“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” – Johann Hari
Addiction specialist Gabor Maté, along with several other well-respected thinkers and researchers, have been breaking down long-held societal and medical assumptions about addicts by presenting emotional loss and trauma as the core of addiction, rather than resting the blame squarely on the addict in the form of a mental illness or weakness of character. As a result of this profound shift in our beliefs and understanding, the decriminalization of drug use and addiction is gaining momentum in countries around the world.
Writer and journalist Johann Hari has taken this thinking further by suggesting that addicts share a slightly more general condition in common: a lack of connection. We can see how these two views intersect by taking a step back and looking at what social connection provides human beings. Recent neuroscience research reveals that humans require social connection for optimal brain development in the form of a loving, safe environment, particularly during infancy and childhood.
Trauma is also known to interrupt healthy neural wiring in both the developing and mature brain, and often those who have suffered trauma are left with a sense that the world is not safe, and that people, and society, cannot be trusted. This results in isolation and a lack of connection.
Research discovered that a healthy connection in childhood provides a sort of protection in the form of emotional resiliency later in life. Adults who lacked this type of environment (i.e. where loving care was unstable or absent, or where abuse or trauma were present) have a resulting reduced capacity for dealing with life’s challenges and emotional distress.
How does all of this relate back to addiction? Individuals who lack meaningful connection – whether as a result of isolation, lack of a loving home environment, or emotional loss/trauma, and their resulting reduced ability to cope effectively with emotional distress – are an at increased risk of developing a dependence on substances or other destructive behaviours. Essentially, people engage in compulsive and addictive patterns to avoid pain and the absence of connection in their lives.
The social solution to addiction becomes fairly clear and simple when viewing the problem from this angle: the cultural response must be to establish a healthy connection between the addict and their community, and to let them know they are valued by their society. More immediate support when an addicted individual first decides to finally face their long-buried pain is also essential.
Portugal is a living demonstration of this type of social support and connection in action. The country has seen a greater than 50% drop in addiction since it began implementing social programs specifically designed to create the all-important connection between an addict and their community.
In a 2015 article by Johann Hari, he concludes:
Professor Peter Cohen (Director of the Centre for Drug Research in Amsterdam) argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.
This final observation may also shed some light on the rising epidemic of loneliness and isolation seen in much of the developed world (The Loneliness Epidemic), and a rise in addictive behaviours in those same populations (gambling, shopping, over-eating, social media & gaming, TV etc.). Perhaps our collective yearning for more meaningful connections is at the root of the increase in these less-than-fulfilling patterns.
Hari, J. (2015b) The likely cause of addiction has been discovered, and it is not what you think. Huffington Post (2/20/2015).
TED Talk: Johann Hari: Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong