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Carry on pampering: A brief look at “comfort addiction”

“Comfort addiction is everywhere in 2019. There are TED Talks, rehab treatments and academic articles devoted to this new-age compulsion – just ask Keith Richards or King Salman of Saudi Arabia” (The Tatler, 2019).

This opening quote is from a recent article by Helen Kirwan-Taylor in The Tatler sent to me by psychotherapist Christopher Burn (whose book Poetry Changes Lives I mentioned in a previous article on ‘poetry addiction‘). He thought I might be interested in writing an article on it (and he was right). Anything with the word ‘addiction’ attached to something I have not come across before I always going to arouse my curiosity. I typed in “comfort addiction” to Google and was surprised to find quite a few articles such as ‘Overcome your comfort addiction’ (in The Huffington Post), ‘Are you ready to start conquering your dangerous addiction to comfort?’ (in The Entrepreneur), ‘Are you addicted to comfort?’ (in The New Man), ‘Living in the age of comfort addiction‘ (Patheos.com), and ‘Our crippling addiction to comfort’ (in The Inspirational Lifestyle). I even came across a television news item on Good Morning San Diego (pictured below).

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 16.49.45

The thrust of Kirwan-Taylor’s article is that some individuals are addicted to “indulgence” and recounts anecdotes of celebrities (both living and dead such as Queen Victoria, Hillary Clinton and Kate Moss) and a few non-celebrities who apparently suffer or suffered from such an ‘addiction’. A few examples of alleged ‘comfort addiction’ from the article included the following:

Pink Floyd toured with an ‘Ambience Director’ to ensure their every whim was catered for in distant lands. Keith Richards has a shepherd’s pie made for him before every Stones gig…Lionel Richie takes his own scented candle to ward off unsavoury smells and make places ‘feel like home’; and the late AA Gill, a former Tatler writer, used to always request the same table at The Wolseley for breakfast”.

Kirwan-Taylor then goes on to assert that ‘comfort addiction’ is a “vice about which few are willing to go on the record”. The first thing to say is that the examples cited have absolutely nothing to do with any operational definition of addiction that I can think of, and the word ‘addiction’ is being used in a light-hearted or throwaway manner (as well as an arguably sensationalist tactic to get people like myself to read it). One of Kirwan-Taylor’s interviewees was a private banker named only as ‘Simon’ (born with a silver ladle in his mouth):

“Comfort addiction is little talked about because sufferers know that it’s a pretty unattractive condition. I’ve started to decline shooting invitations because you can never be sure whether the mattress will be firm enough, the sheets clean enough or the bathroom en suite. Statelies [stately homes] are particularly uncomfortable”.

The article’s apparent rationale for calling such behaviour an ‘addiction’ is that there are addictive elements such as mood modification, withdrawal symptoms, and interpersonal conflict. More specifically, (i) comfort is similar to addictive substances (such as cocaine, alcohol and sugar) and makes individuals “feel temporarily better [and] soothes away life’s irritants” [mood modification] (ii) any sudden withdrawal of comfort leads the individuals “into a combination of acute anxiety, helplessness and rage” [withdrawal symptoms], and (iii) there are individuals are prepared to forego social events with friends because they are afraid to undergo any type of discomfort (presumably both psychological and physical although the article doesn’t explicitly say) [interpersonal conflict]. To overcome the lack of creature comforts, such individuals will bring their own bedding, food, drink, and eating and drinking utensils when staying at hotels or at friends’ houses. As one (unnamed) hotelier claimed:

“[Such individuals] don’t like the idea of sleeping on the same bed linen a thousand other people have slept on before. They prefer snuggling up in something that feels like home”.

To be honest, I can understand some of the thought processes behind this. I never ever (and I really do mean never) try on clothes or shoes in a shop before buying them because all I can think about is the number of sweaty and/or unclean people who might have tried on the clothing before me. Kirwan-Taylor also makes the claim that:

“There are, of course, varying levels of creature comfort. The late Karl Lagerfeld not only travelled by private jet with his own bookcase, he also went to extraordinary lengths to cosset his guests, too [such as building] a tennis court on his property at Biarritz as an enticement for [Anna Wintour] to visit…It is [also] rumoured that when King Salman of Saudi Arabia was due to stay at the One & Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives in 2017, he asked for exclusive hire of the hotel and that it be repainted and fitted with gold handrails. At his request, a hospital was apparently built on-site, and nannies, personal trainers, security and chefs were flown in by private jet. In the end, the King never turned up”.

According to Kirwan-Taylor, there are other factors that facilitate ‘comfort addiction’ of which age is one. To support this proposition, the article featured quotes from Dr Robert Biswas-Diener (co-author of self-help book The Upside of Your Dark Side as well as a TED Talk on ‘comfort addiction’) who described the phenomenon of ‘comfort inflation’ which turns into an “expectation”. He claimed (and I agree with such claims) that:

“Standards inflate over time. When you’re a student, a futon seems fine. By the time you’re 40, you can only sleep in a super king. It’s a natural progression. Business class gets you off and on the plane first. You sit by yourself. If you’re flying economy and you’re upgraded, you’re elated. If you’re flying business and are downgraded, you’re fuming. It’s easier to adjust upwards than downwards… Comfort is about convenience, privacy and safety. It is all about control. When you’re lumped in economy you have no idea who you will be sitting next to”.

When it comes to flying business class, I can only concur. Because of a degenerative medical condition, I can no longer fly long distances in economy class. If my clients want my services, flying business class is a minimum. I’m not bothered about the service received by the airline staff or boarding the plane first (although that’s admittedly nice), I just want comfort on the plane (and access to the comfortable seating or showers in the business lounge). I could argue (based on my own research) that there is an analogy to the concept of ‘tolerance’ here (the needing of more and more of a particular substance or behaviour to get the same initial mood-modifying effects). Whereas I was once happy to be flying on a plane to get from A to B, now I want the ultimate in comfort. I now discuss which airline’s business class I prefer or which business lounges are best. One of my colleagues once called me a “comfort junkie” (which again plays on the addiction analogy) but all this really means I like my five-star hotels and creature comforts (you will never see me go camping again in my life).

As Kirwan-Taylor’s article points out, “[individuals] quickly adjust to our new standards and [they] want more”. The article also includes a quote from George Harrison who once said “Do you remember when we were so poor we had to fly first class?”. Other signs that individuals have a ‘comfort addiction’ is individuals who “install home gyms, cinemas and hair salons [in their homes] as standard”. And too much comfort may not be a good thing for us. Kirwan-Taylor also interviewed Norman Doidge (author of The Brain That Changes Itself) who asserted:

“Too much comfort lowers resilience and with it the ability to deal with challenges. It is the willingness to leave the comfort zone that is key to keeping the brain new”

Obviously I don’t think ‘comfort addiction’ exists but I don’t deny some people’s experiences relating to comfort (including my own personal experiences) and I could certainly make an argument that there are some addiction-like elements.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Doidge, N. (2008). The Brain That Changes Itself. London: Penguin.

Haisha, L. (2011). Overcome your ‘comfort addiction’. Huffington Post, November 17. Located at: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/overcome-your-comfort-add_n_637327

Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of Your Dark Side. London: Penguin.

Kirwan-Taylor, H. (2019). Are you a comfort addict and utterly addicted to indulgence? The Tatler, May 14. Located at: https://www.tatler.com/article/are-you-a-comfort-addict

Lanier, T. (2015). Are you addicted to comfort? The New Man, June 1. Located at: https://www.thenewmanpodcast.com/2015/06/are-you-addicted-to-comfort/

Munro, D. (2017). Our crippling addiction to comfort. The Inspirational Lifestyle, May 22. Located at: http://www.theinspirationallifestyle.com/our-crippling-addiction-to-comfort/

Schmidt, M. (2017). Living in the age of comfort addiction. Patheos.com, February 28. Located at: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/takeandread/2017/02/living-age-comfort-addiction-qa-erin-straza/

Shore, J. (2015). Are you ready to start conquering your dangerous addiction to comfort? The Entrepreneur, April 2. Located at: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/244480

The prose and cons: A brief look at ‘poetry addiction’

Back in May 2014, I gave a whole afternoon of talks on behavioural addictions (including gambling and gaming addiction) at Castle Craig, an inpatient addiction treatment centre in Scotland. One of the most interesting people I met there was the psychotherapist Christopher Burn who on the back of his latest book Poetry Changes Lives describes himself as “a history addict, grandfather, recovering alcoholic, and poetry fanatic”. Maybe I’ll write a blog on what it is to be a “history addict” in a future blog, but this article will briefly look at an article just published by Burn on ‘poetry addiction’.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that writing is an important activity in my life. Many of my friends and colleagues describe me as a ‘writaholic’ and that I am addicted to writing because of the number of articles that I have published. Regular readers of my blog will also know that I have written articles on obsessional writing (graphomania), obsessional erotic writing (erotographomania), diary writing, excessive blog writing, and excessive (productive) writing.

Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘poetry fanatic’ I do love writing poetry myself and have had a number of my poems published. In fact, in 1997, I won a national Poetry Today competition for the best (20 lines and under) poem for An Alliteration of Life. Burn’s article on ‘addiction to the act of writing poetry (like his latest book) is an interesting read. Burn has even coined a new term for addiction to poetry – ‘poesegraphilia’. Burn notes that the Irish dramatist George Farquar said that poetry was a “mere drug” and that:

“Many poets, great and not so great, have suffered from addiction to mood altering substances – Coleridge, Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas (‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’) spring to mind. Many great poems have been written about addiction too. It seems however that very little attention has been given to the addictive power generated by the act of writing poetry itself. One thing is for sure – poetry has a power to alter our mood – not normally in the pernicious or directly physical manner of say, a line of cocaine, but in a pervasive and generally enjoyable way that can usually only be helpful. This mood changing effect can come from either reading or writing poetry but of the two, it is poetry writing that is the most dramatic”.

As an amateur poet myself, I know only too well the emotional power of words and that words can have a mood altering effect (both positive and negative). There is even ‘poetry therapy’ and (in the USA) a National Association for Poetry Therapy and an Institute for Poetic Medicine that advocates the intentional use of poetry and other forms of literature for healing and personal growth”. (For a concise overview of ‘poetry therapy’ check out this article on the GoodTherapy website). Burn says that “writing poetry may not affect a person’s life with the degree of powerlessness and unmanageability that say, alcohol does, but it can still have a very marked influence”. He then includes part of an interview transcript from BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme with Les Murray, an Australian poet:

“It’s wonderful, there’s nothing else like it, you write in a trance. And the trance is completely addictive, you love it, you want more of it. Once you’ve written the poem and had the trance, polished it and so on, you can go back to the poem and have a trace of that trance, have the shadow of it, but you can’t have it fully again. It seemed to be a knack I discovered as I went along. It’s an integration of the body-mind and the dreaming-mind and the daylight-conscious-mind. All three are firing at once, they’re all in concert. You can be sitting there but inwardly dancing, and the breath and the weight and everything else are involved, you’re fully alive. It takes a while to get into it. You have to have some key, like say a phrase or a few phrases or a subject matter or maybe even a tune to get you started going towards it, and it starts to accumulate. Sometimes it starts without your knowing that you’re getting there, and it builds in your mind like a pressure. I once described it as being like a painless headache, and you know there’s a poem in there, but you have to wait until the words form”.

I’ve always argued that anything can be addictive if it is something that can constantly reinforce and reward behaviour. Theoretically, there is no reason why writing poetry could not be mood modifying and potentially addictive. As Burn observes:

“Many poets talk about the dream-like trance that envelops them during the act of creating poetry and how this can last sometimes for days. This is not a simple cathartic event, which can happen too, but a state that affects mind, body and spirit. Here is poet and author Robert Graves on the subject: ‘No poem is worth anything unless it starts from a poetic trance, out of which you can be wakened by interruption as from a dream. In fact, it is the same thing’. All this trance-like sensation sounds to me a bit like the effect that certain mood altering substances can have, and we know how addictive they can be”.

Burn then goes on to question whether the act of writing poetry can be clinically classed as an addiction. To do this, he uses criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] and argues that the act of writing poetry could potentially meet some of the criteria for addiction including: (i) persisting with the habit to the detriment of other activities and relationships, (ii) increased tolerance, (iii) unsuccessful attempts to stop, (iv) increase in time spent on the activity, and (v) persisting with the habit despite knowledge of negative consequences. Based on this he then goes on to argue:

“It seems to me that there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that for some people, poetry, in particular the act of writing poetry, is a powerful and addictive behaviour that meets at least a few of these [DSM] criteria…Problem gamblers often talk of the trance-like state they get into when for example, playing slot machines; reality and awareness of the world around them disappears and everything is focused on them to and the moment. As in poetry writing. British poet JLS Carter describes poetic creation as ‘An addiction – you can go for days thinking of nothing else, in a kind of trance where all other thoughts and considerations are sidelined. That way madness lies’. By its very nature, poetry puts a special power into words that affects us in a way that most conversation or written narrative does not. Poetry gets under our skin, alters our moods and stays in our head in a special way”.

Much of Burn’s admittedly anecdotal argument that poetry can be addictive all comes down to how addiction is defined in the first place and also takes the implicit view that some activities can be what Dr. Bill Glasser would call ‘positive addictions’ in that there are some behaviours that can have positive as well as negative consequences. However, 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 below. For an activity to be classed as a positive addiction, Glasser says 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.

Most of these could apply to ‘poetry addiction’ but 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 is 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. Although no-one is ever likely to seek treatment for an addiction to writing poetry, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use activities like writing poetry to help us define and refine how we conceptualize behavioural addictions.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burn, C. (2015). Poetry Changes Lives. Biggar: DHH Publishing.

Burn, C. (2016). Poesegraphilia – Addiction to the act of writing poetry. Poetry Changes Lives, May 27. Located at: http://www.poetrychangeslives.com/addiction-to-the-act-of-writing-poetry/

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

GoodTherapy.Org (2016). Poetry therapy. Located at: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/poetry-therapy

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.

Klein. P. (2006). The therapeutic benefit of poetry. The Therapist. Located at: http://phyllisklein.com/writing-for-healing/the-therapeutic-benefit-of-poetry/

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