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Habit or Addiction: Brushing Your Teeth

habit or addiction
Written by Joseph Mcqueen

Sometimes it’s hard to decipher between addictions and habits. In fact, is there really a difference at all? My mother used to tell me that it takes 21 days to turn something into a habit. When she said that, she meant an activity like brushing your teeth, reading a book, going for a run. What she didn’t mean was smoking a cigarette, having a joint or doing cocaine. Although, perhaps it would also take about 21 days to make those into habits too. But surely they’re addictions, no?

If habits are addictions and addictions are habits, then does that mean that brushing your teeth – something that we hopefully all do day and night – is an addiction? We all know that horrible, grim feeling you get when you’ve forgotten to brush your teeth. Is that not just another example of a withdrawal? Well, let’s find out.

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What is an Addiction?

Before we can truly understand whether cleaning your teeth counts as an addiction, first we need to acknowledge what an addiction is. And, also, how it differs from a habit – such as cleaning your teeth, or reading a book. When people use the word addiction, certain images do naturally pop into one’s head – probably inspired by pop culture. For example, you might think about several scenes from Trainspotting, with sweaty, panting men, desperately wanting the next hit of heroin. But the truth is that addiction has many realities, and some aren’t always as obvious and dramatic as the ones in films. Healthline defines addiction as this:

“An addiction is a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory. It’s about the way your body craves a substance or behavior”

The quote continues, but first let’s analyse this much of it. There are many substances and actions that lead to reward, which are driven by motivation and memory. It is this, as the quote says, that makes something an addiction. The desire for social media feeds off these attributes. The dopamine-triggering feeling of getting a like, or hearing that notification sound, all this is experienced as a reward. It becomes like Pavlov’s dog experiment – the sound of the notification is directly linked to the reward of feeling connected with another person, which triggers a dopamine kick. This is the same with many drugs. You do a line of cocaine or a hit of heroin and you instantly feel amazing, and when it goes away you desire that feeling again. The quote from Healthline goes on to say:

“…I​​t causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of “reward” and lack of concern over consequences.”

It’s this part of the definition that slightly shifts away from cleaning teeth looking also like an addiction. There is evidence that many addictions and that pursuit of reward can leave people worse off. If it’s a gambling addiction people will usually end up with less money than they started or, if they end up winning, they’ll be utterly obsessed with that feeling of success until they eventually lose anyway. If it’s a substance addiction – like alcohol, cocaine or nicotine – people will usually be left erratic and depressed when they’re in a situation without these substances. They become only happy and functional with these substances and deeply troubled without them. In other words, these addictions revolve around short term gain, but long term failure. Mill’s Utilitarian philosophy highlights the difference between higher and lower pleasures in life.

“Higher pleasures are pleasures caused by the exercise of our higher faculties, whereas lower pleasures are pleasures caused by the exercise of our lower capacities.”

In other words, higher pleasures make us feel wholesome and good for a long period of time. Going for a run, speaking with friends, travelling – would all be considered higher pleasures. They feed the soul. Whereas lower pleasures may make you feel amazing for a short amount of time, but will inevitably lead to a fall. This includes certain drugs and bad habits. Cleaning your teeth is something that makes you feel cleaner, healthier and – long term – will extend the hygiene of your teeth and gums. Therefore, it feels like cleaning your teeth, like maintaining hygiene all over the body, is a necessary habit. It would sit more comfortably in the higher pleasure, than the lower pleasure. But do you even really get pleasure from cleaning your teeth anyway? The feeling of cleanliness, in a sense, is a pleasure. 

What is a Habit?

The culture around the word habit is far less extreme than addiction. Habits include minor things, such as: buying the same loaf of bread, taking the same route home, biting your nails, or running every day. There are, of course, bad habits and good habits. Other examples of bad habits may include: being disorganised, cracking joints, driving too fast or being too hard on yourself. Whilst bad habits and addictions can seem similar, there is a major difference between the two. The Cambridge definition of habit is described as such:

“something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it”

Habits can be so small and unnoticeable that you don’t even realise you’re doing it. Habits are usually slowly formed through repetition and consistency. Each of us has hundreds of habits that we all do, some more conscious than others. Here’s how they’re created:

“habits form when new behaviors become automatic and are enacted with minimum conscious awareness. That’s because “the behavioral patterns we repeat most often are literally etched into our neural pathways.”

In order to break a habit, someone will need to consciously intervene in the cycle of cue, routine and reward. You feel bored so you check your phone, you scroll, you find something mildly interesting on social media. Habits like these are ingrained into us, but you’re able to break them by being mindful and aware of them. Perhaps instead, next time you feel bored, you decide to pick up a book and read a chapter instead of checking your phone. Eventually, over time, this will be a new habit that you’ve created. Cleaning your teeth is a habit that lots of parents try to get ingrained into children early, despite how difficult and tiresome it can seem at first.

Most people clean their teeth once in the morning, and once in the evening – it’s essential to maintain healthy teeth and gums. Whilst cleaning your teeth may seem easy and simple now, it wasn’t always as easy when you were younger. It’s this struggle at the beginning of the habit that might differentiate it from an addiction. Addictions usually feel good, and that’s where the addiction begins. Instead, cleaning teeth – like reading a book when you’re bored – is an active habit that is intentionally ingrained to maintain health. It is not something that brings a great deal of happiness or euphoria. Of course if you forget to brush your teeth you might feel slightly grim, which could be considered a sort of withdrawal, but really this is due to a lack of cleanliness rather than a lack of pleasure. 

What’s the Difference?

Habits and addictions are scientifically very similar, but ultimately they are different. Addictions can destroy people’s lives and cause severe harm, whereas habits are far less extreme. Plus, with the extent of withdrawal symptoms, stopping an addiction is often far harder than ending an addiction. It can take a lot more time, and can often require medical and therapeutic help. You might need a long-term plan and family support to end an addiction, whereas a mindful mind is usually enough to end a habit. However, as Journey Pure River writes:

“There is an ongoing debate among experts about whether the abuse of drinking and drugs represents the development of troublesome habitual behavior or addiction. As a human being, you are naturally drawn to habitual patterns because repetition creates familiarity and comfort. Positive habits can even become tools of survival. Sometimes, however, habitual behaviors take a dark turn and develop into addictions.”

So, in a way, habits can be the beginning of addictions. As the body desperately tries to find familiarities wherever it can, sometimes it can find something that isn’t the best habit to have. This habit, if it isn’t observed, can become an addiction. Smoking cigarettes, for example, can begin as something social and then easily become a necessity. However, in the case of teeth brushing, it is different. Whilst teeth brushing may become a habit, there is nothing intrinsically addictive about it or life-threatening about it, and therefore this habit does not become a dangerous addiction. 


So, there you have it, cleaning your teeth probably should not be considered an addiction. However, there’s definitely a fine line between habit and addiction. And sometimes that line can be finer than usual.

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About the author

Joseph Mcqueen

Joseph is a cannabis journalist in the UK. His search and love for the truth in the cannabis industry is what drives him to write.