RSS Why is the aquarium hobby so addicting?

MASA Admin

8 May 2007
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We have all heard and know about the addictions that are frequently talked about such as the addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, eating, and sex. But in reality virtually anything can be addicting as is the case with seemingly lesser or even socially acceptable addictions such shopping, cleaning or exercising.

This may also be the case in this hobby. Some of us refer to ourselves as Reefaholics or Coral addicts and looking at some of the groups I am in on Facebook they include such monikers as Compulsive Reefers, Addictive Reef Keepers and Colorful Reef Addicts to name a few. There are even Reef Addicts subgroups in many states and large cities.

So the concept of this hobby being addicting is not a new one. And while many of us consider this a relatively harmless activity as far as addictions go, I thought it might be interesting to look at why this hobby may lend itself to being addicting.

The abstract of my peer-reviewed research paper regarding the science of addiction

Lest you think I am not taking this seriously or am making fun of the hobby, it should be noted that my master’s thesis was actually on ‘context specific tolerance’, which is an integral part of addiction and it is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. So I actually have a background in addiction and addictive processes.

So in order for us to understand how the hobby can be addicting and lends itself to being addicting we need to understand what addiction is. According to the definition in Wikipedia:

“Addiction is a state characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences. It can be thought of as a disease or biological process leading to such behaviors. The two properties that characterize all addictive stimuli are that they are reinforcing (i.e., they increase the likelihood that a person will seek repeated exposure to them) and intrinsically rewarding (i.e., something perceived as being positive or desirable)”.

As with most addictions, the hobby would not be considered an addiction for most as it is just another pleasurable activity. Only when it becomes compulsive and begins to interfere with everyday activities such as work, or health or relationships should it be considered an addiction. And often the person who is addicted is not even aware that it is causing problems for them self or others.

While most of us are aware of the physical nature of addictions to things like drugs, alcohol or cigarettes, it is also believed that one of the main mechanisms of addiction is that the activity alleviates or reduces stress. I know by now I have probably made many of your eyes glaze over, but hopefully I can show how this relates to the hobby.

You might be addicted if you paid $6000 for a single polyp of the Bounce Shroom

As noted above, one of the major contributing factors as to why something is addicting may be how stress-reducing it is. As has been documented since the hobby began, having an aquarium and simply sitting and watching the tank reduces stress. In the 80’s and 90’s numerous articles were published related to Aquarium Therapy, showing how blood pressure could be lowered simply by engaging in this activity once or more times a day. And while this may seem simplistic I know from first-hand experience that when I work in my tanks and sit and watch them I do feel more relaxed afterward.

However I will also note that when things are going badly in one of my tanks the converse is true – my blood pressure rises and I feel at least as stressed as when something is going wrong at work or with my family so that has to be taken into consideration. But since we have gotten so much better at being successful at this I would strongly suggest that for most us most of the time our tanks are a source of stress reduction.

You might be addicted to coral if you paid over $2000 for two polyps of zoanthid

However, this is only part of the reason that I feel that this hobby is so addicting. In addition to the definitions of addiction that were discussed above, one of the other fundamental aspects of addiction is what is called tolerance. Loosely defined tolerance occurs when it takes more and more of a substance or an activity to produce the same amount of pleasure as occurred originally.

This is why drug addicts require more and more of a drug or stronger more potent versions of it to get the same high. In this regard the hobby lends itself well to overcoming or reducing tolerance to getting pleasure from it. First tolerance is reduced by the ever expanding amount of new fish and corals that are coming into the hobby.

If you are bored and have developed tolerance about your Sunset fairy wrasse, then you can add a Rhomboids, and then an Earl’s and if that is not enough a Claire’s. By the same token in corals it is even easier to reduce tolerance from occurring. You can switch between coral groups, each going higher and higher in price, rareness and beauty to keep getting a buzz or you can stay within a group and still not get bored.

Coral vendors offer a huge variety of the same corals for you to get a reefing fix

Over the past 8-10 years we have seen there be a “hot” group of named corals that for a year or so were the corals that you had to have in your tank. And finding them, getting them, keeping them and then propagating them became the rage and the thing to do. Watching this cycle occur and repeat itself again and again it became clear that apparently this process in and of itself was at least as pleasurable and stress reducing as is just having a successful tank.

Think about it, over that time we had a year or so of beautiful Montiporas, followed by Acans, then Favias, then A
ussie Acans, Aussie Acroporas, Aussie Euphyllias, and now Bounce Mushrooms. And at the same time more and more beautiful Acroporas and fish just in case these were still getting bored with the hobby also coming in. As a result of this constant influx of wildly new and beautiful corals coming into the hobby the likelihood of tolerance occurring been reduced.

There is also another aspect of tolerance in addiction that this hobby also lends itself well to reducing and that is context specific tolerance. This type of tolerance occurs when the physical stimuli in a situation cause the body to prepare to be stimulated and as a result just being in a particular situation reduces the pleasure that the addicting stimuli produces. This is why a lot of heroin and other drug overdoses occur in what are seemingly weird places.

Corals and crack have a lot in common – they’re both high priced tiny pieces of rock that can disappear in the blink of en eye

They occur because the body prepares the user for the stimuli and increases their tolerance so that when these cues are not present a smaller amount of drug is necessary to produce the same effect. So as a result when they are not prepared they overdose. On the one hand going into the same shop and seeing the same fish can produce this kind of tolerance and as a result a shop we visit exclusively and often can lose its appeal over time for this reason.

However, this hobby reduces the likelihood for context specific tolerance in that there are now many ways to keep this type of tolerance from occurring. I remember in the early days of the hobby being in a shop when the boxes from a new shipment arrived and it felt like Christmas morning. Over time that diminished and I stopped being there when the shipments arrived.

Crowds of reefers gather at a ReefStock event trying to get their aquarium fix

However now it is possible and I have gotten the same feeling when I saw all the corals that were available from all the great vendors at the MACNAs, Reefaploozas, ReefStocks and other shows as well as while visiting Lou and Victor at WorldWide or Joe and Scott at Unique. But it has even spread wider in that this same sense can even occur when I find a new vendor online or even when some of the old vendors bring out some new corals that I had not seen before.

I also still get a little bit of a buzz simply by walking into a new shop whether it is local or one I encounter in my travels. Each of these venues provides a different context and as a result reduce the likelihood for context specific tolerance to occur, which again may lend itself to why the hobby is so addicting.

And this can also be the reason why ordering corals from different vendors all the time may be a means for further reducing tolerance. I have actually been assessing if this occurs when I try a new online vendor and to be honest I do sense myself getting excited when a box arrives from someone new or from someone who I have not bought from much.

The author’s 240 gallon tank circa 1991 showing early signs of addiction

Tolerance can be also be reduced, in a manner like I have done, by constantly adding more and bigger tanks to my collection. While I found my initial 55-gallon tank enjoyable over time the amount of pleasure I got from it waned so then a 120-gallon tank was added, then a 250, a 580 and eventually a 1200-gallon tank.

So in order to reduce my tolerance to the pleasure of the hobby I have kept adding more or bigger tanks. And I know I am not alone in that over the past few years I have watched countless other hobbyists and friends add bigger tanks to their homes as well. So the ability to add more and more successful tanks definitely reduces the likelihood of tolerance occurring and by the same token the level of success we now have also lessens the likelihood for withdrawal.

Withdrawal occurs when the pleasurable stimuli is withdrawn or removed and as a result the individual experiences the opposite effects of the enjoyable addiction. The usual stings of withdrawal are anxiety or anxiousness, irritability, restlessness, insomnia, poor concentration and even isolation and depression.

In regards to withdrawal I have seen an interesting phenomenon in regards to the hobby about it. During my time in the hobby I have seen a lot of individuals come and go in it. For many of those who left who were successful, they told me they did feel at least a small sense of loss and some of the symptoms described above when they were out of it and as a result came back. While those who were not successful, did not feel any of these symptoms and very few came back into the hobby, even though it has gotten significantly easier to be successful in the hobby.

The author’s former 1200gallon tank showing just how far one can go

While researching and writing this article I have become very much aware that I probably do have an addiction to this hobby. I actually realized it more the more as I read about addiction and the signs of it. Fortunately like many of us to date it has not become a major disruptive force in my life and I consider akin to having an addiction to exercise or playing video games.

And since reading up on it more I am trying harder to maintain self-control in terms of my spending both in terms of time and money. No one wants to or should get divorced as a result of this hobby, but it is possible. I think the first sign that things are better is that at the last MACNA I actually walked away without buying a single coral. It is the first time ever I have done that, and it wasn’t because there wasn’t incredible temptation.

Like most of us I work in a stressful area and life and the fast pace of it can be very stressful. As a result I look to my aquariums as a ready means for stress relief. And while I realize there is a fine line between being obsessive about my tanks and being addicted to them, I hopefully will do a better job of managing my passion for the hobby and my tanks better.

So since it is Valentine’s Day weekend I hope all of you have a significant other to be addicted to. I really do not think it is good to paraphrase the late great Robert Palmer that you might as well face it, you’re addicted to coral.
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