Happiness: An Unexpected Cause of Addiction

When discussing the causes of addiction, people often look to emotions such as anger, grief, depression, and anxiety; negative emotions are a common driving force behind the development of addiction. However, another common cause of addiction that many people overlook is happiness. This may sound counterintuitive, but happiness can be one of the main reasons people become addicted to drugs and alcohol. By understanding the connection between this emotion and addiction, you can begin analyzing your own life and identify ways happiness may drive you to partake in unhealthy activities.

Defining Happiness

What does it mean to be happy? This is a question that could keep even the most profound philosophers up for hours. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, happiness can be defined as either “a state of well-being and contentment” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” To understand the connection between happiness and addiction, the latter of the two will be used. 

Why Do People Use Drugs?

If you were to ask a group of individuals in recovery why they began using drugs in the first place, you would most likely get answers ranging from self-medication to performing better in social situations. What you may also hear is that people use drugs and alcohol simply because they feel good. Many individuals first become introduced to drugs and alcohol when they are teenagers or young adults, and they discover the effects of said substances. The pleasure they experience often keeps them returning to drugs and alcohol time and time again because people enjoy how it makes them feel. People will often continue using despite the negative consequences that addiction causes in their life because they want to continue c

hasing the happy feeling that drugs and alcohol produce.

Celebratory Use

Some people only drink when they are celebrating something big. Let’s say that you just got a big promotion at work. You don’t usually drink, but tonight you’ve decided to have a beer in honor of your promotion. However, that one beer slowly becomes two, then three, and then suddenly you have had ten. In this way, happiness can drive addiction -- the effects of drugs and alcohol can boost your mood. You may begin using alcohol regularly as a guilty pleasure, which can turn into needing it to feel happy at all; this is because of the impact of drugs and alcohol on the production of dopamine and serotonin in your brain, the “feel-good chemicals.” Over time, your brain can become dependent on drugs and alcohol to help produce these chemicals, so it stops making them itself. Whether you are using drugs or alcohol because it makes you feel good or as a celebratory activity, you can be at risk of developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Pleasure and Your Brain’s Reward Center

Examining how addiction “hijacks” your brain’s reward system can be one of the best ways to understand the role of happiness in addiction. Your brain is run by a complex communication system made up of neurons. Neurons use electrical signals to send information to and from your brain and your nervous system. The signals are called neurotransmitters, and they are responsible for the dispersing of information throughout your brain. There are three areas of the brain that make up its “reward center.” This area of the brain is responsible for encouraging life-sustaining behavior through chemicals that produce feelings of pleasure.

For example, when you are hungry, you usually have a meal. Your brain rewards this behavior by sending neurotransmitters to the reward center, releasing chemicals known as dopamine. Dopamine causes you to feel pleasure, therefore causing you to continue eating when you feel hungry. The function of the reward system helps sustain life and brings you positive emotions.

“Hijacking” the Reward Center

Drugs and alcohol are known to “hijack” this system by increasing the amount of dopamine released in the reward center. The “high” that many people describe when under the influence of drugs comes from an overproduction of dopamine in the brain, thus causing extreme feelings of pleasure. Your brain then prompts you to continually return to the substance to get the same feeling. However, you will build a tolerance over time, causing you to need more substances to get the desired effects. Your brain will continually crave the substances and begin depending on them for that surge of dopamine. Without the presence of the substances in your body, withdrawal symptoms will set in, causing significant discomfort. To alleviate these feelings, you will most likely want to use drugs or alcohol; this is how happiness can leave you caught in the cycle of addiction.

Happiness is not thought to be a common cause of addiction, as the disease is generally associated with negative emotions. Addiction often develops over time as a result of self-medication due to discomfort brought on by negative life situations or symptoms of mood disorders. However, happiness can cause addiction over time simply because you enjoy the way drugs and alcohol make you feel. The more you use the substances, the more you begin to crave them to experience a higher level of pleasure. NorthStar Transitions can offer you hope for healing. We are well-versed in the causes of addiction, and we understand how its feel-good effects can wreak havoc on your life. Through our variety of treatment modalities and attention to your personal needs in recovery, you can be sure to find success at NorthStar. We utilize a variety of therapies, experiential treatments, and holistic approaches to help you find healing. Call us today at (303) 558-6400.

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