Costly Behaviors Are a Pursuit of Happiness, Too
Addiction is the only topic I’ve seen where the fact that drug and alcohol use comes with a price automatically qualifies those costs as justification for it being a disease or an unchosen – but compelled – behavior. This is an odd idea at best.
The strange pursuit of happiness
Unlike addiction, we would never say that the boxer who gets in the ring after a knockout loss is compelled and diseased with boxistis. Or the race car driver who hits the wall at 200mph and breaks his legs, recovers, and then gets lined up for the next race is afflicted with an enslavement of the mind that compels him/her to get back in the race car. Even more silly would be to call this “disease,” racitis.
I think we can all agree that just because a behavior or series of choices ends badly or has a steep price doesn’t automatically mean the acts are compelled or driven by a disease. Yet, that’s exactly how we see a heavy substance use habit – as compelled behavior; as a loss of mental and emotional control; as a disease. This is wrong and this matters. In The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap, we cover this myth in some detail. Take a look:
“When it comes to choices that aren’t seen as good or benign — the choices that are seen as too costly, irrational, or risky, – many people have a hard time seeing happiness as the motive. They think the person making those choices must be sick, dysfunctional, or inherently immoral in some way. The prime example here is heavy substance use. There are plenty of reasons people prefer substance use, and they all boil down to a pursuit of happiness.
But then there’s that nasty issue of the costs and consequences. And indeed, many people often don’t prefer their heavy substance use in hindsight. The outcomes can be quite costly monetarily, legally, mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically. With experience, these costs become completely predictable and are often known and thought about when choosing that next drink or hit. The prevailing school of thought is ‘Nobody would freely choose such destructive behaviors.’ This is the argument we hear most often in favor of the idea that there is a state of involuntary behavior called addiction.
It’s time that we break down that argument and challenge it thoroughly. What it’s really saying is the fact that a particular behavior or choice is extremely costly proves that it is involuntary. Or, another way of understanding this is that irrational choices are impossible, and so if a behavior turns out to be irrational in the final analysis, then it must have been compelled rather than freely chosen. When stated clearly this way, you can see how absurd it is.
Thinking through your potential options
First, to be rational; that is, to think through your potential options logically and figure out which one is truly best and will bring about the best results, takes effort. In some cases it can take an enormous amount of effort. All people, “addicts” and “non-addicts” alike, fail at this task multiple times a day! Plants and animals have it easy. They don’t have to think things through to survive and thrive, but people do.
Life is full of irrational decisions, and the challenge is to continually gain knowledge and wisdom to hopefully make increasingly better and more “rational” decisions throughout life. When people cite irrationality as proof that a behavior is involuntary, are they really saying that it’s impossible for humans to freely make irrational choices? The truth is irrationality isn’t proof of disease, it’s proof of humanity.
The high price for things that make you happy
Second, and more importantly, it’s not odd for people to pay a high price for the things and activities they believe will make them happy. You don’t need to look far for examples of this in everyday life. Just consider the costs of owning a big house. Most obviously, bigger houses have a higher monetary price, but the higher costs don’t stop there. They have higher property taxes and cost more to heat/air condition.
The time, physical, and mental energy costs to maintain a larger home are massive. It takes enormous effort to keep up extra rooms such as a den, media room, finished basement, extra bedroom, home office, laundry room, and so on.
Contrast this with a modest apartment. Instead of a big 30-year mortgage, you could pay a small monthly rent, and pay it to one person since the property taxes are figured into that payment. There is no lawn and landscaping for you to maintain, no gutters to be cleaned, no extra rooms to decorate, furnish, and keep clean. If something goes wrong structurally, or with the plumbing or HVAC system, or the paint starts to peel, you either don’t have to worry about these things, or you have one person (a landlord or superintendent) that you call to get it fixed. You don’t have to make any decisions about hiring help, contractors, or repairmen.
Your landlord handles all of these issues and the costs are already figured into your monthly rent. You needn’t spend much time, effort, or mental energy on these things. Furthermore, you have no insurance or liability to worry about if someone slips on your steps and decides to sue, or some other unforeseen event happens on the periphery of the property, because you don’t own it.
What’s more, you don’t have to worry about property values decreasing or the housing market softening and having your home become worth less than you paid for it. You take no such risks by renting. It’s simply much easier being an apartment dweller, as one comedian put it:
“I went to the Home Depot yesterday, which was unnecessary; I need to go to the Apartment Depot. It’s just a bunch of guys standing around going “Hey, we ain’t gotta fix shit.” — Mitch Hedberg, Comedian
Now, given the fact that modest apartments are so less costly, require so much less attention, and have virtually none of the risks of big houses, why does anyone buy those big homes? Are they sick and diseased? After all, their decision looks quite irrational once you consider all the risks and costs they’re taking on by making it. They’re locking themselves into 30 years of paying for a home, and also limiting their ability to move somewhere else should they feel a desire to do so.
They don’t have to take on all these negative consequences of homeownership. What causes them to continue homeownership “despite experiencing negative consequences?” Why do they take the risks involved in homeownership when they could choose the less risky “healthier option” of renting an apartment?
If society looked at the homeownership versus renting a modest apartment situation in the same way it views heavy substance use, then they would say the homeowner is sick, diseased, disordered, or dysfunctional. They would say that homeowners must’ve been traumatized, and so they’re now self-destructive and self-sabotaging. They would say they must have underlying issues of stress, anxiety, and depression that cause them to seek comfort in the immediate gratifications of living in a big home.
Of course, this analysis would be absurd. Some people like to rent a small apartment, some people like to own big luxurious mansions, and there’s a whole range of options that people prefer in between those two poles. Each individual sees benefits in these various options that make one look better than the rest and then result in the desire for such a home and willingness to pay the associated costs.
They see things they believe they need to make them happy in a home, and then they pursue the home that they think meets their needs. They may wish the costs were lower to get the benefits they want, but nevertheless, they freely, and willingly, pay the price to get what they prefer.
A preference for substance use
A person’s preference for substance use is no different. Each person has their own perspective on substance use’s benefits, and they will pay whatever the price is to get those benefits as long as they think it is the option that best serves them. The PDP (Positive Drive Principle) is how we sum up this fact.
People take actions to achieve happiness, and they do so according to their own unique perspective. If you are putting effort into something, it is because you see it as the best available and viable option to achieve/sustain a happy existence. If you truly didn’t want to do something, then you wouldn’t do it. You are driven to pursue happiness at all times; everyone is.”
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