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 achieve 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 achieve 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 (or jogger), 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. 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. 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.

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.

Control Theory by William Glasser

Control Theory by William Glasser

William Glasser’s 1985 book Control Theory is subtitled “A New Explanation of How We Control Our Lives.” This review covers many components of the book, which makes it fairly long. In short, Control Theory is an excellent read that I heartily recommend.

Control Theory details a framework for understanding how humans choose behaviors to assert control over the world. These behaviors include depressing, angering, phobicking, etc. Glasser reframes all feelings as behaviors that you choose. As such, individuals go from being something to doing something.

This is expressed right out the gate in the Author’s Note:

Much of this book is concerned with the behaviors we choose as we attempt to control our lives. As I will explain in great detail, all behavior is made up of three* components: what we do, what we think, and what we feel. Doing and thinking are always expressed as verbs, like running or meditating, but feelings are usually expressed as adjectives, like depressed, or nouns, like depression. . . .

To say the man is depressed would be to infer that the depression happened to him. What I will explain in this book is that it is a behavior he is choosing in order to deal with the difficulty of losing his job. To describe accurately what this man is feeling as a behavior and also be grammatically correct, I would have to say that he is depressing or choosing to depress.

When feelings turn into things we do — Though you might be inclined to write-off talking about feelings like “anxiety” as “anxieting,” having read Glasser’s work and reflected on my own behaviors I think he is really on to something. The telltale sign of a good idea is it’s usefulness, and it has become incredibly useful to view my own behaviors and those of friends and family from the perspective of control theory.

For example, when a friend starts depressing about their job, he is actually trying to control a situation where he has lost control. Through depressing he can exact behavioral change — i.e. people react to his depressing by trying to cheer him up. Of in the case of someone who could effect change in the friend’s job, reorganize the workflow. Via depressing the friend can take back some control.

Awareness of how we work to exert control is paramount. Being aware of how I can use painful emotional behaviors (like depressing) to re-exert control makes me more aware that I could choose other, more productive behaviors. Rather than depressing to control, I can go play a sport, read a book, or do some chores. I may not want to do something more productive — sometimes its very clear to me that I just want to depress/anger/whatever — but since it is very difficult to change my feelings or think my way out of an out-of-control situation, at least by doing something productive I can improve my situation.

Control theory does not mean that all misery is chosen. In the short term, our reaction to losing control is usually some form of painful emotion. It’s the longer-term reaction whereby we either choose to emote our way back into control, which is almost always counterproductive, emotionally painful, or a waste of energy, or we do something which may change our feelings, buy us time or improve our situation, snapping us back into control of our lives.

Pictures in our heads — Glasser explains that humans convert experience into mental “pictures” that we file away in our memory for future reference. For example, a chocolate-chip cookie satisfies a baby’s hunger for something sweet. Chapter 3, The Pictures in our Heads notes:

This means that we store in our personal picture albums the pictures of anything in the world that we believe will satisfy one or more of our basic needs. For the rest of his life, when that baby gets hungry, he will start turning the food apges of his album. Many times, when he comes to the pictures of chocolate-chip cookies, he will say to himself, “That’s what I want right now,” and he’ll try to find a chocolate-chip cookie in the real world. . . . With a little thought, it will become apparent that your personal picture album is the specific motivation for all you attempt to do with your life.

And later:

It is not easy to change our own pictures, but it is even more difficult to persuade others to change theirs. To change a picture, we have to replace it with another that, if not equally satisfying to the need in question, is at least reasonably satisfying. This can be done only through negotiation and compromise; force will not work.

We behave to satisfy the pictures in our heads. It’s a simple truth that has some profound implications, particularly with regard to relationships. In particular, Glasser discusses how relationships that succeed are those where the friends, family or lovers have enough common pictures to share. In a situation like a marriage (or with parents or children), it is paramount to the ongoing success of the relationship to share common pictures.

Sometimes one person may have a picture that is irreconcilable with the picture of their significant other. Compromise and negotiation are key in these situations. What more, the couple should work towards finding ever more pictures that both can share with each other. Success in relationships is dependent on sharing mutually satisfying pictures (This doesn’t mean all the pictures have to be the same).

The process of creative reorganization — Another great concept that Glasser describes in Control Theory is that of “creative reorganization,” which is a process by which our minds attempt find usable ideas and behaviors. In Chapter 10, Creativity and Reorganization, Glasser writes:

The behavioral system is a two-part system. One part contains our familiar organized behaviors; the other part, which is the source of our creativity, contains the building blocks of all behaviors in a constant state of reorganization. By themselves these building blocks could not be recognized as discrete actions, thoughts, or feelings; but as they reorganize, they may become recognizable and usable. . . .

As active as this process is, we may have little or no awareness that it is going on. . . .

From this bubbling, ongoing creative reorganization comes a random stream of mostly minimal but occasionally well-organized new behaviors that are available to us to try if (1) we pay attention to them and (2) we decide that those two which we pay attention may help us gain or regain control over our lives.

Glasser importantly notes that creative reorganization often produces junk ideas. It’s up to us to sort out the good ideas from the bad.

Creative reorganization hits on an idea that is so pervasive in life and success that I have to mention it here: it is that the best ideas, businesses and, well, things emerge from massively iterative processes. They survive by being most fit and useful. Look at markets, biology, ideas, blogs, products, etc. And most of the time, these things aren’t planned in advance — they emerge out of the ether — the random iterations of life. Robust, dynamic and successful systems provide for huge volumes of iterations.

Other useful clippings — While reading the book, I typed up some more insightful quotes.

From Chapter 17, Taking Control of Your Life:

In an effort to deny what they really want, people like Susan often sigh and say, “What’s the difference what I want? I’ll never get it.” But her sighs and depressing are still her way of choosing to suffer to try to get what she denies she wants. From the standpoint of the pain she chooses, it makes no difference if she is aware of what she wants or not. If we don’t have what we want, we will choose to anger or suffer just the same. Once you know control theory, you will not waste your time and energy refusing to face what you want just because it is hard to get, because you know that you will choose to suffer just the same.

Chapter 18 Control Theory and Raising Children:

Try as hard as possible to teach, show, and help your children to gain effective control of their lives.

I was remarking yesterday about extending the above quote on child-rearing to managing employees. A powerful manager empowers employees to improved responsibility and control over their job. The opposite is also true: the manager who strips control from employees will have miserable employees who essentially do very little productive work.

Conclusion — Glasser discusses control theory as it pertains to drugs and alcohol, child-rearing, health and more. This idea-packed, paradigm-shifting book weighs in at a paltry 236 pages. It is out of print, but as you can see there are some 70+ copies at Amazon. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Glasser discusses towards the end of Control Theory a book he wrote in 1976 titled Positive Addiction. Glasser describes Positive Addiction as an activity where, while in a state of control, you achieve a period of creative reorganization. The example of positive addiction he describes is running. Running allows for a period of “in-control time” (Something we all need every day) and can take the runner into a meditative state of creativity. Because creative states have the potential to produce unpredictably good ideas via the iterative process, finding and pursuing positive addictions could be incredibly beneficial. Since I’m no runner, I’d like to discover what other activities might qualify. I might need to pick up this book, too.

Finally, hat tip to Dr. Michael Eades for alerting me to this great book.

*Glasser actually writes about a fourth component of behavior, the physiological response (i.e. the way our bodies react to a stimulus — usually a reaction we cannot control).

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.