I want to introduce you to two people–Christopher and John.
Each of them regularly consumes a potentially addictive substance that he truly enjoys.
- Christopher regularly consumes Substance F
- John regularly consumes Substance A.
Both of these men realize that consuming their respective substances is an unhealthy habit, but they proceed to consume them every day, regardless. However, the way these two men consume these substances is very different.
Christopher consumes large doses of Substance F on a regular basis, and he is not very healthy or active in other aspects of his life.
John, on the other hand, only consumes a small dose of Substance A during the week, and occasionally consumes more on the weekends. He also maintains a healthy and active lifestyle outside of his consumption of Substance A.
Eventually, Christopher realized he had a problem with Substance F. So he tried talking to professionals to get help controlling his consumption, but so far nothing has worked. No matter how much he tries, it seems he simply can’t stop consuming unhealthy amounts of Substance F.
The problem has gotten so bad that Christopher elected to get surgery that would actually help him decrease his cravings for Substance F.
Meanwhile, John is quite happy with the amount of Substance A he consumes. He believes that his life is better with Substance A, as it helps him relax after a long, stressful day of work.
Also, there have been several times when John has had to give up Substance A for long stretches, such as upcoming work and family responsibilities. When those times came, he was able to give it up without much of a problem.
Today, despite his surgery, Christopher is still in a big struggle with consuming Substance F. His health has not gotten much better, and he is extremely self-conscious about his inability to stop.
John also continues to consume Substance A every day, but he has no plans of stopping his habit unless he has upcoming responsibilities that require it.
- Christopher is former presidential candidate Chris Christie, and Substance F is unhealthy food.
- John is a friend of mine, and Substance A is alcohol.
WHAT IS AN ADDICTION?
The topic of addiction is incredibly hard to define–even to scientists who have been researching the topic for decades.
Some believe it’s a disease...some believe it’s a choice...some believe it’s genetics…
With this article, I intend to show you just how complicated and personal the topic is, and why it cannot be reduced to a blanket statement.
*Note: please read my introduction to the science of addiction article, to get a full perspective on the topic.
I used the examples of Christopher and John because they illustrate several key points:
- Most of us have eaten the same food as Chris Christie at some point in our lives, yet we didn’t become addicted to it as he did.
- Most of us know someone like John who has a beer, glass of wine, or other drink every day, yet we wouldn’t consider them addicted to alcohol.
- Even a surgical procedure meant to decrease Chris Christie’s appetite wasn’t enough to help overcome his addiction.
- Even though John consumes a potentially addictive substance like alcohol every day, he doesn’t have any problem quitting when he needs to.
And the question behind all of these points is why?
The answers give us 4 profound insights that will change how you think about addiction forever.
1. WHY DID CHRISTOPHER BECOME ADDICTED TO SOMETHING THAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T?
Let’s not kid ourselves, unhealthy food is delicious.
Salty, sweet, savory, rich, creamy…whatever your taste is, eating great food is one of the treats of life—even if it is unhealthy.
Now, I do not know Chris Christie’s entire history or relationship with food, but if his story is similar to that of a typical food addict, he likely sees food differently than, say, I do.
To me, food represents nutrition. I monitor everything going into my body, try to make sure I’m eating healthy, and treat myself from time to time. (I'm not saying my way of viewing food is superior, I'm just showing that we can use the same substance for different reasons.)
For food addicts, it represents something much different.
Recent research suggests that people who become addicted to food have an emotional connection to it. It represents happiness, comfort, or a way to handle stress and escape to a feeling of bliss. 
So even though a healthy person may eat the same food as an addict, the emotional connection they have to the food is completely different.
It is this emotional connection that makes someone an addict, not the food itself.
2. WHY DON’T WE CONSIDER JOHN AN ALCOHOLIC?
Almost all of us know a person like John–someone who has a drink every day as a way of winding down and relaxing. We might think that this person has an unhealthy habit, but we certainly would not consider them an alcoholic.
But why not?
First, he’s just drinking 1 beer. If I said he was drinking 6, 8, or 12 beers at the end of the day, that would be a different story.
This tells us that dose plays an important role in our thinking of addiction.
The fact that he only has 1 beer shows us that he is consuming in moderation, that he has the willpower to say "no."
When it comes to any addiction, one the most underrated factors is dose.
If you eat 1 cookie every day, you don’t have an eating disorder. If you choose to spend your entertainment budget on gambling, rather than going to movies or concerts, you don’t have a gambling problem.
But, this is where gets interesting...
Imagine if I told you that Substance A wasn’t alcohol, it was methamphetamine.
Would you consider him to be an addict now?
As his friend, I couldn't help but be concerned. Even if he was just having the equivalent a "beer's worth" of alcohol in a dose of methamphetamine every day.
So why don't we consider John an alcoholic, yet we would consider him to be a meth addict?
We see people use alcohol all around us. We see the 80 to 90% of people who use it without becoming addicted. But the only people we see use meth, are the addicts in the news and on shows like Breaking Bad.
I know this will be hard to believe, but the addictive potential of meth is roughly the same as alcohol. But because it is illegal, demonized, and simply not used by many people, we don't see the 80 to 90% of people use meth without getting addicted. 
Since we can think of many examples like John who aren't addicted, his behavior feels "normal." But since the only people who use meth every day we can think of are hard-core addicts, we think John is doomed to their fate.
This is equal to us believing that everyone who starts having a glass of wine or a cocktail with dinner is destined to end up on the street drinking vodka out a paper bag.
3. WHY DIDN’T SURGERY WORK FOR CHRISTOPHER?
“In moments I go from complete misery and vulnerability to total invulnerability.”
Recalled Judy, a 36-year-old heroin and cocaine addict when she was explaining why she chose to use drugs.
"I have a lot of issues. A lot of the reason why I use is to get rid of those thoughts and emotions and cover them up.” 
Judy had been trying to give up drugs for over two decades at that point. She’d been to rehab, got clean, but it was always just a matter of time before she would start using again.
Why is this?
If she fought through withdrawal and got the drugs out of her system, shouldn’t the chemicals lose power over her?
The answer is yes. They did lose their power.
However, Judy may have been clean when she left rehab, but the issues, the thoughts, and the emotional pain she was feeling were still there. And the only way she knew how to deal with them was through drugs.
This is why surgery didn’t work for Christopher.
He may have decreased his biological appetite, but whatever comfort, happiness, or emotional connection that he has to food cannot be surgically removed. Just like getting clean will not erase Judy’s 36 years of being abused, sexually assaulted, and turning to drugs to find comfort.
Whether the addiction is to sugar or substances, the addict will continue to struggle until they overcome the deeper reason why they are consuming it.
4. WHY DOESN’T JOHN GET ADDICTED EVEN THOUGH HE CONSUMES EVERY DAY?
So now that we know more about why people become addicted, let’s explore why John doesn’t become addicted, despite drinking alcohol every day.
As I mentioned in the section on why we don’t consider him an addict, dose plays an important role. The more you increase the dose something, the more your brain begins to anticipate it, release dopamine, and trigger a craving.
Also, especially with alcohol, the more you consume on a daily basis, the worse the withdrawal symptoms are going to be when you stop (everyone who’s experienced a hangover will know this well).
So since he wasn’t consuming a large dose, his potential for addiction was lower.
However, there is a much bigger factor that separates him from the typical addict–what that alcohol means to him.
John is happy. He loves his job, his family, and he drinks beer to enhance his reality–not escape it.
He doesn’t bury any feelings in his drinking, he doesn’t see it as an escape from his emotional pain, and he values things like waking up early to exercise and being productive at work. Both of which he can’t do if he spends his nights binge drinking.
Because he has his priorities in line, it doesn't require much willpower to say "no." 
Many things have an addictive potential. Drugs, alcohol, sugar, sex, gambling, shopping… the list goes on. However, 80-90% of people consume these things or engage in these activities without getting addicted.
It is not because 80 to 90% of people have an iron willpower, and the people who do get addicted don't. It is because addiction doesn't come from the thing you consume, addiction comes from the reason you consume it.
It is a deeply personal and psychological problem that cannot be cured by taking away the substance or activity that one is addicted to–even through surgical intervention!
When I first set out to see what role willpower plays in addiction, I assumed it would be about developing the strength to say "no." But much more important is developing the strength to confront and deal with the real issue behind the addiction.
Until that strength is developed, the addict will continue to indulge and seek their escape.