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The Science Behind Drive: Why Workaholics Exist

  • Post published:March 19, 2015

Workaholism: “the societally acceptable addiction of the 21st century.”

That’s what Scientific Blogging wrote of the affliction (gift, curse, coffee sales facilitator) around this time last year. It’s true. In an interview, for example, we may have a few concerns when someone admits they have a small issue with drinking, but when they share that they’re addicted to the work hustle we smile and nod; this is America, after all, and this so-called addiction is more a way of life than a negative characteristic.

But what makes a workaholic?

As with many human traits, we can attribute its existence to either nature or nurture; is this person biologically predisposed to behave this way? Are they more driven because of what they’ve experienced? Is it a bit of both?

In one study conducted at the University of Bergen in Norway, researchers attempted to measure how prevalent workaholism truly is.

“We did find that younger adults were affected to a greater extent than older workers,” said Psychologist Cecilie Schou Andreassen. “However, workaholism seems unrelated to gender, education level, marital status or part-time versus full-time employment.”

These findings have been echoed in studies across nations; the only group most affected was the millennial. The same millennial who, lest we forget, experienced the great recession right around the time they entered adulthood. The same group that watched, and continues to see, their elders struggle in a world that many would argue is progressing too quickly for its own good.

This finding in particular would suggest that the status of “workaholic” is one that is learned, not one that we are born with. It would indicate that the lifetime experiences and struggles we face encourage us to see both work ethic and work itself as more important than those who may not have been forced to do so.

Our brains play a factor as well.

On the other side of the coin, it is possible that some people are more likely to one day become workaholics due to inherent traits. Back in 2004, research was conducted on the much-abused rhesus monkey involving the manipulation of cells; blocking these cells’ ability to receive dopamine had a surprising affect: it made the monkeys more efficient and hard-working. Sound familiar?

These findings would, in turn, suggest that our individual brain structures and unique connections alter our attitudes toward work as an activity.

Another study found that “…people who are depressed often feel nothing is worth the work. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder work incessantly; even when they get rewarded they feel they must repeat the task. In mania, people will work feverishly for rewards that aren’t worth the trouble to most of us,” which is further indication that our existing biological frameworks will, in some way, inhibit or exacerbate our propensity for work.

We may never know what exactly makes a workaholic what he or she is, and that’s somewhat frightening, but in the darkest of times, we take solace in one fact: we’ll always have caffeine.