Many people love to cook, play or perform music, meditate, dance, and knit. They say that these activities are healthy, effective, and fun ways to settle down after a long hard day. They provide a pleasure that other activities may not. I’ve heard some people say not only that these are pleasant activities but even more strongly, they are positive addictions. One professional philosopher whom I know once described herself as having just this sort of relationship with philosophy.
The term “positive addiction” was advanced by William Glasser in a book with the same name. His focus is primarily the activities of running and meditating, though he offers many other examples from the experiences of others. Glasser claims that positive addictions “strengthen us and make our lives more satisfying.” They also enable us to “live with more confidence, more creativity, and more happiness, and usually in much better health.” Positive addictions, unlike their negative cousins, enhance life.
Glasser provides six criteria that must be fulfilled for a person to have a positive addiction to an activity. They are:
- It is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote approximately an hour per day;
- It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn’t take a good deal of mental effort to do it well;
- You can do it alone or rarely with others but it does not depend upon others to do it;
- You believe that it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you;
- You believe that if you persist at it you will improve—but this is completely subjective—you need to be the only one who measures the improvement; and
- The activity must have the quality that you can do it without criticizing yourself. If you can’t accept yourself during this time the activity will not be addicting (emphasis original).
A positive addiction does not dominate one’s life; it stays confined within a time frame. The beneficial consequences of the activity can spill over into one’s entire life but the activity itself is limited. One’s attitude toward the activity is crucial. The judgment whether one is improving is delicate; one must not adopt a critical attitude toward herself. The pleasure is diminished if one just hammers on herself for not getting better at an activity, even one she loves in many ways. A negative attitude precludes a positive addiction.
There’s nothing wrong in a person’s identifying healthy and fun behaviors as pleasant and improving the quality of one’s life. The more people identify these activities, the better. Glasser’s criteria provide a good way to distinguish healthy and pleasant activities from ones that are not. It provides people a way to assess the activities that contribute to a healthy and happy life and jettison those that do not.
I wonder, though, why call healthy behaviors that contribute to happiness positive addictions? What is gained by naming them addictions? Is there some positive value in being seen as an addict (of the right sort)? Is there some important reclamation work to be done with the word “addiction?”
I admit that I cannot conceive what is gained by naming healthy behaviors addictions. When I have heard people talk about their “positive addictions” I often hear wonder and appreciation that is clothed in dedication to a practice. I love having healthy and pleasant activities in my life like that but I have also had addictive activities. When I compare my drinking with my increased consumption and tolerance, and with all the increasingly negative and harmful consequences to having a regular workout routine that fulfills Glasser’s criteria, I have the sense of comparing apples to car tires. The dissimilarities between the two practices are far greater than any similarities, which makes it difficult to see them each as addictions.
I also worry about the implications of the wide-scale adoption of the notion of “positive addiction.” Its adoption would underscore a distinction between the right and wrong sorts of addictions/addicts. The “positive addicts” would be seen as morally praiseworthy while the rest of us would continue to be painted with the brush of moral blameworthiness. To be fair, there already is a distinction many draw between the right and wrong sorts of addicts. In U.S. culture, being an alcoholic is more acceptable than being addicted to crystal meth, for example. This is deeply troubling for many reasons, which deserve further exploration in another post. Suffice it to say, it is better to undermine the distinction of right and wrong addictions/addicts than support it.
Words or concepts can only be stretched so far before they become meaningless. The word “addiction” is normally used to differentiate normal behaviors from those that are not normal, well beyond excessive, and bring significant physical and psychological negative consequences. Stretching the word “addiction” too far entails that it can no longer be used to differentiate these sorts of behaviors. The word “addiction” loses meaning. This is too important a concept to lose.
“Positive addiction” is a contradiction in terms; it is an oxymoron. I would like to see that term taken out of circulation.
I have also heard people say of their recovery program that they are addicted to it. They clearly meet Glasser’s criteria and can show the ways that their lives are enhanced. Some even say that they experience a kind of pain or lack of pleasure when they are not engaged in their program. But here, too, I do not believe that “addiction” is the most accurate or appropriate description. One can have a deep allegiance to something that drives their participation and enhances their lives, but this does not make it an addiction.
William Glasser, Positive Addiction. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1985.