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Researchers Find This Emotion Is At The Root Of Most Addictions

Sarah Regan
January 12, 2020
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
Portrait of a Young Woman Looking Upset and Sad
Image by Alexey Kuzma / Stocksy
January 12, 2020

Addiction can manifest in a lot of ways, whether it's drugs or alcohol, shopping, or even food. But new research says the emotion that underlies addiction may be the most notable factor as far as what triggers addictive behavior in the first place.

Many have wondered about exactly that—how emotion correlates with addiction. Which is why a team of Harvard researchers conducted four interwoven studies to identify the root of the problem.

To conduct their research, the team did separate analyses on various research studies. They looked at lab tests that examined how smokers respond to negative emotions, a study on how deeply and often people smoked cigarettes, and more, and all of it pointed to sadness as the strongest influence to smoke.

Looking at the data.

In a national longitudinal survey of over 10,000 people, the sadder the survey participants were, the likelier they were to smoke and even relapse a decade or more after quitting. In another, 425 smokers watched different video clips and wrote about personal experiences. The participants who had to watch a sad video had higher cravings to smoke than participants who watched a neutral or repulsive video.

The third study had 700 participants also watch videos and write about life experiences. Then they were given the hypothetical choice of fewer cigarette puffs sooner, or more, later. Those who watched the sad video, as you might have expected, were more impatient to smoke.

And lastly, the fourth survey involved sad videos again, but this time the participants hadn't smoked in eight hours. After watching their videos, the group who watched the sad video smoked through a device that tested the volume of puffs, as well as speed and duration. The group who watched the sad video were found to smoke more aggressively, taking deeper puffs.

A new perspective on addiction.

The team's lead researcher, Charles A. Dorison, notes that these findings offer a novel perspective on the underlying cause of addictive behavior.

"The conventional wisdom in the field was that any type of negative feelings, whether it's anger, disgust, stress, sadness, fear, or shame, would make individuals more likely to use an addictive drug," he says. "Our work suggests that the reality is much more nuanced than the idea of 'feel bad, smoke more.' Specifically, we find that sadness appears to be an especially potent trigger of addictive substance use."

With that in mind, the team hopes this knowledge will help those suffering from addiction understand their behavior, and hopefully, change it.

Combating sadness.

Jennifer Lerner, Ph.D., senior co-author of the research, says the findings could have positive effects on public health policy surrounding addiction, such as reframing substance abuse ads to avoid triggering sadness.

Dorison adds, "We believe that theory-driven research could help shed light on how to address [the addiction] epidemic. We need insights across disciplines, including psychology, behavioral economics and public health, to confront this threat effectively."

As far as how to mitigate sadness in general, well, wouldn't we all like to know?

There are lots of ways to invite happiness into your life, but often focusing on achieving happiness can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of dwelling on a lack of happiness, which only highlights sadness1, we'd be better off to focus on wholeness and accepting where we are.

Mindfulness can be a great tool to overcome sadness and addictive behavior, too. And if you or someone in your life is struggling with addiction, know recovery is possible.

Sarah Regan author page.
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor

Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.