Why Do People Use Drugs? The Relationship Between Emotions and Addiction, pt. 6: Happiness

Why Do People Use Drugs?

The Relationship Between Emotions and Addiction, pt. 6: Happiness

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

happiness and addictionThe final topic of our in-depth exploration of each core emotion is happiness.  Happiness is the most pleasurable, desired, pursued, elusive, mercurial emotion of all.  If happiness is so pleasurable and desired then it can’t be a reason people use drugs, right?  Wrong.  People often use drugs to both achieve and sustain happiness and the drugs work, sort of.  As Tolstoy astutely observed, there appear to be many more ways not to be happy than there are ways to be happy.  Drugs are one method people employ to feel happy.  Therefore, understanding happiness is vital to understanding addiction.

Did you miss part 5 of this series? Learn about the relationship between fear and addiction here.

Happiness is an umbrella term that is divided into two different meanings. The first meaning is often referred to as the hedonic form of happiness. Hedonic happiness is brief and transitory, made up of emotions such as joy, amusement, or ecstasy. Drugs are good at achieving hedonic happiness. The second meaning is termed eudaimonic happiness. Eudaimonic happiness is lasting and sustainable, made up of feelings like inner-peace, contentment, and life satisfaction. Drugs are not so good at achieving eudaimonic happiness. Sustainable happiness is not a sum of simple pleasures; it is a cognitive construction in which we judge our life-as-a-whole favorably. Long-term, excessive substance use usually results in actions inconsistent with values. Actions inconsistent with values usually result in people judging their lives-as-a-whole unfavorably,  thus impeding eudaimonic happiness.

How we think about or appraise events and our lives-as-a-whole determines to a large extent how we feel. The impact of our thinking on our happiness is a problem, given that our language disproportionately favors terms related to the less pleasurable emotions previously covered in this series. Linguistic analysts use the term ‘hedonic asymmetry’ to describe the scarcity of words related to happiness and the predominance of words related to uncomfortable emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and disgust in the English language. It is hard to think happy thoughts, and therefore feel happy, when we don’t have the tools to do so!

Taken to a larger scale, an individual’s happiness has a dynamic relationship with culture and society. Interestingly, as the wealth of developed nations increased there has not been an equivalent increase in the happiness of the people populating those nations. There are thresholds below which material deprivation and poverty impact happiness, but above these thresholds quality of life and happiness are subjective and appraisal-based. Yet, the mentality of more continues to dominate the consciousness of developed nations. Even though the belief that acquiring more material possessions will lead to happiness continues to prevail, it is consistently challenged by research findings.

In the United States the pursuit of happiness is a revered staple of the culture. The problem is that many pursue hedonic, not eudaimonic, happiness. In the vast, expansive, sprawling strip-mall of America, hedonic happiness is the end and consumerism is the means. Once a Mercedes is owned the eyes drift to a Bentley, then a Rolls Royce, then a private jet, and the water mirage in the desert keeps disappearing right when you’re about to quench your thirst. The more happiness is the target the harder it is to hit. Engrossed in the pursuit of purpose one simultaneously forgets and achieves happiness. When feeling happy already people are much less likely to use substances problematically.

No discussion of happiness would be complete without including one of the most important emotional states related to happiness; love. Some prominent figures like Frank Tallis regard love as a mental illness. Indeed, in extreme forms love can lead to our deepest despairs. Love can also lead to the most important and meaningful experiences in our lives.

Despite love’s prominent role in our lives, we tend to share some fundamental misconceptions about this powerful emotional state that extends from happiness. We tend to think that love is something we fall into, that it happens by accident and without effort. Erich Fromm, in his landmark work The Art of Loving, points out that most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving. Seeking to be loved results in much energy spent trying to be attractive, rich, and powerful, in developing good manners, in being an engaging conversationalist, etc. Western culture predominantly believes the lie that to be lovable is to be popular and have sex appeal.

According to Fromm, another fundamental misconception of love is that it is a problem of an object rather than a faculty. Most see the difficulty in love as the challenge of finding the right object to love, and that after you find the right love object love is simple. If we just find Mr. or Ms. Right the rest is history, correct? Love at first sight, find prince charming and live happily ever after, right? Wrong and wrong. We would greatly help ourselves in love and happiness by focusing on developing the faculty of standing in love rather than running around hoping we will stumble in to the right object and find ourselves luckily falling in love. How do we develop the faculty of standing in love?

The first step is to see love as an art. We would do ourselves a great service to proceed in love as we would in mastering any artistic endeavor like music, painting, sculpting, film, writing, etc. Once love is viewed as an art, we work to master it as we would any art form – we must first learn the theory and then learn the practice. Over time, theoretical knowledge and the fruits of tireless practice merge into a seamless, at times almost magical experience that some call flow. To truly master an art the mastery must be of ultimate concern. However, most people do not identify mastering the art of love as a major focus or primary concern in their lives. People generally want to fall in love and be happy, but their energy towards those ends is focused on methods that rarely result in the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, trying to be lovable and pursuing happiness is usually a recipe for being alone and feeling empty.  Once we feel a void within and alone in the world our behavior can quickly become violently or silently destructive.

Final Thoughts on the Tie Between Happiness and Addiction

I began this series stating that whether we like it or not, emotions run our lives. Some readers took strong objection to this claim, and understandably so. Reason does afford us the freedom to act in accordance with, or contrary to, our emotional experience. But whether we are acting impulsively or rationally, emotions are core motivators of human actions or inaction. Many describe the first four emotions covered in this series (anger, sadness, disgust, fear) as negative emotions. I hoped exploring each emotion would help challenge the absolute embedded in labeling any emotion as positive or negative because all emotions, even the uncomfortable ones, have important functions.

Happiness and love can have negative effects and sadness and depression can have positive effects. Because substances change, numb, or enhance how we feel, emotions are a factor in every decision to use drugs. Understanding the roots of our emotional experience can increase our awareness of what we feel and allow our reason and rationality to be more effective in its duty of helping us determine what course of action to take or not take in response to how we feel.

Enjoyed this piece on happiness and addiction? Learn more about how feardisgust, sadness, and anger play into patterns of addiction.

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