In a popular TED Talk, titled “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”, Johann Hari makes the argument that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but human connection. He goes on to describe compelling research and legislative strategies addressing the epidemic of addiction, all of which convincingly back up this claim. In addition to the correlation with addiction, doctors and mental health researchers continue to find evidence that our ability to foster healthy and meaningful relationships, as well as to feel that we are occupying a valuable place in society, plays a huge role in determining our vulnerability to mental illness and addiction. Having healthy relationships and fulfilling social interaction does not always come easily, and in many cases requires active introspection and a therapeutic approach to heal from past pain. For those that suffer from addiction or mental illness, however, this internal work is necessary and entirely worth it to create opportunities for joy and connection in life.
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What Qualifies as Human Connection?
Some individuals know thirty people that they call friends, and yet they are still not experiencing genuine connection. Psychological research has found that most people need to experience two types of connection in their lives to heighten their overall sense of wellbeing and satisfaction. The first is a deep connection between two people. This may occur between two friends, romantic partners, or family members. It requires that both parties feel loved, listened to, and understood. It also means that each individual is able to be entirely present in the moment when spending time with one another. It is not necessary to have ten of these deep connections in your life, but instead focus on quality over quantity, and to do the work to grow and maintain at least one of these relationships.
The second type of connection is a feeling of belonging to a social group. This may be a group of close friends, a tight-knit group of colleagues, or a religious circle. This group should provide support and guidance in a non-judgmental way, and contain at least a few people with whom you have a lot in common and feel confident asking for help. These groups tend to share common goals and should feel like you have found “your people”—the people you most identify with outside your immediate family. This kind of connection greatly improves a person’s capacity for satisfaction and fulfillment in their life.
What is the Cost of Loneliness?
A University of Michigan study using brain imaging found that the same areas of the brain that light up during physical pain are also activated while experiencing rejection. Feeling unwanted or ostracized is deeply painful, and can lead to anger and depression. This response is natural and has been wired into our brains as an evolutionary survival strategy. Human connection has always been necessary for the survival of the species, and now that we live in a time where it is possible to isolate ourselves almost entirely in our homes and behind screens, our mental health is suffering as a result. Healthy relationships with other individuals and social groups help regulate every system in the body, as well as develop emotions such as compassion and gratitude which have been shown to increase happiness overall. Additionally, addiction has a notoriously cyclical relationship with loneliness. Isolation and loneliness can lead to substance abuse, and substance abuse will almost always lead to relationship problems. To end this cycle, addiction and emotional health issues must be treated at the same time.
How Do We Remedy a Loss of Connection?
Many people who have trouble maintaining relationships and establishing connections have a history of childhood trauma, abuse, or loss. The good news is that there is hope for those who live with isolation and loneliness to work through the pain of their past and begin to build a healthy foundation for relationships to thrive. This process requires the individual to first recognize that there is a lack of connection in their life, and then to seek out help in the form of therapy or group counseling. If someone is suffering from a lack of quality connections alongside mental health issues and addiction, all these issues can be remedied with a similar approach and access to a holistic treatment program. Just by reaching out to ask for help with mental illness or addiction, you are taking the first step in removing yourself from a place of isolation and loneliness, and into a place of support and connection. Much of the reason 12-Step programs have so much success is because of their basis in the community. Addiction support groups can be a safe place to find like-minded individuals that share similar experiences, withhold judgment, and truly find joy in each other’s success.