What makes you live longer? What makes life more satisfying? What enables people to resist addiction?
These three questions have an answer in common—a remarkably good piece of news about which we should continually remind ourselves.
The answer is certainly not simply to stop taking opioids for chronic pain, when no other treatments have been able to relieve your pain.
Yet, the anti-opioid zealots seem to imply that our opioid medication is wrecking our health and our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1921, Terman and his colleagues started a study built around IQ. Terman wished to follow the most brilliant young people in America, as determined by his IQ test and similar instruments, to prove his belief about the determining impact of high intelligence on people’s lives.
But the results didn’t show that intelligence determined people’s lives.
The study continued until the last subject died. When the results of the research were safely able to be concluded, Time announced the study’s single, most definitive finding with this headline last year: “This 95-Year Stanford Study Reveals 1 Secret to Living a Longer, More Fulfilling Life.”
not only the most satisfying lives, but the longest ones, shared the same trait:
Having a purpose.
Surprised? I’m not.
The times in my life when I felt competent and engaged in my work were the times of my greatest productivity and happiness, even if the work was hard and required long hours.
Working in and with advanced technology was always difficult and often required long hours, but I felt energized by it, stimulated by the interactions with my equally committed co-workers, excited by the final results.
And this is what chronic pain stole from me: energy and focus. These two are an absolute requirement for such challenging work, and chronic pain seriously interferes with both.
The study’s conclusion:
We did not find that precisely living out your dreams matters much for your health. It was not the happiest [meaning “most pleasure seeking”] or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest.
It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals.
But what if chronic pain forces us to surrender those goals?
In other words, having a life-motivating purpose—one providing meaning beyond meeting basic needs—is the secret to a longer, more fulfilling life.
This doesn’t mean that your life will proceed effortlessly or be trouble-free. But an energized and directed life is one that also more readily overcomes obstacles.
But what if you have persistent pain that drains that energy and derails that direction?
Which brings me to addiction.
When I’m invited to give talks about addiction, I often ask audiences a series of questions.
- First, I ask if they’ve ever taken painkillers. They almost all have, like the vast majority of Americans.
- Then I ask if anyone has become addicted. If it is not specifically a recovery group, generally very few people (often none) have.
- When I ask why they didn’t become addicted, people are puzzled by the question. After all, it’s normal to take pain pills when you need them.
“Why didn’t that happen to any of you?” I ask
Typically, someone says they quit using the drug when their pain ended. Someone else may say that they quit after their prescription ended because it made them groggy and they had things to do.
In other words, they discontinued use, often with little-to-no effort, because continuing use of the painkiller interfered with other, more important roles in their lives.
If I ask a roomful how many have quit smoking, between third to a half typically raise their hands.
But when I ask these people whether they used a medication or other treatment or group to quit, never more than a few raise their hands.
across the range of addictive or detrimental drug use, we see the same thing happening: Most people quit problematic drug use as they get older, with or without treatment.
Once again, as we see below, this is about people finding purposes that come to outweigh the importance of drug use for them as they mature.
But, what if the use of the drug is what allows you to pursue your purpose?
People with jobs are much less likely to be addicted than people without.
But what if the use of the drug allows you to keep working and earning an income?
As an exhaustive study of drug deaths in the state that leads in this category, West Virginia, discovered, “If you’re a male between the ages of 35 to 54, with less than a high school education, you’re single and you’ve worked in a blue-collar industry, you pretty much are at a very, very high risk of overdosing.”
The clear-cut way that we know to reduce addiction—though sadly, one we don’t yet have the national resolve to attempt—is to create a society in which more people share the financial leeway, community support and work opportunities to develop purpose in their lives.
This, I believe. The type of society we’re living in these days, frighteningly close to “social Darwinism”, is what predisposes so many to addiction. We need an escape from the unfair cruelties inflicted upon anyone who is not sheltered by a hefty bank account.
This understanding of addiction views it as the result of people becoming engaged in an overwhelming experience in order to deal with their lives.
It’s not the thingto which people are addicted that determines their involvement.
It is how they engage with their overall lives, relationships and feelings.
It’s not drugs that cause addiction, needing escape from an unbearable life causes addiction.
As an excellent addiction therapist (who officially diagnosed me as NOT addicted) said to me many years ago:
Addicted people use opioids to withdraw from life.
Pain patients use opioids to engage in life.