Humans are motivated by the pursuit of happiness – always. This is true even in the realm of addiction. In The Freedom Model we call this concrete truth The Positive Drive Principle (PDP).

When I’m teaching The Freedom Model to a student who is struggling with their drinking or drug habit, it is common to hear them say how much they hate getting drunk or high. There are many reasons for this reaction. The costs of their habit in squandered resources, lost relationships and legal issues can be steep. They may have developed such a high tolerance to their drug that they are no longer getting a good buzz, but instead are living in a lonely, hazy sickened fog. Some people are at this stage and they are drinking or drugging simply to stave off withdrawal. They are not “getting high” any more. From a comparative perspective, what used to be fun and satisfying is no longer. They drink or drug simply to avoid getting dope sick. In cases like this, saying someone is driven by their PDP – their pursuit of happiness – can seem almost insulting. The word happiness in conjunction with the activity of drinking or drugging to avoid withdrawal seems a bridge way too far.

But is it? Are we all truly always motivated by our drive to be happier people, even in cases where there seems no outward upside to their continued heavy use? In The Freedom Model we address this sometimes confusing topic. Take a look:

“Now in reality, there is no middle state devoid of feelings. We always feel something, and if you move rapidly from intense pain to no pain, or from intense pain to mild pain, you will absolutely experience some happiness. How could you not? Feeling better is feeling better. For example, many people say heroin users don’t do it to be happy; they just do it to feel normal. As a former heroin user, I’ll say that when I woke up in withdrawal, then begged, scrounged, and stole to get a hit, and then finally got a reprieve from my dope-sickness when I shot up, I was happy as hell. Did I like the overall state of my life? Absolutely not; I hated it. Did I like coming out of painful withdrawal? Of course I did.

To feel “normal,” whatever that means when people use it in reference to their motivation to drink/drug, is a happier state than the pain, discomfort, sadness, or whatever abnormality it is from which people feel they need to escape.

While discussing outcomes here, let’s not get back into the trap of thinking that outcomes determine the motive. If after hustling up enough money to get a hit, I end up getting ripped off with an inert substance that turns out not to be heroin, and I remain in the exact same painful state of withdrawal, the PDP still applies.  Even though my disappointment at getting ripped off immediately moves me in the direction of greater misery, my motive was still the pursuit of happiness. I wanted to feel better, even though that wasn’t the outcome. The same goes for if I had bought a tainted bag of heroin, and then died of an overdose. The motive was to move toward greater happiness, although the result was the exact opposite.

Happiness is Subjective, and a Mixed Bag

We should not need to mention it, but different things make different people happy, depending on their perspective of the benefits. Our ‘house versus apartment’ example made that clear enough. However, to add some more depth to this, let’s look back at our last example of being in heroin withdrawal.

We have seen people, in the midst of heroin withdrawal, experience happiness. How can this be? Well, they were proud to be enduring the pain and not turning back to heroin for a quick fix. They had it set in their minds that there was a greater goal being achieved by enduring this pain. They looked forward to “getting over the hump” and being free of the withdrawal cycle.

There are plenty of cases where people happily endure physical pain, and in a sense, enjoy it. Distance runners regularly experience this. It’s not just when they finish the race that they feel happiness; they feel it while struggling to keep running. The same goes for mountain climbers. Graduate students experience it while in complete mental exhaustion burning the midnight oil to complete their master’s thesis.

Happiness isn’t all-or-nothing either; it is a mixed bag. You often see people in the midst of battling a serious life threatening illness experiencing happiness. You see people on their deathbeds, happy to be able to tell their visiting relatives how much they love them. You see it in the worst conditions on earth; in prisons, concentration camps, refugee camps, after natural disasters. You see people working towards happiness in these situations, trying to find a scrap of progress amidst utter devastation.

People even work towards happiness in depression, and this case might be more illuminating than anything. Depression, as researcher Martin Seligman discovered, is caused by “the belief that your actions will be futile.” The depressed individual believes that they are powerless to change their circumstances. They believe their efforts will not make anything better. As they believe this more and more, they withdraw from life more and more, until they get to a point where the most severely depressed people won’t even get out of bed. Since they believe that making efforts to improve their life will fail, then making these efforts is viewed as the less happy option, such efforts are all cost, with no benefit. The severely depressed individual’s inaction – literally not leaving their bed – is a choice made to make sure that they don’t sink any lower than they are now. It’s a choice made to avoid beating themselves up later for trying and failing. And in this stagnant avoidance of deeper suffering, there is a pursuit of happiness. In this hanging-on, there is a pursuit of happiness. It is as above, the avoidance of pain is an attempt to remain as close to happiness as possible. The happiness is found in not sinking lower, and in hanging on in stasis waiting for the day when things will by chance get better, and where it seems that some kind of effort and action will be worth trying.

Why is recognizing the pursuit of happiness so important?

You must be scratching your head right now wondering just why we would spend all this time and energy going on and on about the pursuit of happiness. If the pursuit of happiness is behind everything, then what significance can it have here? The answer is far more important than you realize.

Recovery ideology and its proponents have portrayed addiction as a disease for one major reason: to short circuit any decision-making process and scare heavy substance users into stopping. In their opinion, you are incapable of arriving at the conclusion that it is worth making a change. In their opinion, you are immoral and spiritually bankrupt (if you don’t believe it, read through the bible of addiction that serves as the basis for every major concept of and approach to addiction, The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous). So, in the same way that a preacher tries to scare people into behaving in ways that are moral and righteous with tales of fire and brimstone, the treatment professionals, sponsors, and the like try to scare people into abstinence with tales of the ravages of the disease of addiction and what will happen if you commit their version of a sin which is having a single drink or hit of a drug.

Heavy substance use is extremely different from diseases in an important way. Diseases are all bad. That is, there is not an ounce of good in a disease. People may suffer diseases, and come out with good experiences. They may value life more, be more grateful, learn patience, overcome fears, build character, and find other silver linings in the experience of fighting a disease. But these good aren’t inherent in the diseases or the inevitable result of diseases; these good things are the result of human beings’ natural capacity for optimism and learning. People actively generate the good things as a way to make their experiences worthwhile. It is a case of life giving you lemons, and you choosing to make lemonade.

Heavy substance use, on the other hand, is not a case of life giving you lemons. Heavy substance users see benefits in substance use, and so they desire it, and actively seek to use substances to acquire the perceived benefits. Cancer sufferers do not see a high in having cancer (or stress relief, or lowered inhibitions, etc), thus they do not desire cancer, and they most certainly do not actively set out to acquire cancer by furiously ingesting carcinogens. This distinction is massive.

While people certainly can and do make choices that inadvertently lead to disease, nobody is ever motivated to acquire diseases (except for perhaps a tiny handful of people with some extremely strange ideas). They don’t get sick so that they can learn to be more grateful, patient, and appreciative of health and other blessings. They get sick by accident, not by direct choice. Diseases are by definition all bad, and completely unwanted, with no perceived direct benefits. As soon as you know you have a disease, you know you want the disease gone. Most people diligently follow their doctor’s orders, and readily undergo procedures and surgeries meant to remove the disease from their body or ease their suffering in some way. The recovery society tries to engender this same readiness to change and follow doctors’ orders by portraying addiction as a disease. They try to convince you that you must stop using substances, but it doesn’t work. People continue to desire substances and so they white knuckle it, trying to resist their desires with willpower, until they crumble and go back to heavy substance use again because that’s truly what they want to do.

This choice to use substances then gets called a “relapse” into the disease. This terminology is dangerously misleading because again, it overlooks the real issue that you want to use substances because you see sufficient benefits in it. In distracting you from the real issue, the disease model keeps you from working through whether heavy substance use really is your happiest option or not. Essentially, those who push the disease model are like a parent who simply tells their child the answers to long-division problems, without ever walking the child through the steps needed to discover the answer himself. When the day of the big test comes, he’s helpless to come up with the answers and sits there puzzled. So while you may accept someone else’s conclusion that you should stop using substances, this isn’t the same as reaching that conclusion yourself.

The Positive Drive Principle says that all human behavior is driven by the pursuit of happiness, and that when you choose to do something, it is because you see it as your best available option. This is vitally important because the only way that you will stop desiring heavy substances and change your behavior is by seeing more happiness in the change. You must reach that conclusion yourself, because, as Aristotle said:

“We desire in accordance with our deliberation.”

Nobody can deliberate for you. They can give you an answer – that you should never touch a substance again – but it empowers you no more than the answer your father gave you to the long-division problem. You have your own answer. That conclusion that you arrived at some point in your life – that heavy substance use is what you need to do to be happy – is sitting there in your mind, untouched, unaltered, creating a desire to use substances. It is a strong conviction, and as Bastiat said:

“No conviction makes so lasting an impression on the mind as that which it works out for itself.”

Here’s what usually happens if you’re a true believer that you’ve got a disease and agree that you just need to comply with the treatment and accept the lifelong battle of your disease. You go to all the meetings, all the counseling, all the sober parties. You change people, places, and things. You avoid triggers. You run off to a meeting or call a sponsor at the slightest thought of using substances. You spend every waking moment “working on recovery”, but something keeps nagging at you. The desire to use keeps popping up in your mind. You feel deprived. It’s a daily struggle. You get “overpowering cravings” and you crumble, diving headlong into heavy substance use again. The thing that has been nagging at you is your own fore drawn conclusion that heavy substance use is what you need to be happy. It’s the preference that you built, and that you haven’t changed, because you skipped right over it and started fighting a non-existent disease.

Perhaps you are one of the many struggling substance users that don’t believe addiction is a disease. We get many guests who come into our retreats that agree that it is not a disease. Maybe you believe one of the alternative yet equivalent models of addiction where it’s not a disease, but there is still a distinct lack of control. No matter, your results are the same. If you think trauma is causing your substance use, and you set out to battle your trauma, the principle is the same – your conclusion that heavy substance use is what you need to be happy still goes unchanged. It nags at you while you focus on the red herring of trauma. Dealing with your “underlying causes” and co-occurring disorders plays out the same way. Trying to “increase self-control,” or solve the problem through nutritional supplements and macrobiotic diets, yoga, meditation, exercise, and alternative support groups are all methods that equally miss the point.

All of those theories focus on battling some sort of imagined cause of substance use. In fact there are no causes to be battled; there are only reasons held within the mind that underlie your preferences and choices. By ignoring reasons, these methods never allow you to address the conclusion you came to that heavy substance use is what you need to be happy, thus leaving your desire intact. They leave you preferring heavy substance use by distracting you from re-assessing its relative perceived benefits. While it is true that some people stumble into figuring out that they no longer prefer heavy substance use while undergoing these approaches, this is an accident. These people figured it out in spite of the “help” they received.

Figuring out whether your current substance use makes you happy enough and whether or not you’d be happier with some level of change is everything. It is the entirety of change in this issue because once you arrive at the conclusion that your former style of substance use is not your happiest option, the desire to continue it will literally melt away. That’s why understanding the PDP is so important. Once you accept that your behavior is a pursuit of happiness, you can get on with discovering your happiest options. Substance use becomes a choice like any other choice when seen this way. It might be an emotion-laden choice, it might be a complicated choice that takes some serious unpacking and re-examination, but it is a choice nonetheless.”

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