You’ve probably been confronted with addiction and substance abuse in one way or another.
God knows I have. My mom has been an alcoholic for as long as I can remember.
In this post, I’m going to explain why I think we have it backwards in our society in the way we look at and treat addiction and substance abuse and how Positive Psychology can help create more effective therapies.
Because the success rate of mainstream therapies is a sobering reminder of our struggle to treat addiction. Especially with the current opioid epidemic in the US, we need more effective treatments.
Let’s start by looking at how an opium addict describes his experience (De Quincey, T., 1986):
“I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium taking… but I took it; – and in about an hour, oh! Heavens! What a revulsion! What an upheaving, from its lower depths, of the inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me! That my [stomach] pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: – this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea… for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness…”
A description of an experience like this makes the question ‘Why do some people use opioids?’ quite absurd. It is obvious why someone would want to experience the state the addict described.
A better question is: ‘Why don’t some people use opioids?’
What do non-users (or responsible users) have to live for that is more rewarding than the instant ‘abyss of divine enjoyment’ of opioid usage?
Surely they have something that fills up the void that addicts fill with drugs. The will to live and stay alive because life has something to offer. The possibility of some meaning to be experienced that the use of drugs stands in the way of.
This makes us wonder what hole the addict is trying to fill.
Let’s take a quick look at the literature
Hunts and Evans (2008) argued that intoxication provides personal pleasure, but they emphasized its “facilitation of social and communal cohesion.”
Also, drugs have found to be a salve for a life that is “meaningless, monotonous and boring” (Narcotics Anonymous, 1982, p. 80).
Hull (1981) showed that the appeal of alcohol lies partly in its capacity to help individuals lose their sense of self-awareness.
And have you ever heard of the Rat Park Study (1976)?
In short, it showed that socially isolated rats took about 19 times the amount of morphine compared to rats in the Rat Park that weren’t socially isolated and that preferred normal water over morphine water. (This video explains it very well in 3,5 minutes.)
So what can we conclude from all this?
It follows that what addicts are looking for is to be relieved of feelings of meaninglessness, to transcend the suffering self, to lose self-awareness and to get a sense of connection to others and something outside of themselves that matters.
Researcher G.R. Thompson observed that
“this assumption also implies that addiction is not a pathology in the sense that the mainstream promotes. Rather, it is more a misguided search for wholeness and belonging.”
In other words: addicts are trying to open the right door, they’re simply using the wrong key.
Yes, psychological and environmental factors play a role together with genetic predisposition and a range of other factors. But what is often overlooked is that therapies that ignore the existential vacuum – the underlying feelings of meaninglessness and disconnection – won’t successfully take away the cause of chronic addiction.
You’ve got to pull the weeds out by the root if you want to do that. You’ve got to address the unmet needs that lead to the addiction in the first place.
Let’s say a therapist decides to treat alcoholism with a period of abstinence. It sounds like a good idea, but the question is what the addict is getting in return for his addiction. Because taking away a means that alleviates the burden of self-awareness and feelings of meaninglessness without giving the addict anything in return is simply a bad deal. Why would one take such a deal?
This “getting nothing in return principle” might explain why some addicts lack the intrinsic motivation to recover. (for more, look at W.R. Millers’ 2006 Motivational Theory of Recovery).
This is where positive psychology comes in…
Addiction recovery should involve more than taking away what is “bad.” It should focus on building something potent and positive to satisfy the unmet needs that caused the drug use, such as:
- Connection to other people
- Positive affect
- Meaningful experiences
- Reduced suffering (mentally or physically)
- To be a part of something bigger than themselves
- Abstinence, in this sense, is the by-product of living a personally meaningful life.
Sorry for the textual tsunami. I hope these insights are of use to you somehow.
Seph Fontane Pennock
Positive Psychology Program