A little while back I wrote about the connection between isolation and addiction that Sam Quinones described in his book Dreamland. I wrote about the Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Mirthy, who has also recently published a book about loneliness in the United States, arguing that we have a loneliness epidemic that is causing a number of health issues for people across the country. Mirthy was interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast, and the idea of loneliness has been one that Klein has returned to over and over in his show, with small comments or questions to many of his guests during conversations about a wide range of problems in American life.
The connection between addiction and loneliness is also something addressed by Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari focuses on the importance of community in helping people avoid drug misuse and addiction, and in helping people recover from addiction. On loneliness he writes, “One recovering heroin and crack addict on the Downtown Eastside [of Vancouver, CA], Dean Wilson, put it to me simply. addiction he said is a disease of loneliness.”
Addiction is not limited to people who live on the streets or who have no friends and find themselves in an apartment, isolated from any friends or family. However, isolation in that manner does make illicit drug use, prescription drug abuse, and addiction more likely. Addiction is also not limited to chemical substances. Hari argues that when we feel isolated, when we lack meaning, when we have no community to participate with as part of a broader mission than buying shiny consumer products, we are more likely to form bonds with chemicals, with sex, or with behaviors such as gambling. A sense of loneliness leaves us wanting something more and something different, and often, we can find ourselves addicted to something to distract from our loneliness.
Punishing people with addiction challenges, making it harder for them to be part of society, limiting the opportunities for them to have a meaningful job and work toward a social goal makes it harder for them to overcome their addiction and loneliness. Hari writes, “The heroin helps users deal with the pain of being unable to form normal bonds with other humans. The heroin subculture gives them bonds with other human beings.”
If we try to fight the addiction and the drug itself, we create a subculture of other lonely humans, who bond together through their shared addiction and isolation. We almost guarantee that people struggling with addiction will be trapped, unable to find meaning in their life, stuck in isolation, and miserable. The answer from Hari is to instead focus on redeveloping our communities and social infrastructure. To fight loneliness and not addiction, to give people more meaning in their lives by developing more connections between us, and to reinvest in our communal spaces. By building institutions and cultures that push back against loneliness we address the upstream causes of addiction, and help cut away from the pressures that drive toward addiction. This is the ultimate message of Hari’s book, and it is not just a way to fight addiction, but a way to help us all have more meaningful lives.