An Addicted Society?

An Addicted Society?

Might individual addictions be considered symptoms of an unwell society?

Richard Bryant-Jefferies speculates

We use all kinds of behaviour to gain experiences that for us serve a purpose, meet a need or quell a discomfort -- seeking a sense of satisfaction. We want to feel a particular way, or gain a certain set of inner experiences as a result of our actions. Each day we make choices: to do this, or not to do that; and our choices are driven by the experience of what brings us this greatest sense of satisfaction. Often what defines this sense of satisfaction are the conditioning experiences that we have had in early life, though such conditioning also occurs later in life as well.

The major conditioning factor in our society could arguably be said to be ‘consumerism’, with advertising playing a significant role in shaping our desires and therefore what we need to feel satisfied. Eat this, buy that, travel here, drink this, do that, join this, be part of that, wear this, have that. In a consumer society, the more we have, the more satisfied we should feel. And yet it does not really work out this way.

What we do may feel very much a social experience, something that we enjoy from time to time, or even every day, with a sense that it is a free choice and not something that we feel driven to do.  But for some of us in relation to some activities there comes a point at which our choice is no longer free, we are experiencing a desire that has more urgency, a ‘choice’ that simply has to be made. We still think of it as free choice, but there is now something demanding. We have to have a drink or buy that latest fashion, we have to be seen at a particular venue, eat another bar of chocolate, or gamble on another scratch-card.

We may still have some control, in that the urge to satisfy a particular demand may not interfere with our daily responsibilities. We may not be experiencing a problematic effect, yet if we continue with habits of this nature then changes can occur. We begin to buy things on our credit card that we cannot afford. We drink more to feel a particular way, but it leaves us short of money to pay the rent. We return to the casino because we want the buzz that comes from being part of that scene and we want to feel a winner. We need to look a certain way so we don’t eat as much and we exercise more and more. Slowly, we can find ourselves pursuing certain behaviours to the point that they begin to dominate us. They begin to assume more importance than is healthy. The variety of our experience begins to diminish as we become increasingly centred on the behaviours that are now habitual features of our lives. Slowly, and inexorably, we put ourselves at risk of becoming addicted. 

The individual’s behaviour, their neurological functioning and the resulting internal personal experience are bound together. The habit takes over. Neural pathways fire up like default pathways as we continue with our addictive behaviour, increasing the level of obsession or compulsion. It could be argued that any behaviour that brings intense experiencing, and is continued over time and to excess, creates a kind of neurological, psychological and/or chemical dependency. 

How can we identify whether we have an addiction, or an obsession or compulsion that is tending towards addiction? Try and deny yourself that something that you do habitually, and see what happens. A word of caution: this can be dangerous if we are talking about substance use, particularly alcohol.  In this case, suddenly stopping where there is physical (i.e. chemical) dependence can be life-threatening, and a gradual reduction is much safer.. But otherwise, try to deny yourself a particular experience and observe what happens, what internal dialogue starts to take place:. ‘you don’t have a problem’, ‘do it anyway’, ‘you’re in control’, ‘just once more, it’s not a problem’. Deny yourself an episode of your favourite soap opera. There will be a sense of loss -- yes, that is natural and normal, but is it more than that? Is it genuinely depressing, or do we feel anxious, on edge, pre-occupied with thinking about what we are missing?

The range of obsessions and compulsions that can become addictions in our society is growing.  Eating, particularly foods that are fatty, sugary, and/or highly processed, not eating/dieting, exercising and working-out, using the internet (for checking email, or going to chat rooms, for example), shopping (for clothes or the latest electronic gadget), watching soap operas, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, watching or participating in violent behaviour , following a football team, betting and gambling, computer games, music (many people are addicted to sound), cleaning, sex, horror, risk and danger. 

We generally think of an addiction as a personal behaviour, but what of collective, societal addictions? As a society, do we generate collective addictions that people are conditioned into, simply in order to be part of the ‘normality’ of that society? And from this perspective might individual addictions also be considered as symptoms of an unwell society, a society that perhaps pre-occupies itself with experiences and behaviours that assume an importance that is incongruent to their true value. And what of the young people being conditioned into some or many of these social norms from an early age?

In my view one of the roles of therapy, perhaps the core role, is that of enabling someone to become more authentically themselves, and therefore less driven by external conditioning. Therapy helps people become clearer as to who they are and what urges them to make the choices they make. They may continue to make a particular choice, but they will then do so with greater understanding, knowing why and what part it plays in their life experience. Therapy surely brings the possibility of a genuine freedom to choose. 

Originally published in Therapy Today, journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Vol 17, No 2.

Richard Bryant-Jefferies is author of a number of books including: Problem Drinking, Counselling for Problem Gambling, Counselling a Recovering Drug User, Counselling for Eating Disorders in Men, Counselling for Eating Disorders in Women, and Counselling Young Binge Drinkers (Radcliffe Publishing).