3 Truths About Addiction We Can Learn from Johann Hari

A colleague of mine recommended that I watch the Ted Talk by Johann Hari entitled, “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.” When I heard the title I thought to myself, ‘I have to watch this video’. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to watch it first and then continue reading or watching this vlog.

Johann Hari is an English writer and journalist who spent three years researching the war on drugs and subsequently wrote the New York Times best-selling book Chasing the Scream. In this book Hari questions what we know about addiction and the ways in which we treat addiction. He based his very popular TED talk, Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong on some of the findings in his book.


Today, I would like to take a minute to expand on what Johann Hari’s talking about and how it applies to our personal lives. I want to take the three points that he makes in this talk and show you how important it is to master each of these truths when you have an addictive behavior and strive to create permanent change.

The first one is: CONNECTION.

The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection. ― Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

The main challenge with connection is that there’s a myth that exists in our society that connection comes out of the social norm. For example, if you go to a social event you are automatically rooted in a mindset that says, ‘I want to fit in.’ The result is that you keep pushing yourself to want to fit in, whether it is conscious or unconscious.

I remember an example from my own life years ago when my wife and I owned a publishing company. This was in the early nineties and we went through a really difficult time in the business and many distributors in the publishing sector went bankrupt because the whole industry was shifting towards Barnes & Nobles and those larger corporations. Our company was selling to the smaller independent bookstores. In the end we also went bankrupt. Shortly after this my wife and I were invited to a social event, all my friends were there and I ended up spending the entire night dancing around all the normal questions friends asked about the business, how life was going, and that sort of thing. I was terrified of what would happen if I told the truth.

I worried that my friends would judge me, they would see me as a failure, and as somebody who doesn’t have it together. I can’t tell you how much anxiety was building up within me at this event and I didn’t feel connected at all to the people there. I spent the entire night trying to perform.

What Johann is talking about in his Ted Talk is that we have to get a grip on how to create connection with others. It’s absolutely essential. If we want to recover from an addiction, we have to find a way out of that myth that says we need to fake it – put a false self forward – in order to be connected with other people.

The second part he’s talking about is ENVIRONMENT. He’s saying that the environment that you’re in is absolutely essential to your wellbeing.

It isn’t the drug that causes the harmful behavior—it’s the environment. An isolated rat will almost always become a junkie. A rat with a good life almost never will, no matter how many drugs you make available to him. As Bruce put it: he was realizing that addiction isn’t a disease. Addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you—it’s the cage you live in. ― Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

When they isolate the rat and place two water bottles – one with regular drinking water and the other with the cocaine water bottle – the rat goes to the cocaine water, but when they put the rat in a park that is thriving with other rats and there’s all kinds of things to do, then the rat never chooses the cocaine water. So, this tells us very clearly what our natural behavior is and hints strongly at the fact that we’re creatures that are strongly influenced by the environment we’re in.

When we have an addictive behavior, what’s most important for us, is to start immersing ourselves into environments that are safe for us to practice to be authentic in. Places where we feel safe to speak our truth and be ourselves.

To recap, the first truth is connection, the second truth is creating an environment where you’re going to succeed in feeling safe to tell the truth and not feel rejected. There’s a lot that can be said on this, but the key is that it’s about moving towards reintegrating with an environment that you’re safe in and then taking it further by growing into being your authentic self.

The third truth that Johann talks about is one of the core foundations and also feeds the other two we just spoke about, that prevent us from reaching out for real connection and creating an environment that is right for us: we use PUNISHMENT.

punishment—shaming a person, caging them, making them unemployable—traps them in addiction. Taking that money and spending it instead on helping them to get jobs and homes and decent lives makes it possible for many of them to stop.” ― Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

We use punishment as a way to motivate ourselves to change and that my friend is brutal. We do it all the time. We have this ‘inner critic’ that just keeps running in our minds, like that night when I was at that event and my inner critic wouldn’t stop. According to my mindset it was as if I was the biggest failure in the entire world and I was the only one who’s failed at that level and I simply couldn’t talk about it.

This voice of the inner critic keeps creating punishment as a way to motivate me to change. If I think I’m bad, or, if I think I’ve done something bad, then somehow it’s going to motivate me to change.

These three truths of connection, environment and self-punishment are beautifully illustrated in Johann Hari’s Ted Talk and I recommend that you take some time to really dig deeper into each of these areas in your life.

Jean-Francois Benoist

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