The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

Are You “Addicted” to Something?

Have you ever had a behavior in your life that felt out of your control?

The definition of “addiction,” and what people can become “addicted” to, are hotly contested issues. In everyday conversation, of course, people throw around the word “addicted” a lot, as in, “I’m addicted to Game of Thrones.”

Addiction, whatever it might be, is a subject that’s related to my current fascination: habits. As I explain in the introduction of Better Than Before, my discussion of habit formation doesn’t cover addictions, compulsions, nervous habits, or habits of mind. Nevertheless, I did a lot of reading and thinking about addiction, because it’s a useful area to consider.

The nature of addiction is highly controversial, but I found it interesting to read, in Kenneth Paul Rosenberg and Laura Curtiss Feder’s Behavioral Addictions, this list of factors put forth by Mark Griffiths. Apart from the question of “what’s a true addiction?” it’s a helpful way to think about whether a certain habit is making it harder to live a life that reflects our values and contributes to our long-term happiness.

According to this definition, a behavioral addiction is marked by:

Salience — this behavior has become the important activity in a person’s life

Mood modification — this behavior changes a person’s mood, by providing a rush of excitement or a sense of calm or numbness

Tolerance — more and more behavior is needed to get the mood boost

Withdrawal symptoms — a person feels lousy or irritable when unable to engage in the behavior

Conflict — the behavior causes conflicts with other people, interferes with other activities, or causes a person to feel a loss of control

Relapse — the behavior returns after being given up

I don’t want to sound like I’m treating addiction lightly. Whatever “addiction” might be exactly, when a person feels powerless to control a behavior that’s destructive, that’s a very, very serious matter. Far beyond the scope of my writing.

But I do think that even for people who aren’t “addicted” to something, these points are interesting to ponder, as they might relate to a bad habit (a habit that’s not good for us, but doesn’t rise to this level of severity).

They help us think about whether we’re engaging in a behavior that’s turned into a negative. That’s when we might want to consider changing a habit.

Sometimes, a behavior that one person consider to be healthy and positive is viewed as another person as extreme and negative. I have a friend, a fellow Upholder, who exercises just about every day of the year. People sometimes say she’s “addicted” to exercise in a way that’s unhealthy, but that’s not how she sees it.

In cases like this, I found this point by Griffiths to be very helpful: “Healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from it.”

My research on habits and happiness have convinced me that it’s very important that we feel in control of ourselves. The feeling that a behavior is out of our control — that we can’t change what we’re doing, even when we know it’s not good for us — well, that’s a bad feeling. Whether it’s an “addiction” or not.

As I was writing Better Than Before, I kept changing the epigraph (I love choosing epigraphs). In the end, I’ve chosen this line from Publilius Syrus: “The greatest of empires, is the empire over one’s self.”

Self-command, self-knowledge…more and more, I’m convinced that good habits and happiness come down to these two. And maybe self-command comes from self-knowledge, so really it’s just self-knowledge.

What about you? Have you ever had a behavior in your life that felt out of your control? If you wrested back control, how did you do it?

 

Also ...

I'm hard at work on Better Than Before, a book about how we make and break habits. In it, I reveal the secret of habit-formation -- really! Sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale. Or if you want to read the whole book condensed into 21 sentences, read here.

 

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Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

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