Addiction and success

Some of the things in our brains and bodies are easy to explain. Others are puzzling. I am not even sure if some research results indicate causation or anecdotal correlation. Judge for yourself. More reading here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Things success-oriented people do

OK, you have probably seen a ton of success-oriented propaganda. Usually by recommending success authors offer either positive self-talk or something that increases the risk. But this particular list looked a bit less clueless.

  1. They are prepared for the journey. Being prepared introduces a lot of extra work but actually reduces the risk and increases the chances.
  2. They see everything as an opportunity. This basically means that if something changes, you need to change your gameplan. If you fail you need to leverage that.   Sounds like reframing.
  3. They ask important questions. This one is diagnostic. If you know what to ask your positioning is awesome.
  4.  They practice balance. Basically this means they do not put all the eggs in one basket and balance the portfolio of their risks.
  5. Determination, discipline, perseverance, and hard work.  As much as I hate hard work, there is such a thing as minimal viable effort and you do not want to fall short.
  6. They are fully aware of their blind spots. This is wishful thinking.  Any sufficiently long list has strange ideas.
  7. They are always a student. The ability to learn from anything is key to reliable progress.
  8. They are not caught up in labels or status symbols.  Successful people leverage whatever they can, including any authority available.
  9. They practice gratitude. Sharing credits is especially important if you want to have powerful allies.

OK, this is not a rigorous analysis since all the claims are not backed up. What is amazing: they both motivate and are hard to argue with. Moreover, each of the items in the list is an invitation for an interesting exploration. When we research successful people we will see all of these traits and many more. However, if we find someone with all these qualities, he will as likely be a school teacher as a CEO or a senator…

Success in addiction recovery

Unlike evasive generic success, success in specific challenges can be measured and justified. Addiction recovery is just one of the toughest well-defined challenges. It is possible, but the chances of success are not very high. So who succeeds?

  1. Readiness to change.  This is often the hardest step. The change is not easy, and the participant needs to be truly intrinsically motivated.
  2. Self-efficacy. It’s basically a fancy term that refers to a person’s belief that he or she can make things happen. The willpower depends on confidence. As always in self-confidence, success builds upon success.
  3. Maintenance of psychological and emotional wellness. People become addicted often to escape from deeper issues, like anxiety and depression. Good psychologists can offer efficient techniques and drugs with minimal side-effects. Tends to be tricky. Often one addiction is replaced by another.
  4. Support.  It’s important to be surrounded by people who understand you; know what you’re going through; and are willing to stay by your side, cheering you on and keeping you focused when the going gets tough. 
  5. Structure. The research evidence and my experiences with clients make a strong case for the importance of setting up a clear structure and sticking to it. This means having a consistent routine and adhering to it every day. 
  6. Productivity. Everyone who’s ever attempted sobriety can attest to the fact that boredom is a major trigger with enormous relapse potential. That’s why it’s so important to stay busy.

OK, how does the specific success connects to more generic success? Being confident in a change and open to the chance is the basic character trait of the OCEAN model. Structure and support are often results of success, a sort of preview of a successful life. Being busy and creating something of value are very different ways to define productivity. You can guess which camp I belong to, And replacing one sort of addiction by another to treat a deep problem is not always a happy end. Let us take the research into a more specific direction.

Eating disorder recovery

Being slightly overweight I go for the addiction closest to my heart. Again I take a good article, only this time I have to make the bullets myself.

  1. A healthy relationship with food. We need to eat to live, so the focus is on balance.
  2. Self-worth evaluation. People stop eating or eat a lot because they hate themselves. Making peace with yourself reduces the chances of emotional eating.
  3. Dealing with a suicidal drive.  Self-loathing can go way beyond low self-confidence.
  4. Complementary addiction.  Treated separately, what usually happens is that the individual gets help for either an eating disorder or drug addiction, and when that goes into remission the other condition crops up. The patient goes from one treatment facility to another, thinking they’re making progress but ending up stuck in an endless cycle of remission and relapse. 

What are the success rates?

Studies show that 25 percent will get better and do well throughout their lives (usually the ones who get quality care early on); 50 percent will fall into the relapse-remit cycle; and 25 percent will continue to struggle. In the case of eating disorders, 10 percent of those who continue to struggle will die from the disease.

Let us go back to root cause for a second. People who suffer from depression get prescription drugs which cause weight fluctuations and lower libido. From there, self-worth is often questioned, creating two addiction cycles: one dealing with unhealthy eating, and another with unhealthy medication.

Suddenly I am happy that my biggest problem is not enough physical activity…

So, what are the success factors?

The better we define what challenge we consider, the fewer better-supported results we get.  The factors for generic success and for success in any specific challenge appear to be very different. A great musician or financial mastermind can easily be a drug addict and die from an overdose.

Let us take this one step further,

Creativity and Intelligence vs Psychosis and Autism

There are stories of genius-level individuals with psychosis, autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. They are true. IQ and psychological health have very complex relations. An autistic individual or someone with avoidance can spend more time on his work. Someone with a lack of something important will be highly likely to overcompensate and take risks regular people avoid. Does that qualify as “improvisational reasoning”?

How does this work? Here are some pairs of labels people often use to differentiate the positive and negative sides often of the same thing.

  • dyslexia          <=>  originality
  • autist               <=>  savant
  • hyperactive  <=>  entrepreneurial
  • overfocused <=> deductive
  • obsessed       <=> dedicated
  • psycho            <=> unyielding
  • manipulative<=> political
  • delusional     <=> visionary
  • paranoic        <=>  cautious

We all have problems, simply some people have more problems than others, and some people function better with their problems. People with problems are quite likely to be stupid and fail in everything they do. They can also be very intelligent and successful in complex and challenging tasks. If they happen to succeed in something particularly complex, they get a new label.

We love to place labels, as they make us feel in control. This is one of the basic tricks in magic. Take something complex and frightening and label it, say as black holes or nuclear power. Suddenly we feel that we control that thing. We can sleep calmly as our best experts deal with THAT.  And if the experts fail, we attach a different label.

How happy do you feel on a scale of 0 to 10?

ARMA (autoregressive moving average) models are very effective for some financial estimates and control mechanisms. Our self-regulation is a control mechanism. So it makes some sense to apply the same modeling.

Researchers in a huge lab took 18000 people and asked them to answer multiple happiness-related questions. Then they asked people to gamble and asked statisticians to model the results.

Satisfaction = constant + certain success + expected average success + success above the expected.

So far so good. Now what?

Apparently each experiment is not independent and there is some accumulation in time with a forgetting factor. This is very much expected from any learning system in stage of learning or validation.  The cool thing is the learning coefficient measured: it was around 60%. This means that the old results were forgotten very soon and the latest result was the most important for happiness. Even more interestingly a similar factor was measured in fMRI. This means we are quite good judging our happiness, but not very good remembering how happy we used to be.

What did researchers decide? They decided that they can measure fMRI of very few people instead of questioning a lot of people. This will make further research faster.

You see great science in action. This still does not answer the fundamental questions about happiness. Why do we forget so fast? Which brain mechanisms make us so good in judging happiness? Why are these mechanisms evolutionary important?

How do the rich and famous define their success?

  • Billionaire Richard Branson believes success is about personal fulfillment.
  • Huffington Post cofounder Arianna Huffington says that money and power aren’t enough, e.g. we need a third metric.
  • For Marc Cuban the definition of success is waking up in the morning with a smile on your face, knowing it’s going to be a great day. Rich or poor.
  • Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said it’s a matter self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable
  • Legendary investor Warren Buffett values relationships above all else: measuring success by how many people love him.
  • Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates believes it’s about making an impact on society.
  • Spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra believes success is a matter of constant growth.
  • Popular author Stephen Covey said that the definition of success is deeply individual.
  • Oprah Winfrey defines success as staying true to your inner voice.

There are interesting parameters for success that have nothing to do with money. Successful people work hard.  Intelligent people are more likely to marry and stay married…

If this view of success resonates with you, you are welcome to check out my course:



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