Positive addiction: Fact or fiction?

I am often asked by the media “What is the difference between healthy excessive enthusiasms and addiction?”, and my stock answer is always that healthy excessive enthusiasms add to life but that addiction takes away from it. This suggests that addictions are purely negative, yet it could be argued that for some people there are many benefits of engaging in their addiction of choice. If we were to write a list of possible benefits of addiction, it may include some of the following:

  • Reliable changes of mood and subjective experience (e.g., enhances subjective wellbeing through excitement and arousal, and/or provides feelings of being able to relax or escape)
  • Positive experience of pleasure, excitement, relaxation
  • Disinhibition of behaviour aiding sociability (e.g., initiating sexual behaviour)
  • Coping strategy for all vulnerabilities (e.g., insults, injuries, social anxiety, fear, tension, etc.)
  • Simplifier of decisions as all behaviour is related to one activity
  • Maintainer of emotional distance (i.e., prevents people from getting close to the addict)
  • Strategy for threatening, rebelling, revenging, etc
  • Source of identity and/or meaning of life (e.g., a person’s social circle may consist entirely of other addicted individuals who condone and reinforce the addictive behaviour)

This list suggests that for the addict there are some genuine benefits, at least from their own perception. The idea that there are “positive addictions” is not new and was first forwarded by Bill Glasser in his 1976 book Positive Addictions (Harper & Row, New York). Glasser argued that activities such as jogging and transcendental meditation were positive addictions and were the kinds of activity that could be deliberately cultivated to wean addicts away from more harmful and sinister preoccupations. According to Glasser, positive addictions must be new rewarding activities such as exercise and relaxation that produce increased feelings of self-efficacy.

However, one of my great mentors, psychologist Iain Brown (now retired from Glasgow University) suggested it might be better to call some activities “mixed blessing addictions”, since even positive addictions such as exercise addiction (suggested by Glasser) might have some negative consequences. For me, one of the defining features of addiction is that the short-term-benefits (particularly like those the list above) are always outnumbered by the long-term downsides (i.e., over time, the long-term disadvantages start to outweigh the short-term disadvantages).

For me, there is also the question of whether positive addictions are “addictions” at all. Have a quick look at Glasser’s criteria for positive addictions. In short, for an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, the behaviour must be:

  • Non-competitive and needing about an hour a day
  • Easy, so no mental effort is required
  • Easy to be done alone, not dependent on people
  • Believed to be having some value (physical, mental, spiritual)
  • Believed that if persisted in, some improvement will result
  • Involve no self-criticism.

To me, these criteria have little resemblance to the core criteria or components of addictions (such as salience, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflict, relapse, etc.). My own view I that ‘positive addiction’ is an oxymoron and although I am the first to admit that some potential addictions might have benefits that are more than just short-term (as in the case of addictions to work or exercise), addictions will always be negative for the individual in the long run.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Behavioural addiction: The case for a biopsychosocial approach. Trangressive Culture, 1, 7-28.

Larkin, M., Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Towards addiction as relationship. Addiction Research and Theory, 14, 207-215.


About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on December 16, 2011, in Addiction, Psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. great post. maybe a positive addiction is more like a habit. addiction has a very negative connotation

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