Can Addiction Be Positive?

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

Is there such a thing as “positive” addiction? It sounds contradictory. But what exactly is addiction? An issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter advises us that uncontrollable craving and prolonged use of a substance are involved. The idea of craving was highlighted by research in the 1990s, summarized by Daniel Goleman in the “Science” section of The New York Times. Rats stimulated in key areas of the mesolimbic dopamine system — a part of the midbrain of mammals — kept pressing a bar to keep the stimulation going; kept pressing it even though food was offered, and actually starved themselves to death rather than forgo the pleasure the stimulation provided.

Goleman further explained that “the mesolimbic dopamine system connects … the orbitofrontal cortex, in the prefrontal area behind the forehead, with the amygdala in the brain’s center, and with the [nearby] nucleus accumbens. Humans experiencing intensive ecstasy related to religious practice were studied in research reported in the BBC special, “All in the Mind: Understanding the Complexity of the Brain.” They found an area in the prefrontal cortex was greatly activated during times of intense religious devotion.

Years ago, Nancy Reagan sought to lessen the impact of illicit drug use by exhorting us, “Just say no!” A better slogan might be, “Don’t just say no to drugs — say yes to something better.” Or as the Apostle Paul put it, “Be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit.” An alternative type of intoxication has been known for centuries — and such alternative intoxications have been called “positive” addictions.

Even an introductory psychology course will note that creating a behavior vacuum doesn’t work. That’s why punishment is less effective than reinforcing an alternative behavior. The human or other animal with a behavior void will go back to what is known, the original behavior. A positive addiction, however, can replace a destructive addiction.

The Runner’s High

Psychiatrist William Glasser, in his book “Positive Addiction” extolls the runner’s high, produced by a natural hormone with opium-like effects, released by the brain. Runners actually become addicted to the hormone and experience withdrawal effects when injury prevents running. And that’s the down side. Runners have become so addicted that they run even though they know it has become dangerous. Death from heart attack has resulted. Nonetheless, as Glasser notes, such positive addictions as running and meditation leave people more effective and energetic. As one runner put it, “I have so much to do, I don’t have time not to run today.”

Music, Performance, and Individual Forms of Positive Addiction

All of us can find our own forms of positive addiction, our own ways of getting “high.” People often provide examples from their own lives. Musicians report ecstasy from their renditions of great music, and actors experience ecstasy when the audience applauds a great performance.

Addiction to Excellence and to Work

Alice Fisher, my teacher years ago, urged “addiction to excellence.” For her and others, such a craving led to stellar performance. As with other positive addictions, however, there is a danger; in this case, perfectionism. Perfectionists often are hindered by their addiction. They may find themselves unable to function if they can’t be perfect in their performance, or they may simply not submit excellent work they consider not good enough.

A related form of addiction is a need to work, just for the pleasure it brings. As a human-resources manager before beginning my doctoral studies, this was of special interest to me. I’ve asked whether the word workaholic is an unfair put-down of people who work extraordinarily hard — or whether such people actually suffer an addiction to work comparable to alcoholism. Sometimes, the answer is, “Both.” Those who regularly work feverishly from dawn to midnight but experience ecstasy rather than exhaustion are, indeed, addicted. Their brains release opium-like chemicals, producing a high. If they lessen the intensity of their work they suffer withdrawal similar to that of a cocaine addict. However, workaholic addiction can be a constructive alternative to destructive drug addictions.

The hitch is, there are pitfalls awaiting such dedicated workers. (See: Is Workaholism Harmful?) Workaholism is positive if the work provides satisfaction, meaning, and direction to life. Work is one (but not the only) reason for living, if it offers hope for a better future for self and others.

Addiction to Spirituality

One ancient addiction is the craving for spiritual experience. The psalmist sang, “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God” (Psalm 84, King James Version of the Bible). A good many psalms express such longing, such craving for spiritual experience.

Turning from Judaism to Sufism (the mystical wing of Islam) we hear the poet Rumi declare:

It is a burning of the heart I want
It is this burning I want more than anything
It is this burning in the core of the heart
That calls God secretly in the night
(Harvey, “Love’s Glory: Recreations of Rumi”)

The idea of burning has explicitly been used with regard to getting high on drugs, as in when The Doors sang, “Light my fire,” But the ancient, symbolic meaning of fire is spiritual. In the Christian New Testament, the Book of Acts declares that on an occasion of the religious holiday Pentecost, “tongues of fire came and sat on each head.” In my childhood and youth, our Christian congregation sang, “I never shall forget how the fire fell, when the Lord sanctified me.” Sanctification and “baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire” were synonyms.

Rumi describes the experience as an intoxication:

Tonight the knowers of the mysteries are drunk
Seated in ecstasy behind the veil with the Friend.
Marvelous strange existence! Keep away from our door!
Strangers tonight belong to a different world

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

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