The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection.

I just watched that TED Talk — it’s titled “Everything we think about addiction is wrong” — this morning. I had seen a few people share it on social since TED released it about a week ago (it’s from a TED event in London). I had probably been dreading watching it, to an extent. I have a bunch of addiction in my family, and I myself sometimes think I’m addicted to some not-so-good things. Here’s a bit more on that.

Around 2008, I was having a pretty tough time with some of these themes. I myself felt like I was drinking way too much, and I felt like I was coming to grips with a few things about the world all at once. Notably: jobs can often suck (and at the time, I worked at ESPN, which is a dream job for most people), people can often totally ignore you and/or not be there for you, and eventually you start learning that your parents are guiders of your life, but ultimately flawed beings in their own right.  I was going through a lot of stuff, and I went to church more, I went to a few AA-type meetings, and I ultimately just chased purpose.

We think about addiction all wrong

I didn’t necessarily find purpose — that’s a hard thing to find, honestly, and I don’t know if I’m there yet or I’ll ever get there — but I did start thinking about things a little bit differently. At that moment, one thing I really wanted to do was travel. I had done none of that as a kid. So I got it together and ended up organizing something to Europe with a bunch of girls. (I started up with my wife essentially on that trip.) I started thinking more about relationships, and less about things. That’s very important.

That’s how that TED Talk ends: the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. The opposite is actually connections, people, relationships. I don’t care if your drug is Vegas, porn, alcohol, weed, heroin, cocaine, MDMA, or whatever … in each case, there’s a brain chemistry thing going on (the neuroscience of addiction) and there’s a deeply emotional/psychological thing going on (you’re trying to fill a void). Almost every time I’ve sat by myself and drank or done something else stupid, it was because I was sad about where I was in life. I felt:

  • Lonely
  • Bored
  • Meaningless
  • Pointless


So I chased an environment where maybe I could detach from myself a little bit, or maybe interact with people around me about something on TV. That’s what it is. It’s not that I’m addicted to X-Thing; it’s that I’m addicted to the idea of connection, as all humans are (we’re social beings) and when you can’t get it through the right channels, you gotta get it some other way. That’s how drugs work. That’s how anything that takes you out of the day-to-day works.

This is the same reason it’s really important to people to come off as busy: “busy” to some underscores “purpose” and underscores a reason to have to connect with others (to talk about the things making you so busy). In short, being busy is akin to a drug too.

I won’t go super deep into this point, but Hari mentions at the end of his TED Talk that a study was done showing that as number of real friends decreases, apartment size increases. So we’re trading real connection (friends) for material goodness (a bigger place), in the broadest terms. I know that seems like a cliche or a trope, and maybe it is — but does it really surprise anyone?

Ironically, if you want to be actually happy, you need to move the other way — away from money and materials, and towards time and experience.

This was one of the best TED Talks I’ve ever seen, and you know what? It doesn’t surprise me that we’re approaching addiction all wrong. “Addiction” is a bad word. With every bad word in the American canon, we try to find a way to punish it. We forget that bad things often come from feeling bad, not feeling connected, or feeling misunderstood. Even though it’s a bit fluffier of a concept, that’s what we need to actually be fixing.

Ted Bauer