How do we know when an addiction is good, and when it is bad?
Myth: Things like exercise, healthy diet, or work are healthy addictions. And then there’s the bad ones, like drugs, alcohol, and gambling.
Truth: Any substance or behaviour can be a part of your life in a healthy way or an unhealthy way. Whether something becomes an addiction depends on whether it is causing negative consequences in your life. Our culture tells us that there are good addictions :work, exercise, even another person (think Romance movies) – and there are bad ones like drugs, alcohol, etc. The truth is that every addiction causes negative consequences in the user’s life. By definition, an addiction harms the user, yet the user continues to engage the same behaviour. Simply put, an addiction is never a good thing.
So called “positive addictions” are just good habits.
Understanding the difference between addiction and habit can be difficult at first, because addiction doesn’t depend on time spent or amount consumed. Its more about harm and loss of control.
Take exercise for example. The typical “gym rat”. He (or she) looks like he LIVES in the gym. His muscles look like they’re ready for competition, and he’s at the gym every time you pop in for your regular workout. This guy definitely loves to push weights. He seems to be obsessed with working out. He only hangs out with people like him, and only wants to talk about “gains”. That’s an addiction, right?
He definitely has a habit. But unless he’s experiencing negative consequences as a result of his habit, he’s no more an addict than anyone who gets obsessed with anything – Crossfit, chess, music production, pool, whatever you fancy. If you want to be proficient and develop mastery, you get a bit obsessed. You spend a lot of time thinking about it, practicing, sharpening your skills. That’s a good thing as far as mastery goes, unless it starts to hurt you deeply.
What about work. A person can be addicted to work, right? Yes. Definitely.
Even though our society rewards long working hours and high achievement at work, many of us know that workaholism is a thing. If you are working insane hours, have a compulsion to work, and have lost control of your ability to regulate your work life, you are probably a workaholic. If you don’t have the compulsion, and hate your job, but are still working insane hours with no real control over the amount you work, you’re just trapped.
All work requires sacrifices, so the definition of harm here is a grey area, but the point is that work is a good thing until it starts to consistently hurt you. At that time, if you still have a compulsion to work, its an addiction.
If work isn’t an addiction, and the outcome is overall positive in your life, you don’t have a “positive addiction”. You’ve got a healthy habit.
Addiction to “regular life processes” is largely misunderstood. Thats probably where some of the confusion lies.
What does an actual non-drug addiction look like?
Addictions to processes like work, exercise, video games, or gambling all depend on a behaviour instead the ingestion of a substance. That’s because addiction lives in the reward centers of the brain, not in the drug or process. The drug or action just leads the brain to where it wants to go. This is a behaviour pattern that is so engrained, its like a runaway train that nobody can stop.
The workaholic works so much, and so obsessively, that his entire life is preoccupied with his work. If he has a family, they are neglected, and he gives them little to no time. He rationalizes his work by telling himself he is providing his family with a good life, through money. But in exchange, he is sacrificing being present at all. His addiction tells him this is a worthy trade-off. When he’s not at work, he’s thinking about it. It becomes an endless game that he needs to win at all costs. Over time, he loses traction on his physical health, his relationships, and his hobbies. All areas of his life suffer as a result. His results at work may be positive, but the rest of his life suffers. These positive affects are akin to the relief an alcoholic or heroin addict experiences when taking the first drink or hit; the body feels good (a good result!), but they suffer many consequences.
Some addictions can pair up together, and reinforce each other.
Take the exercise addict for instance, who has paired her eating disorder with 3 or 5 hours a day on the cardio machine. She works out so much, and consumes so few calories, that she is drastically under weight. Her menstrual cycle stops and her bone density diminishes. She is drastically malnourished and unhealthy. Her family is desperate to help, but she lies to everyone, and says she is feeling fine. This is the expression of an eating disorder paired with exercise addiction.
Seeing addiction clearly can be hard
Sometimes it’s not easy to say for sure which side of the line a person is on, and they need to see it for themselves. In the end, if you want to know if you’re addicted, you have to dig deep and discover whether you are depending on the activity to make you feel okay, and still doing it while it significantly harms the other areas of your life. For many addicts, this process of deep, honest examination spread out over a few days/weeks (or sometimes compressed in to a short moment of clarity) can create a “bottom” that shifts awareness, and enables a different action.
Escaping the grasp of addiction is a whole other can of worms, but the point is that you can either have an addiction, or a good habit. You’ll know you’re in too deep if you start racking up consequences and still have a compulsion to continue the behaviour. That is the point that the returns of the behaviour diminish greatly, and it begins to control you.
There are no positive addictions.
My intention with this article is not to pigeon-hole addicts and non-addicts, pathologize behavior, or marginalize anyone. Rather, I hope to clear up some cultural misunderstandings of addiction and how it affects our lives. To know what addiction is, we need to know what it isn’t. We also need to know what it looks like in our lives, and in the village around us, so we can better understand how to manage it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, here are some resources:
I do 1-1 and group coaching for addicts. Reach out if interested.
My podcast on How To Help an Addict
My podcast episode on How To Recover From Addiction with Jordan Gray