Positive Addiction by William Glasser
Finally and most important, to find happiness we need others, but an addict needs only himself. Dependent only upon himself and knowing he can pursue his addiction, he does so with a single-minded devotion that is remarkable to behold. But what if there were addictions that, instead of making you weaker, made you stronger?
Breezed through William Glasser’s Positive Addiction. At around 150 pages (the 1976 edition), it is a quick and thought-provoking overview of Glasser’s conclusion that there are activities that enable a person to achieve a transcendent, trance-like, meditative state where the mind can “spin free.” Positive addictions are activities that fairly predictably take a person to this mental state, are addictive in that missing the activity results in various symptoms of withdrawal (anxiety, depression, etc.), and are positive in that they are a creative, in-control time that endows an individual with strength in the form of both mental capacity and increased neurological horsepower. These strength gains carry over into all other aspects of life.
It sounds mystical in nature, but Glasser believes (and I have no reason to suspect otherwise) that the state of mind reached via positive addictions is natural and maybe even primal — a reversion to animalistic mental processes, perhaps).
What is the PA state? My understanding is that when you reach the PA state, your mind drifts, wandering effortlessly from random thought to observation to idea. This “spun out” or “free spinning” state is creative, relaxed, unforced, and difficult to intentionally maintain.
Though Glasser alludes to other possibly PA activities, running dominated his research which involved sending out a survey request in a running magazine. One response to Glasser’s survey helps describe the mental state:
When I am settled into my run I concentrate on running as much as possible but the mind wanders to thoughts of most anything. The state of mind is one of almost total complacency and privacy. Although you are in sight of people, cars, buses, school kids, dogs, etc., I feel a very privateness when I run. People may yell at me or a kid may bug me for a few hundred yards but due to the nature of running (it is hard and physically demanding) you are pretty much left to yourself and no one can invade your runner’s world because they physically are not able.
The above runner’s description may conjure up imagery of the well-known (Today but not when the book was written) phenomenon of a “runner’s high”. A runner’s high is the effect felt as the body releases endorphins to weaken the physical pain caused by high-impact nature of running. Though Glasser does not address this connection in Positive Addiction, given the numerous alternative means to reach the PA state, I am not convinced endorphins are fundamental — they may merely be an ancillary effect of higher-endurance activities. It seems to me based on personal experience that the meditative state achieved through repetitive, non-critical physical activity is separate from endorphin release.
Transcendental meditation is another way to acheive the PA state though Glasser concludes from his research that TM rarely becomes addictive because it tends to only induce the PA state infrequently.
Aside from regularly running, Glasser alludes to other possible methods that may acheive the PA state. His research into PA discovered subjects that appeared to be positively addicted to gardening, juggling, swinging a bat, bathing, creative but non-critical writing, and knitting. The PA state elicits in me the diminished, wandering awareness reached almost immediately prior to falling asleep; could the PA state be akin to dreaming while still awake? It also reminds me of how I (and many people I know) feel during a morning hot shower.
In Positive Addiction Glasser outlines six steps or requirements of a PA activity. If you’re looking for a potential PA, the steps as pulled from the book are:
- It is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote an hour (approximately) a day to it.
- It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn’t take a great deal of mental effort to do it well.
- You can do it alone or rarely with others but it does not depend upon others to do it.
- You believe that it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you.
- You believe that if you persist at it you will improve, but this is completely subjective—you need to be the only one who measures that improvement.
- The activity must have the quality that you can do it without criticizing yourself. If you can’t accept yourself during this time the activity will not be addicting. This is why it is so important that the activity can be done alone.
Glasser’s default recommendation for those interested in reaching PA is to run. He cautions that getting to the point where you can run for an hour for five to six days a week could take up to six months, and even then, it may still take up to two years to get to the point where running is a positive addiction.
Self-experimentation — as I am more or less convinced of the benefits of positive addiction; however, in order to see if its something real and useful for me, I need to conduct some self-experimentation, introspection, and observation. Since I am not a runner (orjogger), I am interested in finding other means to achieve the PA state. I believe that I have reached the PA state at various times while working out. I have noticed symptoms of withdrawal when I miss workouts (See my discussion of Missed Exercise Guilt). Finally, I’ve noticed that working out with others tends to diminish my enjoyment severely even though weight-lifting often requires a workout partner (and I do suspect weight-lifting can be a positive addiction).
If you wish to follow my experimentation with achieving PA via alternatives to running, you should follow along specifically on my workout blog. Right out the gate I suspect that PA can be reached through kettlebell drills such as the kettlebell swing. Additionally, as I somewhat regularly bike (both mountain and road), I will be experimenting with positive addiction there, as well, though I’m nearly positive I have noticed the PA state while biking.
Further reading — This is the second book by William Glasser that I have read. The first was Control Theory. Glasser’s style of therapy has been termed “Choice Theory” or “Reality Therapy.” I have one other book of his that I plan on reading. I have enjoyed Glasser’s writing style and particularly his inquisitive mind and search for useful, testable and easy to apply methods to improve mental health. Working to improve your mind is something healthy individuals do not do enough. This is despite the obvious conclusion that just like it is healthy to strengthen your body via lifting weights and routine physical activity, it is also healthy to take efforts to strengthen the mind. As it is, positive addiction may increase both physical and mental well-being at the same time!
Post-script — If you are a runner, you should check out a site by a friend of mine, Serious Running. It is one of, if not, the best sites for trail running reviews, product reviews, tips, and other insights into running — all imbued with a humorous writing style. SeriousRunning.com is particularly poignant to this review as at least two surveyed applicants mentioned in Positive Addiction specifically used the phrase “serious running.”
Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:
- Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
- Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
- Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.