Any writer looking for a shortcut knows well the story of how Ayn Rand finished The Fountainhead. The tale goes something like this: It was the 1940s, Rand was in New York writing and working in an architectural office to gather material to create her protagonist Howard Roark. The Fountainhead's book deal was initially signed with Knopf, which gave her a year to finish the book. Rand worked long hours and struggled to meet the deadline, and after another year's extension she was dropped by Knopf. At that point, Rand started taking Benzedrine, an amphetamine, to extend her writing hours to finish the book—which comes in at over 700 pages and 300,000 words. The Fountainhead became her second-best-selling book.
As stimulants that increase energy and concentration by accumulating dopamine in the brain, amphetamines are a natural drug for workaholics. Other famous users, who took them to work longer hours, include Graham Greene, Jean-Paul Sartre, and W.H. Auden. Even Hitler has in recent years been revealed to be an amphetamine user, and it's estimated that German troops used 35 million amphetamine tablets during World War II. In colleges, they're considered a "smart drug" taken for intellectual performance enhancement. But they're also addictive, and long-term use can cause brain damage and paranoid disorders.
A new study from the University of Oslo found that amphetamines are still being used to enhance performance at work, but not just by the artists and writers typically associated with the drug. The researchers interviewed 55 amphetamine users in Norway. They found that they were most typically used for three reasons: first, to prolong drinking binges. Second, as treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And third: to work harder and longer hours.
In their sample, they found that economically marginalized male users of amphetamines had physically strenuous jobs. These laborious jobs included carpenters, bricklayers, and workers in the fishing industry. One interviewee explained to the researchers: “I love working. Amphetamine is about increased effort, keeping the speed up. I really worked bloody efficient.” Female amphetamine users, on the other hand, tended to be women with multiple jobs or shifts with long hours, and mothers who used the drug to keep up with family duties such as housework or childcare.
"Often the use of amphetamines is woven into traditional forms of masculinity and femininity," write the researchers. "That is, men emphasize their greater ability to work and to party and women emphasize their ability to maintain their family and home responsibilities or connect to others when using amphetamines."
The surprising finding for the researchers were that amphetamines are often abused by ordinary people, partly because they're cheap and easy to hide, but also because they fit well with the mainstream ideal of working tirelessly. They write:
Some drugs are more fit for some sociocultural contexts than others. The effects of amphetamines, for example, goes better with established working-class values of hard physical work and binge drinking, while the contemplative effects of, for example, cannabis might go better with middle-class values of self-understanding and reflection. On a more general level, our study points to how people make sense of their world and act on it within the class-based constraints and opportunities they face, and how such processes are also evident when it comes to the development of illegal drug use.
While the study's small sample size and anecdotal nature are caveats, it's nevertheless a unique look at the motivations and rationalizations of amphetamine abuse. It would seem that a culture of long work hours has more ramifications than simply a tired and disgruntled workforce.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.