Why Our Addiction Treatments Are Failing…

Why Our Addiction Treatments Are Failing...

You’ve probably been confronted with addiction and substance abuse in one way or another.

God knows I have. My mom has been an alcoholic for as long as I can remember.

In this post, I’m going to explain why I think we have it backward in our society in the way we look at and treat addiction and substance abuse and how Positive Psychology can help create more effective therapies.

Because the success rate of mainstream therapies is a sobering reminder of our struggle to treat addiction. Especially with the current opioid epidemic in the US, we need more effective treatments.

Let’s start by looking at how an opium addict describes his experience (De Quincey, T., 1986):

I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium taking… but I took it; – and in about an hour, oh! Heavens! What a revulsion! What an upheaving, from its lower depths, of the inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me! That my [stomach] pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: – this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea… for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness…

A description of an experience like this makes the question ‘Why do some people use opioids?’ quite absurd. It is obvious why someone would want to experience the state the addict described.

A better question is: ‘Why don’t some people use opioids?

What do non-users (or responsible users) have to live for that is more rewarding than the instant ‘abyss of divine enjoyment’ of opioid usage?

Surely they have something that fills up the void that addicts fill with drugs. The will to live and stay alive because life has something to offer. The possibility of some meaning to be experienced that the use of drugs stands in the way of.

This makes us wonder what hole the addict is trying to fill.


Let’s take a quick look at the literature

Hunts and Evans (2008) argued that intoxication provides personal pleasure, but they emphasized its “facilitation of social and communal cohesion.”

Also, drugs have found to be a salve for a life that is “meaningless, monotonous and boring” (Narcotics Anonymous, 1982, p. 80).

Hull (1981) showed that the appeal of alcohol lies partly in its capacity to help individuals lose their sense of self-awareness.

And have you ever heard of the Rat Park Study (1976)?

In short, it showed that socially isolated rats took about 19 times the amount of morphine compared to rats in the Rat Park that weren’t socially isolated and that preferred normal water over morphine water. (This video explains it very well in 3,5 minutes.)


So what can we conclude from all this?

It follows that what addicts are looking for is to be relieved of feelings of meaninglessness, to transcend the suffering self, to lose self-awareness and to get a sense of connection to others and something outside of themselves that matters.

Researcher G.R. Thompson observed that

“this assumption also implies that addiction is not a pathology in the sense that the mainstream promotes. Rather, it is more a misguided search for wholeness and belonging.”

In other words: addicts are trying to open the right door, they’re simply using the wrong key.

Yes, psychological and environmental factors play a role together with genetic predisposition and a range of other factors. But what is often overlooked is that therapies that ignore the existential vacuum – the underlying feelings of meaninglessness and disconnection – won’t successfully take away the cause of chronic addiction.

You’ve got to pull the weeds out by the root if you want to do that. You’ve got to address the unmet needs that lead to the addiction in the first place.



Let’s say a therapist decides to treat alcoholism with a period of abstinence. It sounds like a good idea, but the question is what the addict is getting in return for his addiction. Because taking away a means that alleviates the burden of self-awareness and feelings of meaninglessness without giving the addict anything in return is simply a bad deal. Why would one take such a deal?

This “getting nothing in return principle” might explain why some addicts lack the intrinsic motivation to recover. (for more, look at W.R. Millers’ 2006 Motivational Theory of Recovery).


This is where positive psychology comes in…

Addiction recovery should involve more than taking away what is “bad.” It should focus on building something potent and positive to satisfy the unmet needs that caused the drug use, such as:

  • Connection to other people
  • Positive affect
  • Hope
  • Autonomy
  • Meaningful Experiences
  • Reduced suffering (mentally or physically)
  • To be a part of something bigger than themselves
  • Abstinence, in this sense, is the by-product of living a personally meaningful life.


Sorry for the textual tsunami. I hope these insights are of use to you somehow.


Seph Fontane PennockYour friend,

Seph Fontane Pennock

About the Author

Seph Fontane Pennock, BBA, is the co-founder of PositivePsychology.com. Seph strongly believes that we can deal with most of life’s absurdities by leveraging human connection and challenging ourselves, instead of using dogma or pharmaceutical drugs.


  1. Sam Savage

    Wow. This article sums it up Better than any I have read before. I am in the midst of trying to become involved in the opioid crisis here in the county where I live in Georgia. I’m actually from Eastern Kentucky and it has been one of the heaviest hit areas for the opioid crisis/epidemic in the country. Here’s the thing, I went to rehab seven years ago for opioid addiction, which was only one mood -altering substance among many that I had used since my early twenties. And it was the one that stuck. I come from a wealthy family, upper middle class family where conformity and hard work were rewarded. Daydreaming and light hearted mischievousness were not considered “creativity” and were punished accordingly. I wanted to write and teach and live in the mountains, and my father made me come home from my summer job after college so I could work on his insurance agency for 17 years. I ended up, going straight to rehab after I told him I could no longer handle the business. That is another story in itself, but my point is this, when dealing with addiction and recovery, especially with our youth, and this opioid epidemic in our country, there needs to be more emphasis on family of origin and the roles of Parenting styles affect children, perhaps with executive function developing properly, which in my case was the primary reason for my not being able to think for myself most of the time. Highly negative and critical environments which generally imply that extrinsic motivators are in place, Should always be a consideration and helping another person unscramble the reasons why they act the way they do and do the things they do when it comes to substance abuse and or any other self-destructing behavior. Now this is on the very extreme end of the spectrum. I see some of my children’s friends who have Highly critical parents and these children are breaking under the pressure. There’s very little positive reinforcement of any good behavior but so much criticism for the smallest mistake. The answer is right there in front of us. This article is awesome. I can’t wait to read some more. And as far as people who seemingly have these great lives, It is impossible to know which experiences from their past have led to certain behaviors, like substance abuse or other maladaptive behaviors. The list is long. I’m really glad I saw this today. It was exactly what I was looking for and have been thinking about when working with some of the youth at my kids high school.

  2. June James

    thank you for sharing. This has given me a new perspective on addiction. However, what about persons who have a happy family, a well established career, friends etc. and still turn to drugs? I have a friend who falls into this category. i am a social worker and do not work with clients who are drug addicts. I fear that my intervention would be meaningless. I have seen so many enter rehabs and return to a life of addiction.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *