Whitney Houston’s death is a stark reminder that addictions and habits are almost impossible to shake
- Last Updated: 11:44 PM, February 18, 2012
- Posted: 11:12 PM, February 18, 2012
Creating new habits is easy — and new habits form most quickly and stubbornly when it comes to drug use. “Of course, it depends on the person — some are more predisposed to addiction than others,” Tsien says. “But drugs are so strong that the habit typically forms very quickly and efficiently. It stays there a long time.”
Very little, Tsien adds, is yet known about habit and habit formation — his area of study for decades. Evidence suggests that dopamine, the chemical that washes through the brain during any pleasurable experience, is involved in habit formation, though the mechanics still aren’t understood.
What it takes to break habits also remains a mystery. AA’s yearly 5% success rate, it turns out, is equal to the number of people who undergo what’s called “spontaneous recovery” — they quit on their own.
The great irony of our multibillion-dollar self-help culture is that most of us will eventually quit doing self-destructive things without any outside help. (Also worth noting: There are no longitudinal studies on the long-term success rates of addicts who have gone through AA or other forms of rehab, nor has a government agency ever been established to evaluate their claims and regulate their methodologies.)
Curiously, Duhigg addresses spontaneous recovery — a phrase that should, by now, really be part of the lexicon — in a footnote: “Anyone struggling with addictive or destructive behaviors can benefit from help from many quarters,” he writes, “including trained therapists, physicians, social workers and clergy. Even professionals in those fields, though, agree that most alcoholics, smokers and other people struggling with problematic behaviors quit on their own, away from formal treatment settings. . . . even if they aren’t aware of what they’re doing at the time.”
Such was the case with Marc Lewis, Ph.D., neuroscientist and author of the new book “Memoirs of an Addicted Brain.” Lewis spent much of his life addicted, consecutively, to booze, pot, cocaine and opioids. He finally quit after many, many tries, writing the word “NO” on a piece of paper and pinning to his wall, telling himself that this was the end of his drug use. It worked; he’s 30 years clean.
Lewis considers himself the kind of addict who can never touch drugs again, though he still drinks and doesn’t consider that a problem. He is an advocate of “harm reduction,” which works to help the user to control their substance intake.
Along with many other leaders in the field, Lewis believes that the recovery model needs an overhaul, that addiction should be treated as manageable disease, akin to HIV, rather than a curable one.
“There’s a saying: ‘Relapse is part of recovery,’ ” he says. “It’s really true. Nobody quits on the first try.” (Recent breakthroughs in the study of willpower, which is now understood to be a finite resource that the brain depletes and regenerates, are also cited by advocates of harm reduction.)
Conversely, Duhigg argues that gradual attempts to form even one good habit can have a cascading effect on your life in total — that learning to get up early to exercise can ultimately result in a job promotion, meeting the love of your life, buying your dream house. He cites a 2006 Australian study in which 24 lazy, inactive adults were put through two months of increasingly rigorous workouts.
The results, Duhigg writes, were miraculous: These former slugs were suddenly happier, watching way less TV, drinking and smoking less, managing their money better, becoming more successful in their careers. What these studies don’t allow for, however, is a gray area. Like the AA model, it’s either/or, good vs. bad, strong vs. weak, with no acknowledgment that none among us can maintain a perfect record and most of us would really prefer not to. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”
As for Duhigg’s claim that one constructive habit formation can change one’s entire life for the good — suffice it to say Tsein laughs out loud. “That sounds like an infomercial!” he says. “I mean, that can be inspirational, but it’s a sledgehammer approach. And science is not at that stage.”Follow @NYPostOpinion