More on Isolation and Addiction

More on Isolation and Addiction

I previously wrote about pain medicine ideas that Sam Quinones presents in his book Dreamland. He is critical of the idea that we can take a pill to alleviate chronic pain without making substantial changes in our lives to address the root cause of our pain. Even if we can’t completely stop chronic pain by changing our habits, our environment, and our lifestyles, Quinones shares information which suggests that our experience of pain is connected to many parts of our lives, and that we can change how we think about and relate to pain, even if we cannot eliminate it completely. This is a holistic approach to pain and pain management that Quinones thinks is a crucial piece for understanding our nation’s current opioid epidemic.

 

Chronic pain and its mismanagement is a common route to opioid addiction. Quinones views opioid addictions similarly to how he views chronic pain. In his book he writes, “Chronic pain was probably best treated not by one pill but holistically. In the same way, the antidote to heroin wasn’t so much Naloxone; it was community.”

 

Naloxone is a drug that helps prevent opioid overdoses by binding to opioid receptors in the body to block the effect of opioids like heroin. This drug has helped save thousands of lives, but on its own it won’t stop addiction. Quinones argues that a big problem with addiction is the way in which we hide it from others, whether it is addiction to drugs, gambling, or something else, we don’t allow anyone to know about our addiction. Without talking about addiction, without acknowledging that it has had impacts on our families and lives, and without having meaningful connections with others, we languish in our isolation and addiction.

 

The argument that Quinones makes in his book is that we need more community. We need more things in our lives where we interact meaningfully with others. We need to find more ways to be in service to other people, to work together for meaningful causes, and to have greater social connections with the people around us. By developing meaningful relationships with others, we provide community for everyone, and that helps push back against the forces that drive toward isolation and drive many of us toward substance addiction. Community provides us the space to discuss our challenges, our addictions, and our discontents, and hopefully gives us the chance to build constructive spaces in which we can connect and find solutions to problems that we cannot find in isolation.
Isolation and Addiction

Isolation and Addiction

American’s are isolated, and it’s not just because we have all been asked to work from home, stay inside, and intentionally distance ourselves from others to prevent the exponential transmission of COVID-19. We have been isolated for a while, so much so that former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, recently published a book about loneliness and the importance of human connection. Loneliness and isolation are new problems that we are starting to look at in new ways. In his book Dreamland, Sam Quinones connects isolation and addiction in ways that change the discussion we have about addiction and our values as Americans.

 

Quinones is critical of how our society interacts today, or rather how our society doesn’t interact. He writes, “the most selfish drug [opioids] fed on atomized communities. Isolation was now as endemic to wealthy suburbs as to the Rust Belt, and had been building for years. It was true about much of a country where the streets were barren on summer evenings and kids no longer played Kick the Can as parents watched from porches. That dreamland has been lost and replaced, all too often, finally, by empty streets of bigger, nicer houses hiding addiction that each family kept secret.”

 

To atomize means to convert into very fine particles or droplets, and is used by Quinones to show that we have separated our communities into individual, isolated nuclear units. We hide inside our houses, rarely venturing outside to just be outside. We drive to our suburbs, stop at the mailbox from our car, park in our garages, and rarely spend any time outside. If we do get out, we are in our private backyard where we cannot be seen. We have cut out everyone else, leaving us with just ourselves in our ever larger houses filled with ever more things for our individual enjoyment.

 

Quinones argues that this lifestyle has been brought on by our own selfishness. We want our own stuff, we want to show it off, and it holds more value today than it did in the past. Consequently, we are also more jealous of those who have more than us, and more guarded of our things. We lock out other to protect our stuff, but in the process we locked out a crucial part of our humanity: our connections and community.

 

Community shows us that there is more to life than just our desires. Isolation and addiction are linked because when we withdraw from community, when we focus only inward on what we want, our purpose of helping others and interacting with others disappears. Quinones believes that a lack of interaction with others fueled the opioid crisis. We hid addiction in our homes, withdrew from community, and and took away the joys and connections that made us human. We left ourselves vulnerable to pain killing addictions, and took away the best tools to cure the epidemic we now face.

When Are We Happy?

“During any given day people are typically least happy while commuting and most happy while canoodling,” writes Dan Pink in his book When. I currently have a long commute, and I have found that a long drive makes me more irritable, makes me feel more rushed in general, and really does lower the quality of my day. I’m working to make changes so that my commute is reduced, and it has me thinking about how I spend my time in general.

 

I like to be busy and active, but often end up working on things individually. I spend a good amount of time listening to podcasts by myself while doing dishes, cleaning my car, and putting away laundry. These things beat TV, but still don’t bring me a lot of deep value.

 

As Pink’s quote above suggests, we are more happy when doing things with other people. We like to do social things, to interact with friends and family, and to be around others. The time when we are by ourselves – isolated from the world, not engaging in deep ways with other people – is when we are at our lowest. In our daily lives we should consider what we are doing in isolation and what we are doing as a social group, and shift toward the latter.

 

I remember hearing Tyler Cowen on a podcast say that joining a social group that meets once a month is equivalent in terms of happiness production as doubling one’s income. If this is accurate, then we should shift our jobs so that we don’t take careers (or stay in careers) where we are pushed toward isolation (in terms of commute or other factors) and ultimately have our time wasted instead. We should try to find ways to open more time for ourselves, and then we should try to fill that time by participating in social endeavors. If Cowen is correct, starting new clubs and participating in groups will not just increase our happiness, but the happiness of others who can join in.

 

We shouldn’t necessarily just pursue a life of continuous canoodling, but we can pursue a life of real world connections by limiting our isolationism. It is hard, especially if one lives in a sprawling suburb, to maintain good connections, but by being intentional about our time and lifestyle, we can slowly shift ourselves back to a more communal lifestyle. Some of us are lucky enough to decide we don’t want to keep the job that forces us into a miserable commute, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to move to different cities or parts of town where the traffic isn’t so bad. The research from Pink on happiness, and Cowen’s thoughts on social connection suggest that a cut in pay may make us much more happy if it frees our time and allows us to connect with others. Prioritizing social connections over cash might be the best thing for our happiness.

Culture Busting

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call for culture busting among city leaders who want to find new solutions to pressing problems. One of the challenges we face is that in general, the public doesn’t understand governance well. We operate with set ideas about what governance is, who sets rules and regulations, and the roles that private companies, local community groups, and formal government agencies play. In the future, as problem solving becomes more local and as we try to tackle major challenges we will need to get beyond these simple models from our high school civics classes.

 

This is what Katz and Nowak call culture busting, “culture busting is a form of risk taking and a fundamental shift in understanding that many responsibilities in a city and metropolis lie with the community broadly rather than with the government narrowly.” The role of government, the role of businesses, and the role of everyday citizens needs to change if we are to truly address the big problems in our societies. If we want to tackle climate change, if we want to reduce healthcare spending, and if we want to spark economic development, we have to realize how interconnected all of the challenges we face are, and we have to develop a community focused action plan to make the necessary changes. Thinking that problem solving is the role of government or that economic development is purely a free market phenomenon will not help us jump to be dynamic leaders in a globalized economy.

 

Part of what culture busting calls for is more education around governance and part of it is a reemergence of community action. A major failure of suburban life is that we drive from our homes to our places of work or commerce, and rarely interact with anyone else along the way. We let others deal with problems unless they happen to be unavoidably right in front of our face. We might get out for a sporting event or a conference, but otherwise we are just as content to watch Disney+ at home. Culture busting replaces this individual isolation with networks that want to see real change and are willing to own part of that change.

 

Culture busting requires that we re-imagine what is possible for governments and redefine the role of businesses and civic organizations. It requires that we think about the challenges our communities face, and ask ourselves what resources and advantages do we have that we can use to make a difference. Rather than waiting for government to make a decision, it requires civic and private energy to clear the path and display a public will for government to direct resources in the direction that the populace already wants to move. It shifts leadership from government back to the people and aligns actors to make the community a better place.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.