Addiction, religion, and the quest for meaning

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The pioneering Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, pointed out that it was hardly accidental that the term spirits became a virtual synonym for alcohol. Indeed, in his view, alcohol and drugs provided a faux religious experience. That is, they were poor substitutes for a genuine connection to a higher power. As Jung observed, recovering alcoholics frequently adopted a religious outlook during the rehab process following their decision to abstain. This attitude, Jung argued, helped them on their quest towards sober living.

The existence of a religious instinct raises many profound theological, philosophical, and scientific questions. For example, why is the thirst for a higher power so universal? Also, are many addicts abusing drugs and alcohol in a misguided effort to quench their desire for a religious experience?

Every addiction rehab story is unique. So, perhaps a possible religious connection to addiction is an interesting hypothesis that will apply to some recovering addicts, but not all. Nevertheless, there is very little doubt that drugs and alcohol do hijack the brain’s reward system – more specifically, the dopamine pathways that bathe the cerebral cortex in neurotransmitters that elevate mood following accomplishments of some kind. For example, success in love, at work, or in athletics results in higher dopamine production, which boosts our mood and provides feelings of satisfaction and gratification.

Put simply, setting goals – and then achieving them – creates feelings of happiness because it triggers the brain’s natural reward system. So-called peak experiences – the exhilaration that accompanies exceptional achievement (winning a race, closing a business deal, or accomplishing a long-sought aim) – are in fact “natural high.” Indeed, such feelings are made possible by the high levels of endorphins and natural opiates the brain produces following hard-won successes.

Drugs and alcohol effectively short-circuit this natural process. In effect, they provide an artificial high that is not merited by circumstances. That is one reason addiction can be so dangerous—counterfeit feelings of pleasure fool people into believing things are better than they are. Before long, the addict is detached from reality and the true rewards that accompany the achievement of tangible goals.

The rehab process can be aided by structures, environments, and activities that help individuals in recovery set and accomplish concrete goals. All of us have an instinct for meaning, purpose, and aims that transcend ourselves. Recovering addicts need to find authentic and natural ways of satisfying those innate impulses.

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