What makes you live longer? What makes life more satisfying? What enables people to resist addiction?
These three questions have an answer in common—a remarkably good piece of news about which we should continually remind ourselves.
One piece of evidence to support our answer was produced by Lewis Terman, an educational psychologist at Stanford University, who developed the modern IQ test in 1916. Terman believed intelligence was inherited, and he was associated with the eugenics movement.
But our answer has nothing to do with IQ, nor the damaging notion of genetic determinism. Instead, it’s about something quite different that Terman discovered despite his prior beliefs.
In 1921, Terman and his colleagues started a study built around IQ. Originally titled The Genetics Studies of Genius, it evolved into the Terman Study of the Gifted (it’s also now known as The Longevity Project), and comprises the longest study of individual lives ever conducted.
Terman wished to follow the most brilliant young people in America, as determined by his IQ test and similar instruments, to prove his belief about the determining impact of high intelligence on people’s lives.
It wasn’t intelligence. Nor was it achievement. On the other hand, living in Margaritaville or La Dolce Vita wasn’t the answer.
But the results didn’t show that intelligence determined people’s lives. One example that hit Terman was that only 50 of more than 1,500 high-IQ subjects became university faculty. Terman (who died in 1956) was forced to conclude, “We have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”
The study continued until the last subject died. When the results of the research were safely able to be concluded, Time announced the study’s single, most definitive finding with this headline last year: “This 95-Year Stanford Study Reveals 1 Secret to Living a Longer, More Fulfilling Life.”
It wasn’t intelligence. Nor was it achievement. On the other hand, the Time subhead declared, “This decades-long study shows that living an easy, stress-free life won’t make you happier—and definitely won’t help you live longer.” In other words, living in Margaritaville or La Dolce Vita wasn’t the answer.
But before returning to the answer, let’s reflect on the finding that not only the most satisfying lives, but the longest ones, shared the same trait.
And that trait was having a purpose.
The study’s conclusion:
We did not find that precisely living out your dreams matters much for your health. It was not the happiest [meaning “most pleasure seeking”] or the most relaxed older participants who lived the longest. It was those who were most engaged in pursuing their goals.
In other words, having a life-motivating purpose—one providing meaning beyond meeting basic needs—is the secret to a longer, more fulfilling life.
Of course, like many life secrets, this one seems simple and straightforward upon reflection. Having something you want to do, a role to play that you consider important and worthwhile, propels you through life, making it more engaging and fun. This doesn’t mean that your life will proceed effortlessly or be trouble-free. But an energized and directed life is one that also more readily overcomes obstacles.
Which brings me to addiction.
Avoiding and Overcoming Addiction
When I’m invited to give talks about addiction, I often ask audiences a series of questions. First, I ask if they’ve ever taken painkillers. They almost all have, like the vast majority of Americans.
Then I ask if anyone has become addicted. If it is not specifically a recovery group, generally very few people (often none) have.
Again, this matches what we know about Americans. In 2015, for example, a peak period of concern about rising drug deaths, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 98 million Americans had used a painkiller over the previous year. Between 1-2 percent experienced any kind of negative consequence, including of course the small minority who died, but also any substance use disorder, from mild to severe. These findings have been replicated over decades.
When I ask why they didn’t become addicted, people are puzzled by the question. After all, it’s normal to take pain pills when you need them. I point out that best sellers, like Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, describe in elaborate detail opioids’ envelopment of the molecules in their brains. (Quinones’ neuropsychiatric fantasy was recently given visual form by the New York Times’ December 2018 dive into “How Opioids Hijack the Brain.”)
“Why didn’t that happen to any of you?” I ask.
Typically, someone says they quit using the drug when their pain ended. Someone else may say that they quit after their prescription ended because it made them groggy and they had things to do.
In other words, they discontinued use, often with little-to-no effort, because continuing use of the painkiller interfered with other, more important roles in their lives.
When I ask people what the toughest addiction is to quit, they always tell me, “Smoking.” They’re arguably right. In the largest study of lifetime substance use ever conducted, involving over 40,000 Americans, the half-life for quitting the leading dependence-causing substances were as follows: smoking 26 years; alcohol 14 years; marijuana six; and cocaine five.
If I ask a roomful how many have quit smoking, between third to a half typically raise their hands. This is to be expected: Ex-smokers now outnumber smokers in the US. But when I ask these people whether they used a medication or other treatment or group to quit, never more than a few raise their hands. (We’ll see whether vaping comes to alter this picture as dramatically in the US as it has in the UK.)
The typical reasons people give me for quitting are their health, a concerned life partner, self-disgust, social disapproval and, most often, parenthood—pregnancy, the birth of a child, or not wanting to smoke in front of children. (This shouldn’t be taken to imply that parents whose addictions continue are any less devoted; addiction involves a complex mix of factors.)
All of these reasons are, in their own way, statements of larger values and purposes in people’s lives. And across the range of addictive or detrimental drug use, we see the same thing happening: Most people quit problematic drug use as they get older, with or without treatment. Once again, as we see below, this is about people finding purposes that come to outweigh the importance of drug use for them as they mature.
The Limitations of an Individualized Lens
We should note, however, that individual self-empowerment through purpose is a limited way of imagining a solution to addiction.
People with jobs are much less likely to be addicted than people without. While this is yet another indicator that purpose is a crucially important way of avoiding addiction, it is also clearly true that the means for finding that purpose—through education, a meaningful career, or a stable relationship or family—are not equally distributed in society.
As an exhaustive study of drug deaths in the state that leads in this category, West Virginia, discovered, “If you’re a male between the ages of 35 to 54, with less than a high school education, you’re single and you’ve worked in a blue-collar industry, you pretty much are at a very, very high risk of overdosing.”
Adults with incomes below the poverty level smoke at double the rate of adults with incomes at least twice the poverty level. Those with household incomes below $20,000 have triple the rate of heroin addiction as those with household incomes above $50,000. For many, poverty stacks the odds against them finding both purpose and a way out of addiction.
The clear-cut way that we know to reduce addiction—though sadly, one we don’t yet have the national resolve to attempt—is to create a society in which more people share the financial leeway, community support and work opportunities to develop purpose in their lives.
Help in Developing Purpose
Good clinicians work to help clients with addictions discover and develop their life purposes. And purpose is a preventive tool, as well as a therapeutic one, for fighting addiction.
In our forthcoming book, Outgrowing Addiction, schools child development specialist (and Filter contributor) Zach Rhoads and I deal with developing purpose in two major contexts: first with clients in the online Life Process Program (LPP) in which we collaborate; and second in child-rearing and helping children who have encountered developmental problems.
This understanding of addiction views it as the result of people becoming engaged in an overwhelming experience in order to deal with their lives. It’s not the thing to which people are addicted that determines their involvement. It is how they engage with their overall lives, relationships and feelings. These components can, to a significant degree, be coached.
In this process—using motivational questioning—coaches elicit people’s values, life goals, skills and the contexts where they are most comfortable and succeed best. Coach and client embark on a dynamic interchange where, through feedback and reflection, the person is supported in an emergent awareness of where he or she wants to go in life and how to get there.
Zach follows a similar protocol with children. He elicits their wish lists (”What do you consider to be a great life?”), then explores their strengths and skills and ways to connect children with their desired goals, including strategies for avoiding or circumventing barriers or problems that have been impeding them (like lack of control of their impulses).
Human beings do best at avoiding or overcoming crippling addictions when these would interfere with pursuing our heartfelt passions.
All of this work involves helping people, no matter what their age, to identify and follow their passions—and to believe they deserve, and are capable of having, the life they want. Adults and children alike are helped to find ways to fulfill this life mission.
In parenting terms, this translates to encouraging children to explore their interests, and to develop the confidence and skills to follow their life goals and desired roles—while remembering to offer the freedom and independence this pursuit demands.
This perspective offers a different mode for resisting addiction and other life problems: Rather than focusing on overcoming your or your children’s worst habits or problems, explore and clarify what you and they most want to be and to accomplish. Human beings do best at avoiding or overcoming crippling addictions when these would interfere with pursuing our heartfelt passions.
As we anticipate another year of frightening headlines about addiction, it is valuable to know that we can each find no better antidote to it—or indeed, to many of the other problems of our individual and collective lives—than identifying our lodestars.