I recently listened to two TED Talks recommended to me by my son Carl and my daughter, Amelia. One was on addiction and the other featured a fascinating 75-year-old ongoing study being conducted by Harvard on what makes people happy, healthy and productive.
The gist of the addiction talk suggested that how we have treated addiction for the past hundred years has, by many measures, failed – and that there may be a better, more effective approach. We currently have more people incarcerated than any other country in the world, and a very large percentage are there for drug or drug-related offenses. We have spent billions on the “drug war” – for law enforcement and punishment – and, for the most part, it appears to me that the main outcome of that policy has been to create many drug lord billionaires who, as they get caught, are replaced with new ones. Much of the effect of our policy has simply been to create just enough of a scarcity of the product to support a high enough price point to incent continued smuggling and, indirectly, addiction.
That TED Talk spent a significant amount of time discussing how we currently treat people who are addicts – again, relying primarily on punitive measures and disincentives to “cure” their addiction. Since incarcerated addicts have felony records that make later employment almost impossible, they tend to be isolated and generally shunned, or “disconnected,” from society. The talk goes on to suggest – and this is where I got chills – that curing addiction may be less dependent upon traditional treatment and more upon “reconnecting” people by successfully changing their environment. In other words, mainstreaming addicts by focusing efforts on making them employable again and helping them have some sort of meaningful “purpose” or reason to exist within society. The TED Talk suggests that being “disconnected” may be the fundamental component in the addiction puzzle and that reconnecting people could be the core part of the “solution.”
Yes, I know that this seems “pie in the sky,” trite and naive. Ok, I get that. But if you watch that TED Talk and think about what Johann Hari is saying, and if you suspend skepticism for just a moment, it may just begin to make sense. At least it does to me. And if, for fun, you were to forget that he is talking about “addiction” and replace that word with “life,” it may make even more sense.
The first TED Talk cites two examples that support Hari’s idea. The first one concerned a lab experiment that involved rats and drugged water vs. nondrugged water. The second example was a big one – the Vietnam War. It is generally understood that drugs – particularly heroin – were huge problems in Vietnam, where up to 15 percent of U.S. forces were using or addicted to heroin. Yet, when all those soldiers returned home, the rate of addiction and recidivism were many times lower that what had been expected and also much, much lower than the current rates today. Both the lab experiment and the success rate of the returning soldiers seem to suggest that changing the environment that fosters enfranchisement, connectivity and a sense of community was the critical factor in combating addiction.
Both TED Talks suggested that humans need to bond: They need to be connected to other humans for support, companionship and a sense of community or tribe. Without friends, support and healthy relationships, people are most vulnerable and will find someone or something else to bond to – to connect with – to help them deal with their lives. In many cases that “something else” is addiction in some form. And the addiction is not limited to drugs. People also can be addicted to such things as work or exercise or electronics.
So, the first TED Talk suggests that the opposite of “addiction” is not, as we have believed all these years, “sobriety.” It is, instead, “connection.” That need to be connected is so strong that people not only destroy their lives slowly through drug addiction, they also make other tragic choices – such as, for example, joining extremist groups and strapping on and detonating suicide vests for a cause.
People are most vulnerable when they feel isolated. Disconnection is the major source of all addictions, the TED Talk suggests. It also implies that much of today’s connectivity – smart phones, social media, the text/digital world – is at best a parody of real human connections that are so crucial to healthy relationships within a wider society. As the TED Talk mentions, “The average amount of floor space we enjoy has been increasing for years while the average number of ‘close friends’ we believe we have has continued to diminish.” Connection to others through Facebook and other social media will never be a substitute for having real friends who are there when you need them or talk to you all night when your life seems like it is falling apart. Such a large percentage of today’s “connections” are faux connections that are non-nourishing and nonsustaining. The condition is of epidemic proportions.
I am not saying that we can solve the world’s problems or addiction by being friendlier. I am not saying that the insanity of ISIS can be completely explained as a lack of “connection.” What I am saying is that I am becoming more and more convinced that our world is rapidly becoming more isolated, more arrogant, more selfish, lonelier, harder, less livable and more dangerous. And that, the more it gets this way, the more acute is our need for it to be exactly the opposite – more connected in real, personal, meaningful and less self-centered ways.
My daughter, Amelia, sent me a note this week about riding the subway in San Francisco, where she lives now. It was about an encounter she had on the subway with a homeless person. The homeless person spoke to her and everyone else in her car because she spoke to him first and he gave her this message – for all of us: "I would rather be hungry than invisible. I'm not crazy and I'm not an addict, I'm just homeless. If you don't have the means to help me out, that's OK. That's not all I'm asking for. I'm asking for your communication – for you to smile at me. That would mean a lot. I only get to shower maybe three times a week. Look at my hands. I just want to be acknowledged. I would rather be hungry than invisible."
I want to close with that, but I won’t. My son Carl sent me the addiction TED Talk and another YouTube lecture called, "This is Water.” Amelia shared with me her subway story and the Harvard TED Talk. Most of the books I have read that have made a difference in my life I read because my children – Hans, Amelia, and Carl – were reading them. I get more flattering compliments than I deserve from my columns. Those of you who get something from what I write should thank my kids, not me.
Amelia earns a modest living to reside in San Francisco. She is very frugal: 55 percent of her income goes to rent and 33 percent goes to Uncle Sam, so she lives on 12 percent. Every week she spends $20 and makes peanut butter sandwiches, a lot of them. She carries them with her every day and hands them out to homeless people – after she stops for a moment to talk with them.
I have so far to go to be even remotely as engaged and connected as my daughter and my wife, both of whom actively help others every week. It is a struggle for me to just function within my own envelope, much less outside of it. But that is exactly what I am promising myself – today – to do. I am going to become an activist – a “connectivist” – and it only takes one act to be one. One a day would be even better.
The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is being connected. It is being cared for by someone else. It is being loved. It is feeling like you are part of a community – a community of other people who actually care that you are alive and who reach out to you deliberately and consistently. It is the only antidote to loneliness and addiction and probably the only hope that we have to make it another hundred years in one piece.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and jelly. Happy New Year 2016.