Psychology Sociology

Overcoming Addiction Through Community

“Human beings are always reaching out to find something that might save their lives from utter meaninglessness” — Willard Waller

Addiction is a problem of meaning.

Rather than simply looking at addiction as a disease, we need to broaden our understanding of what drives addiction so we can better address its root causes.

How is addiction a meaning problem?

Without a sense of meaning and purpose, a person may turn to drug use and addictive behaviors to fill the void of an existential vacuum. The problem is that this void is infinite. As one goes further down this infinite rabbet-hole, one takes on an increasingly distorted view of themselves and the world.

In the void, self-destructive behaviors begin to make sense. They are rationalized, minimized, and justified at all cost.

As one’s former self becomes a faint glimmer at the beginning of a long tunnel, the descent into addiction reorients one’s sense of meaning and purpose. If it takes over, the addiction becomes the sole guiding principal.

Why get up? To engage in the addiction. Why leave the house? To engage in the addiction. Why do anything? To engage in the addiction.

It is paradoxically a nihilistic sense of purpose. It answers the why question, but leaves the person caught in a self-referential loop of desperation and despair. Like Victor Frankl said: “suffering without meaning is despair”.

So how do we get someone out of an addiction?

The answer is not simple, nor is it easy. Beyond potentially useful medical treatments, we need to look at rebuilding the persons “why”. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. 

Victor Frankl proposed his concept of logotherapy as a treatment for addiction. Put simply, it is a form of talk therapy that attempts to rebuild a persons sense of purpose by exploring things that are meaningful to them. Although this concept is not often used in the addictions field, the more recent concept of motivational interviewing builds on the same ideas, becoming a gold standard counseling technique with hundreds of studies showing its effectiveness.   

In short, motivational interviewing is a collaborative conversation focused on helping a person gain motivation to change. This is done by eliciting their own reasons for change and collaborating on an action-plan. See Miller and Rollnick’s book for more information on this counseling method: Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change.

Counseling can help someone connect to their “why”, but we can’t simply rely on trying to fix the problem after the fact. Increasing the use of counseling while neglecting an unhealthy social environment is like trying to fix an overflowing sink by buying more mops. Instead, we need to look at the source of the problem and work on turning off the tap.

How do social environments produce addiction?

Unhealthy social environments produce addiction when there is a lack of community. When people no longer feel like they belong and their sense of purpose is lacking, they are left with the existential vacuum mentioned in the beginning. In his book SuicideSociologist Émile Durkheim states:

“Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him.”

Community is essential to our why. This means “community” in the true sense of the word. At its root, community means being integrated into a network of individuals who you feel have your back, and therefore, you have theirs. On one hand, this is a sense of belonging; on the other hand, it is a sense of service. This is what gives us true meaning.

As we all continue to reach out every day to the things that save our lives from utter meaninglessness, we need to be mindful of how our social environments foster this sense of resilience.

No one randomly wakes up one day and rationally decides to become addicted to something. It is a symptom of larger forces. Rather than looking at addiction as an individual pathology, we need to understand addiction as a social pathology. Individual counseling must work to help connect individuals to their broader social environment, while politicians, business owners, and everyday citizens need to work at facilitating better communities.

When we have a why, we figure out the how. It is community that helps us connect to this why.


What are your thoughts on the role of community in addiction? Feel free to share in the comments section.

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13 comments

  1. there is nothing here I disagree with. And it is very well written. But I get a sense of preaching to the converted. Addiction is social anthrax, but more messy. The moron’s moron, Trump, for example, is addicted to money and power. I’d suggest counselling, but I’m not sure that would work. In my travels the statistic that always gets flung at me is the story of the thirds. A third make it through the other end without any help. A third are causalities and don’t make it. A third get into counselling, twelve-step programmes, find god or yoga or both. And there’s light at the other end. Hmmmm. Messy business.

  2. I think like most things, addiction is multifaceted and recovery likely is as well. I agree that community can have a huge impact on recovery. Not just for addiction, but for many kinds of pain and suffering. We are built for community, we have a core need to be welcomed and accepted by community. Unfortunately, the very people who often need community the most seem to choose an unhealthy community that either corroborates with the addiction, or triggers it. There is no easy solution.

    1. HI Denise, thank you for the comment! I completely agree that it is applicable beyond addiction. A great deal of my research has focused on veterans in transition to civilian life and the role of community in social reintegration.

  3. Not addition but about the effects of having no community. With the passing of Charles Manson this week, I read a bit written about his early life. He said he had no one in his life….community matters and helps with many types of issues, addiction is just one of them. Good article, great insights. thanks

  4. Nice article, Steve. I enjoy reading your work and what you think about certain things. How much can community really help someone with addiction? I believe it is very important, but I also think that person needs to want to overcome the addiction themselves. They cannot just do it for a loved one or a friend. They have to want it before anyone else comes into play. They control their decisions. Uncovering pain points will yield answers to the “why”.

    1. Thanks for the kind comment. I agree that the reason needs to stem from a true personal desire. I have been thinking about this issue quite a bit recently. What is the difference between doing something for someone else and doing something motivated by an external person or community? I would say that the person solely doing it for another person is often acting out of fear of consequences rather than motivated by positive meaning. I’ve often though of a similar question in terms of the difference between serving one’s partner and codependency. The main difference seems to be the place it comes from. The former is interdependent, motivated by positive reasons, whereas the latter of codependent, motivated by fear and insecurity. Thanks for the comment! It made me think quite a bit more about how to differentiate the different types of social motivators.

  5. Community is extremely necessary. When people are struggling with an addiction of any kind having the support, care, and love of other’s is extremely important.

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