The surprising truth is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is human connection.
Johann Hari is a journalist and author whose life was affected by drug addiction in his family. Yet, the sad story of his family prompted him to mount a personal quest for answers, and what he has found can benefit us all. Today, when substance abuse has become an epidemic killing tens of thousands of people annually in the US alone, finding the causes and solutions to addiction has become an urgent need throughout the world, but especially in the US.
It’s All in the Cage
In a fascinating piece in The Huffington Post, Mr. Hari details how he discovered the truth about addiction, and what he believes will solve it. Hari found that the initial theory explaining drug addiction was developed through experiments on rats that were placed in cages with two water bottles—one with plain water, the other laced with heroin. The rats tasted from both bottles, and after several times became addicted to the heroin. They drank only from the bottle laced with the drug until they died.
The problem, Hari wrote in his piece, was that the rats were placed in the cage all by themselves, while rats are very social animals, just like us. Professor of Psychology in Vancouver, Bruce Alexander, decided to see if the theory about addiction would hold under different circumstances. He conducted the same experiment with the two bottles, but placed the rats in a cage that Hari described as “Rat Park,” replete with “colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want.”
As before, the rats tried both bottles, but this time they hardly returned to the drugged water and none of them became addicted. In conclusion, Hari wrote that “While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.”
Even more astounding than Hari’s conclusions about addiction among rats were his conclusions about addiction among humans. Hari discovered data that revealed that hospitalized patients who receive tremendous amounts of opium-based painkillers rarely become addicted. The same was true of soldiers in the Vietnam War. While they were deployed, some twenty percent of them became addicted to heroin. But upon their return, they simply stopped using it, with no rehab program required. Just like rats, once people return to a supporting and loving environment, they stop using drugs because they simply do not need them anymore. In conclusion, Hari stated that “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is human connection.”
What Happens When We Shun the Good Cage
Lack of human connection results in more than just drug addiction. It causes, or aggravates, so many physical and mental health problems that it seems as though curing it would almost eliminate the need for health care altogether. In an interview for Channel 2 in Israel, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times said that he recently asked Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, “What’s the most prevalent disease in America, is it cancer, diabetes, heart disease? He said, ‘None of those; it’s isolation.’” Not heart disease, not depression, not even substance abuse, but social isolation causes more illness in the US than any other health problem. Couple this with the increasing accessibility and affordability of both street and prescription drugs, and you will find that we have inadvertently created for ourselves the very conditions that drive rats, and humans, to substance abuse and addiction. We put ourselves in the wrong cage, namely in social isolation, and then try to escape by turning to drugs.
William Lisman is the coroner of Luzerne County, Pa. This county is officially “the Most Unhappy Place in America.” Over the years, he has seen numerous deaths caused by an overdose of prescription drugs. In his view, the situation is pretty straightforward: “We have a lot of people who are unhappy with life. People using drugs are looking to escape.”
Why the Unhappiness
If we were like rats, it would be quite simple to make all of us happy. Rats are perfectly happy with colored balls, good food, and good company. We humans already have this, and more. Life offers every conceivable form of entertainment, there is overabundance of food, and there are people all around us. Yet many of us shun all these and isolate ourselves. Why are we alienating ourselves from one another? Why is there so much hatred among us when we could live happily ever after in “Human Park”? There is only one answer: the ego.
The structure of human desires is unique. All other animals seek only to satisfy their needs. When they have enough food to sustain themselves and shelter for their young, they are restful and content. But for us, the more we have, the more we want. Beyond sustenance and reproduction, we crave power, fame, knowledge, and respect. Sustenance is not enough; we want superiority. In 1998, the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization published a research study conducted by Harvard University professors of economics, David Hemenway and Sara Solnick. In their research paper, titled, “Is more always better? A survey on positional concerns,” Hemenway and Solnick conclude that many people would prefer to receive an annual salary of $50,000 when others are making $25,000, than earn $100,000 a year when others are making $200,000. In other words, as long as we can provide for our basic needs, what matters to us is not whether or not we are rich, but whether or not we are richer than others.
Our envy and hatred of others both connect us, as we constantly compare ourselves to others, and alienate us, since we do not want to bond with them but to gain superiority. In this way, the ego corrupts our relationships with others. If we could rid ourselves of the ego, we would be restful and content, but we would essentially be like rats—settling for food and shelter.
We cannot be like rats. The ego is the engine of our evolution, the driving force behind progress. Our sages tell us in The Midrash (Kohelet): “One does not leave this world with half of one’s desires satisfied. One who has one hundred wants two hundred, and one who has two hundred wants four hundred.” As the research just mentioned demonstrates, our egos have grown to the point where they do not settle for having more; they want to have more than others. Even worse, we often enjoy causing other people pain for the sheer fun of hurting them. No animal delights in causing pain aimlessly, only humans do.
Pioneering drug abuse researcher, Professor Peter Cohen of the University of Amsterdam, stresses that people have a deep need to bond and form connections, that this is how we derive satisfaction. When the ego corrupts our connections, it destroys our greatest source of satisfaction; it makes us detest human contact, yet terrifies us of being alone.
Undoing the Ego’s Harm
As Mr. Hari put it in his post, “If we truly absorb this new story,” that addiction is not caused by chemistry but by people’s isolation, “we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.” Returning for a moment to Thomas Friedman, in an interview with Tucker Carlson on the Tucker Carlson Tonight show, Mr. Friedman said in regards to the looming challenge of permanent joblessness and the challenges it poses, “First we worked with our hands, then we worked with our heads, and now we’re going to work more with our hearts. …I think that connecting people to people will be a huge job. …I think that the best jobs will be people-to-people jobs. We’re going to see a whole new set of jobs and industries around the heart, around connecting people to people.”
Friedman is right. Back in 2013, The ARI Institute published the book, The Benefits of the New Economy: Resolving the global economic crisis through mutual guarantee. Its authors, some of whom are my students, stated that “a change of concepts and values is required now, a shift from relationships based on power to solidarity and social cohesion. The connection among people is the topic on the public agenda. The economy is meant only to support and maintain the connection among people.”
In recent years, the Arvut (Mutual Guarantee) Movement, also founded by my students, has been conducting Round Table events and Connection Circle sessions throughout the world with resounding success. These two techniques, on which I elaborate in my book, Completing the Circle, implement the principle discovered by Abraham the Patriarch, and perfected by his descendants and disciples: “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes” (Prov 10:12).
Simply put: Don’t try to crush the ego or suppress it; cover it with love and it will lift you to new heights. The authors of The Book of Zohar knew this and wrote, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers sit together. These are the friends as they sit together, and are not separated from each other. At first, they seem like people at war, wishing to kill one another. Then, they return to being in brotherly love. Henceforth, you will also not part … And by your merit there will be peace in the world” (The Book of Zohar, Aharei Mot).
While I am delighted that people are finally realizing that social isolation is our biggest problem and that we must learn to connect with one another, I also fear that we are waking up too slowly. Unless we hurry, people will be driven to such levels of violence (which are already skyrocketing) that we will not be able to prevent a social, or even global catastrophe. The sooner we realize that we must introduce widespread education for connection, the better our chances of going through the shift in our work and social connections quickly, easily, and pleasantly.
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