Positive Addiction by William Glasser

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:

  1. It is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote an hour (approximately) a day to it.
  2. It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn’t take a great deal of mental effort to do it well.
  3. You can do it alone or rarely with others but it does not depend upon others to do it.
  4. You believe that it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

7 Replies to “Positive Addiction by William Glasser”

  1. I read Glasser’s book several years ago and was impressed with his list of 13 steps to bring about a positive addiction. Thes included things like using the Pre-Mack principle, doing the new behavior at the same tme every day, making it your primary commitment and know that you have to be a fanatic about his for two weeks, know that will power only lasts for two week and trying during that time to weave the new behavior into the fabric of your life.

    Unfortunately, I loaned this book to someone and never got it back. I have order another copy from ebay because it was out of print. This copy did not have the above-reference list. Can anyone help me with the publication date of the one I am referring to? Is there a way I can contact Glasser to find this out?

    Don Jaquish
    231-946-2575
    [email protected]

  2. Hi
    Love the stuff above.
    I relate to both the running addiction thing and the weightlifting addiction. Over a twenty year period I ran twenty marathons, and gazillions of 5k, 10k, half marathons and other distances.
    My present addiction (addictive personality I guess) is the guitar. My professional playing is not extensive which is how I like it. My addiction is to sitting on my sofa especially in the mornings and doing my scales etc — I’m a guitar exercise nut. I have on occasion got into mental spaces that were flippy.
    Though it may not fit Glasser’s definition I’m convinced that the guitar is a positive addition for me.
    Ed

  3. I was addicted to food and got obese. At 6’1″, age 45 I had above 240# and size 40 waist.
    I read the book “Positive Addictions” and acted upon it.
    First running/jogging. Had to give it up due to joint pain and replaced it with long distance cycling. I have crossed the USA twice at 120 miles/day and now cycle about 50 miles/day.
    I am definitely addicted to cycling and happy for it.
    I recommend it highly.
    By the way, my weight is now 190#, size 34 waist, age 68.

  4. I have read many of Dr. Glasser’s books. I was given the opportunity to listen to him speak and given the pleasure of meeting him back in 2002 at a conference. I cannot think of one thing I have read that I did not agree with.

    I, too, started running several years ago and found it true that running puts one in a state of nonexistence. What I mean by this, is that while running, it as if you are not even a body. One gets lost in the movement of the feet and the arms, in the rhythym of breathing, and becomes almost numb to the world. I could run and run and run. Sometimes I would end up somewhere and not remember getting there(of course, I do this while I drive also). My mind would not clear, it would constantly be filled with thoughts; sometimes good, sometimes bad. Whether good or bad, however, I was able to control these thoughts and deal with them without any outside stimulus or influence resulting in many more positive outcomes in my life.

    The problem now is that I have become so depressed that I cannot motivate myself to run anymore. Part of the problem lies in the time that running takes away from my children. I have recently become divorced and we have a 50/50 split. The guilt that I feel in leaving them to run, makes running more of a burden than a relaxant. Though I know the benefits are there, the guilt creates stress also, which leads to further depression.

    I read Dr. Glasser’s book on depression many years ago, where he states that depression is a choice. I am trying now to choose not to be depressed; to choose actions, words and behaviors that direct me away from depression. This is very difficult right now, but I am trying. I know that I can choose to be happy, but the fact that my basic need for love and belonging is not being met makes it challenging for me. I tend to find ways to satisfy this need that are not healthy for me. Not drugs or alcohol, thank goodness, but in relationships that appear to be satisfying, yet are not. I find myself making choices based on what I believe to be truth, but is not. I realize that I only have control over my choices, but my choices seem to cause me more pain, depression and stress. I don’t like making choices right now at all.

    I want this positive addiction back in my life, but can’t seem to make the choice to get it.

  5. Justin,
    I have read all the Glasser books you mentioned, but there is a lesser-known book by him, long out-of-print I believe, that I like the best. Maybe you’ve seen it: Stations of the Mind. I recommend it. To me, it “puts everything together:” control theory, positive addictions, reality therapy—all of Glasser’s conceptualizations.

    DM

    1. Thanks for the heads up Daniel — just bought a used copy from Amazon. I routinely think about Glasser’s perspective on control and still find his conceptualizations really useful/applicable.

  6. I read Positive Addiction several years ago and used it as part of my group sessions with alcoholics and addicts. Also check out 7 weeks to soberiety( hate the title) it is extremely informative and practical in it’s discussions of addiction.Also Under the Influence is very good.

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