip a switch in our functioning: If a stressed person encounters an image or a sound associated with a pleasant object, this may drive them to invest an inordinate amount of effort to obtain it.”
Which explains why stress is a consistent trigger in everything from failing to stay on diets to addiction relapses. Whatever the object of our desire, feeling stress makes us think we need it like we need air to breath.
The same dynamic has held true in animal studies with our friends the rats. It seems that if you get rats hooked on cocaine, and then get them clean from their addiction, you can induce a rapid relapse back into addiction by stressing them out with icy cold water. The same principle applies to us: stress is the trigger that makes us want “it” more.
One takeaway: keep a close eye on how you are reacting to stress -- and the earlier the better. Your best chance of affecting your "loop" is well before you've reached the point of smoldering hot desire.
The latest study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.
The newly revised and updated 2018 edition of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite is now available.