"Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?" -Albert Camus
Have you ever wondered why so many people are wildly addicted to coffee? (Full disclosure: I'm drinking it right now. *nervous laugh*) A lot of people would say, "Caffeine gives you energy! What's the big deal?" But (as usual) I'm not convinced that's the whole story. The relationship between coffee, addiction, productivity, + work runs deep.
Hard truth: So much of our effort goes toward soothing ourselves into lives we don't want - coping. If this weren't true, there'd be no such thing as 'minor' addictions to coffee, sugar, fatty foods, + cigarettes. Coffee has been employed as the Western World's 'safe' addiction, specifically used to soothe us into showing up for work we don't want to do.
Now of course, I'm not saying that everyone who drinks coffee hates their life/job. And I'm not saying that everyone who drinks coffee is addicted. But this massive cultural pattern doesn't exist for no reason.
Certain addictions are stigmatized (e.g. heroin, alcohol) while others are considered fine, and even normal (e.g. sugar, coffee). But in truth, the only difference between stigmatized addictions and 'normal' addictions is that the 'normal' ones are easier to control. Their side effects are not as loud + disruptive to the daily grind.
In a society built on the suppression of emotion, these 'normal' addictions actually create continuity + support the current economic system. In other words, minor addictions keep us safe in our routines, even if those routines slowly degrade us over time. These minor addictions give us just enough satisfaction to show up for another day of work, which means they keep your boss from going out of business + they keep you from losing your apartment.
If we eliminated 'normal' addictions overnight, our society (which relies on the productivity of overworked, coping individuals) - would have to examine itself. Specifically, our workforce would fall apart + need to be rebuilt on a more sustainable foundation.
Obviously, this would be overwhelming. So we clutch our Starbucks cups + hope for a less dramatic resolution someday. If every person had to examine themselves and face their minor addictions at the same time, society would be in a bit of a crisis, wouldn't it? So for the sake of order + ease, we let our tolerable vices hang around (interestingly, while we demonize those with more serious addictions).
Coffee is a running joke in the modern workplace. For example, here are some real t-shirts I found with a quick Google search:
- "don't speak to me before I've had my coffee"
- "motivated by coffee"
- "no coffee, no workee"
- "give me my coffee, or give me my coffin"
- "death before decaf" (this one is my favorite.. so punk rock)
- coffee (with a picture of vital signs on a monitor)
- "may the froth be with you"
You get the idea. Our attachment to coffee isn't just functional; it's weirdly emotional. And, we normalize the crap out of it in cute ways.
I don't say this to bash coffee-drinkers - I AM one. But it's a whole lot of loyalty to one little bean. What is underneath our need to feel caffeinated?
What Coffee Provides
Let's take a minute to consider the symbolism behind how coffee acts on the body.
Caffeine = liquid motivation for the brain. But why would we need liquid motivation? Ideally, we'd be internally motivated to wake up + go through the tasks of the day. We have adrenal and thyroid glands to manage our energy levels. Why do we desperately crave a boost at the time we should be most alert, energized, and full of cortisol - morning?
Caffeine stimulates dopamine, which "is correlated with unexpected reward. A surprising reward is cause for updating the brain's action priorities. However once the brain's model of the environment has been updated, the reward isn't surprising anymore and the transient dopamine release goes away" (cited from a neuroscientist on Quora).
So we're consuming something that facilitates the relationship between action + reward. Here's my theory: We're creating a reward for the work we do (scroll up + reread those t-shirt slogans). This begs the question: If our actions were truly rewarding, would we need a substance to stimulate dopamine each morning?
Inevitably, this leads us into some existential questions.
In the modern workplace, research has clearly shown an engagement epidemic - The majority of workers don't enjoy their jobs or care much about them - apathy & exhaustion (..which is also the name of a great Lawrence Arms album). An unfulfilling routine equates to deeply suppressed passion - a severing from our creative selves.
How often does the average person get to do something that EXCITES and motivates them naturally? Once a week? a month? only on vacation days? In the best case scenario, you like your job, like your coworkers, and generally find your role at the company interesting, but even then, it doesn't mean you're engaging with activities that provide a dopamine release. It doesn't mean you're living by deeply-held convictions or doing the work that naturally motivates you.
Your natural drives and curiosities are suppressed when you are tethered to tasks you don't feel like doing every day. This is why most people need some sort of coping mechanism, and if we want to avoid the stigma that goes along with the 'bad' addictions, coffee is our savior.
It's easy to find out if you're dependent on coffee - Go a day without it. Better yet, think of the last time you thought there would be coffee somewhere, and there wasn't. Did you instantly get pissed? That's an emotional dependence. We like to frame coffee addiction in a practical way - I need caffeine; It gives me energy to do things! But what we're really saying is, I can't tolerate my day without a substance to soothe me through it.
It's no coincidence we've chosen a workplace beverage that specifically activates dopamine, the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter. What we're craving is work that provides a real reward - something intrinsically valuable. Until we find that, a sugary, caffeinated drink that stimulates dopamine + adrenaline is the next best thing. But the irony is, long-term caffeine use is believed to deplete dopamine reserves, which can mean a slew of pretty serious imbalances.
"Pleasure isn't dopamine's only function. Dopamine plays a critical role in emotional and mental health." source
Long story short, our liquid motivation isn't a sustainable substitute for real motivation (unless we're willing to gamble our mental health, hormonal balance, and even sexual functioning).
So what's the point of examining addictions like coffee? We have so many bigger problems to deal with, most people laugh off the idea that their coffee habit has gone overboard. Who cares?
Of course, you can get away with it, possibly for your entire life. But why aim so low? The sobering fact is this: We are a society that drugs ourselves - daily.
"...caffeine produces an increase in behavior associated with dopamine-enhancing drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine." source
In addition, caffeine allows us to suppress the fact that we're exhausted. It stimulates our already-stressed adrenal glands, which can mean adrenal fatigue, panic attacks, insomnia, food cravings, and a number of other vague symptoms that make your life suck. At that point, people turn to pharmaceuticals, which further locks them into a cycle of symptom suppression.
Knowing all this gives us the opportunity to refine our work lives rather than just settling. We can cope with a life we can tolerate, or push ourselves further to see what else is possible.
We start this process by simply getting honest about what does + doesn't fulfill us. I don't just mean complaining, as this is a distraction + a coping mechanism in itself. I mean sitting down and FEELING what doesn't align. Feeling what you just can't do anymore. Admit what aspects of your life are draining + unsustainable.
This can be hard because feeling such discomfort without running away is challenging, and we may really be doing good things in these jobs that we don't enjoy. You may be a philanthropist, an engineer, a researcher, whatever - a lot of careers look really great on paper. It SEEMS like it should be fulfilling, and that's what guilts us into staying. Just because it's fulfilling for someone doesn't mean it's fulfilling for you. Furthermore, we go through phases. So the career that fulfilled you 10 years ago may be completely different than what would fulfill you now.
I've been through this cycle many times in many jobs, always assuming "This will be the one I stick with! This one will make me happy." I taught yoga, I became a freelance writer, I worked at a nonprofit, I interned at a music magazine - I did all kinds of things that were, technically speaking, awesome! But the scary reality I eventually had to face was that none of them were really MY thing. I was simply testing out roles of people I could be - people who it seemed like I should be. But shoulds are a dead-end street.
The result was that I always got bored. And, no joke, my coffee addiction skyrocketed throughout these years.
This is not an article about quitting your job to run away and 'follow your bliss.' I understand that it isn't usually that simple. But here's where you can start if you're an unfulfilled, exhausted coffee zombie who's desperate to break free of your meh routine: Admit what isn't your thing.
Sit down + literally feel the dread of those things you don't want to do anymore. OWN IT. Have compassion for yourself, the uncertainty, the dread. Then, move toward accepting the fact that you're stuck: It's OK that you don't want to do these things anymore - and it's ok that you are technically a little stuck right now.
Maybe you can't escape your obligations right this second. But you can keep doing the work of getting in touch with what YOU want, and taking small steps to constantly move closer to that. Doing this slowly will ensure you can do it in a way that's financially safe + sustainable. Think of the free-est person you know. Think of someone you want to be like. Odds are, this is the not-so-glamourous process they followed to freedom.
Don't focus on conquering your bad habits first. Have your coffee if you need it, without guilt. But simultaneously get honest, take the steps you need to take toward the work that naturally motivates you.
“Look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, what do I want to do everyday for the rest of my life? Do that.” – Gary Vee