Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
The concept of addictive behavior covers much more than drug addiction. Psychologists now realize there is a common pattern underlying alcoholism, gambling, compulsive overeating, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, and many other problems.
Two different issues emerge:
Characterizing learned preferences – How do habitual behaviors get established? How can they be altered or controlled?
Mitigating harm – In the case of harmful addictions, how can they be treated? How is harm reduced?
At minimum, an addiction involves a repeated behavior. Persistence is implied (a person will repeat the behavior despite obstacles). Dependence may be implied also, if a person is unhappy without a valued behavior or stimulus.
Addictions are usually considered harmful dysfunctions (the definition of abnormal behavior in Chapter 12). They can have the following negative effects:
–physical harm such as lung damage from tobacco smoking or liver damage from alcohol
–harmful motivational effects, such as diversion from important long-term plans by any addictive behavior
–harmful dependency, so a person gets sick or distressed if they do not perform the addictive behavior
Some modern psychologists have applied the concept of addictive behavior to positive, constructive behaviors. The same dopamine-using areas of the brain that respond to illegal drugs may also respond to love, religious rituals, exercise, parachute jumping, sauna bathing, giving blood, fire fighting, providing emergency medical aid, and executive decision-making. Any of those behaviors can become habitual and pleasurable.
What are positive vs. negative addictions?
William Glasser argued in a 1976 book (Positive Addiction) that some addictive behaviors are healthy. He defined positive addictions as those that "strengthen us and make our lives more satisfying." Positive addictions, he says, come in many varieties, such as:
–Taking a walk in the garden
Initially Glasser was not looking for the concept of positive addiction. He was looking for dependency and withdrawal symptoms in people who acted like they were addicted to socially approved habits like jogging or bike riding.
He did find some passionate devotion to the activities. For example, here is testimony from one young mother who described herself as addicted to a half hour bicycle ride after dinner.
"What happens if you don't ride your bike?" She replied, "Nothing happens, because I always ride my bike."
Her statement was so definite that I asked her in a teasing way, "Well, what if one of your children were very sick and needed care, wouldn't you skip your bike ride?" Her half-humorous, half-serious reply was, "They better not get sick during the hour after dinner that I ride my bike." (Glasser, 1976, p.92)
As Glasser notes, the reply was only half-serious. A positive addiction is defined partly by the fact that it does not cause harmful effects, such as neglecting one's children.
Positive addictions are outlets for creativity, stress reduction, or calm thoughtful reflection. They allow a person to let go of worries or get absorbed in something worthy, giving a person a reprieve from everyday concerns.
Needless to say, for most people, the word addiction has negative connotations. To call something an addiction is to make a negative moral judgment.
Addicts are commonly portrayed as running away from something, fleeing a lonely or boring life, or trying to escape painful truths. This stereotype comes from two of the most common and damaging addictions: opioid and alcohol addiction.
Where did the stereotype of addicts "fleeing something" come from?
Alcohol is famous for alcohol myopia, the tendency to enjoy immediate sensory surroundings and ignore long-term responsibilities or dangers. A person addicted to alcohol therefore can be portrayed as fleeing from responsibility and seeking a state of numbness, like somebody crying in their beer after breaking up a romance.
To somebody seriously addicted to alcohol, going "cold turkey" (quitting suddenly) can lead to a serious withdrawal syndrome. Hospitals sometimes have to maintain alcoholics on a daily dose of alcohol just to prevent them from becoming dangerously ill.
Likewise, withdrawal from opioids can cause great pain, because production of endogenous painkillers, endorphins, is halted in the face of large amounts of opiates coming in from outside the system. As noted in Chapter 2, the notion that endorphins cause pleasure is erroneous; they cause numbness.
Positive addictions might be defined as those that provide a person with benefits without the high costs of heroin or alcohol addiction. Behaviors called "learned preferences" or "acquired motives" are addiction-like habits that provide pleasure while not causing physical damage, not distracting from important life goals, and not producing unpleasant withdrawal syndromes.
Glasser, W. (1965) Positive Addiction. New York: Harper & Row.
Write to Dr. Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org.