Culture and Addiction

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By Allen Berger, Ph.D.

In this article I want to discuss how our culture sets us up for becoming an addict. Before I do it’s important to realize we are all in a trance. We are hypnotized by our culture. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it just is the way things are. It happens in every culture; it has to.

Culture is transmitted through the family. Parents teach their children a world view. This world view is like a filter, it defines what is real and what isn’t, it proscribes what is appropriate behavior and what isn’t, it dictates how we should be and what we should feel. It defines what is and what isn’t. It creates a socially constructed reality. The way this world view is taught in any particular family is unique because it is also influenced by the dynamics that shaped our parent’s in their childhood.

The first world view we must discuss is that our culture is excessively focused on “having.” This focus emerges from capitalism. Capitalism needs consumers. We are all indoctrinated in the absurd idea that more is better so we will want to buy a new car, new clothes, the latest mobile phone or tablet. In fact Erich Fromm observed that we internalize this attitude. We measure our self-worth by the quality and quantity of  the material things we possess like money, homes, cars, and adult toys. I’m sure you heard that quote, “He who finishes with the most toys wins.” This attitude can be summarized as “I am more, the more I have.” We end up believing that our self-worth is determined by what we have, rather than on who we are. We have lost sight of the importance of character.

This obsession with “having” influences how we relate to self and others. We end up treating ourselves and others as objects. We become obsessed with how marketable we are. Women are typically viewed as sex objects and relate to themselves in this manner too. While men are usually viewed as success objects and also relate to themselves in this way too. A big problem in our society is that what makes a man successful on his job makes it nearly impossible for him to have a warm and loving intimate personal relationship. Any woman who treats herself as a sex object cannot be intimate with someone because she is overly concerned about her looks. This is part of the insanity. Our self-worth becomes other validated. We become dependent on our environment to make us feel good about ourselves. We never learn to validate ourselves.

This insanity also creates another problem. We become obsessed with more. More is better, isn’t it? This is the nonsense we learn in our culture. And this is one of the ways our culture sets us up for addiction. I remember the moment I realized that we are all taught that more is better. It was one of those moments of clarity when I realized that this is at the heart of addiction. Addiction is the experience of believing that more is better. If one beer makes me feel good then more will make me feel better. If partying one night is great then partying every night is better. Unfortunately this nonsense applies to nearly everything in our lives. We are rarely satisfied with what we have or who we are.

We are obsessed with becoming something we are not. True self-esteem is rare, we just don’t feel good enough as we are. Our idealized image of who we should be is corrupted by our world view. We are driven to be perfect. To fit into our idealized image of who we should be. It becomes all about more, more and more and more. We spend millions of dollars on the latest exercise equipment so we can become more attractive and have a better body. (Unfortunately most of it is gathering dust underneath our beds, closets or garages.) We pursue schemes to get rich so we can have more money which in some magical way will make us feel more secure. Women spend billions of dollars on plastic surgery to have the “perfect body.” Men are also visiting the plastic surgeon more than ever before. Men become workaholics because they are devoted having a successful career to have a better life. It’s all about having, not being. We turn into humans, doing and performing, rather than humans, being (sic).  What a tragedy!

Another nonsense that is promoted in our culture is that life should be easy and gratification instantaneous. We become obsessed with seeking to find the easier, softer way, and then hope for instantaneous results. We have lost the ability to wait, to have patience. Well life isn’t easy and most worthwhile things don’t come easily. But nobody tells us that. Instead we are bombarded with messages that tell us to take a magical pill and your headache will immediately disappear. There is no need to figure out a better way to handle your stress. If you are depressed take an antidepressant it will make you feel better. No need to figure out what you are doing that makes you depressed. We buy weight loss medication from the infomercial on TV that promises to help us lose weight while we sleep, so there is no need to spend hours in the gym. It’s easy.

When we turn to drugs they really work. I mean really work, instantaneously we feel better. We are sexier, more fun, more comfortable, more relaxed, more spontaneous. We are free from fears and concerns. We are free from the false-self that develops to fit into this insane culture. I had a friend who stated that he didn’t know if he was born an alcoholic but the moment he took his first drink he knew that an alcoholic was born. It worked. It was easy. It set him free from all of this nonsense.

We are set up to become addicted. We become addicted to drugs including alcohol, to sex, to gambling, to compulsive overeating or restricting. We become addicted to spending money, buying new clothes, finding a better boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband. We become addicted to more.

I may sound paranoid but there is a cultural conspiracy that undermines the development of our true, spiritual self. We are encouraged to abandon our true-self and become an idealized self riddled with our culture’s proscription of who we should be. We sell out but deep down inside we know something is wrong.

Our dissatisfaction with this nonsense – is good news. Maybe this is what we really mean when we say we have a “dis-ease.” We are dissatisfied with who we are and how we are living our life. Don’t run from this pain. It means that something is “right” about you. Jung described us as having a “spiritual thirst.” It is our spiritual self or our real-self that is reaching out to us, to be actualized. It is like an alarm clock that will continue to ring until we wake up. So it’s what is right about us that doesn’t allow us to completely abandon ourselves to all of this nonsense.

Recovery helps us find our lost, true-self. It helps us reconnect with who we really are. Recovery is about “being,” not “having.” It’s an incredible journey that begins with shattering our false-self. This opens the door to discovering our true spirit. Every spiritual discipline is concerned with “being” not “having.” That’s why the 12 Steps work so well in helping those who suffer from all different types of addictions. They facilitate a spiritual experience based on a pedestal of hopelessness as Bill Wilson noted.

In recovery we experience a 180 degree shift in our attitude and perceptions; this is a remarkable personal transformation. Recovery is paradoxical, which means that it is beyond belief. We shift from an obsession with “having more” to a focus on “being,” and living a life guided by spiritual principles. We become concerned with developing character and integrity. This breaks the trance and cures our cultural sickness. We, like Alice in Wonderland, come to realize that what is, isn’t, and what isn’t, is. What an amazing journey.

Allen Berger, Ph.D. is an international expert in the science of recovery and a popular recovery author for Hazelden. He is the author of  12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery, 12 Smart Things to do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone, and 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends. His interpretation of the 12 Steps is included in The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. You can learn more about Dr. Berger and his work at his website:

10 Responses

  1. John M. says:

    And thank you John for adding further to your understanding of Milam’s and Ketcham’s work. There is much to ponder and digest regarding addiction and recovery. It seems like we are all – researchers, addicts, alcoholics, etc. – just scratching the surface of what is to be discovered here. You are therefore right – best to keep an open mind.

  2. John L. says:

    Yes, there are cultural and psychological factors that contribute to alcoholism. For example, the alcoholism and drug addiction rates are much higher among gay men than in the general population — as might be expected, since gay men must live in a theologically malevolent culture, which ordains that males who have sex with each other have committed an “abomination” and should be put to death. Another example, the alcoholism and drug addiction rates are very high among doctors and nurses, perhaps because they have a drugs mindset and ready access to drugs.

    But alcoholism is fundamentally a physical addiction to a drug: alcohol. The best book on alcoholism is still *Under The Influence: A guide to the myths and realities of alcoholism* by James R. Milam, Ph.D., and Katherine Ketcham. Milam and Ketcham put forward the “biogenic” as opposed to “psychogenic” approach: “Alcoholism is a physical addiction, not the symptom of a psychological problem.” Milam and Ketcham quote psychiatrist David Ohlms, who sharply rebukes his colleagues:

    “… so long as the mental health field insists on viewing alcoholism as a symptom rather than a primary disease that creates its own symptoms, it should keep its nose out of this [alcoholism] field.”

    Milam and Ketcham provide ample evidence that psychiatric treatment of alcoholics does not work, and add: “The reason that psychiatric treatment does not work, of course, is that alcoholism is not primarily a psychological disease.”

    • John M. says:

      Hi John,

      Perhaps your support of Milam and Ketcham will prove to be correct, however, for the record Ernie Kurtz , who of course wrote The Spirituality of Imperfection with Katherine Ketcham, is quite critical of Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism. In a 1994 article co-authored by William R. Miller called, “Models of Alcoholism Used in Treatment: Contrasting A.A. and Other Models with Which it is Often Confused,” Kurtz and Miller argue that the reductionist conclusion of a biogenic basis for addiction is a distortion of AA’s approach.

      It is entirely out of character with A.A., however, to assert that alcoholism is caused only by a physical abnormality (or, for that matter, by any single factor). To do so is to deny the spiritual, psychological, and social aspects of alcoholism and of humanity, and A.A. consistently names, includes, and examines such influences. Its encompassing implicit model might be called spiritu- bio-psycho-social.

      This is one way, then, in which A.A. differs from the American disease model. Milam and Ketcham (1983) specifically deny any except physiological causal factors, and criticize A.A. for being “a powerful obstacle to accepting the otherwise overwhelming evidence that biological factors, not psychological or emotional factors, usher in the disease” (p. 141). A.A., in contrast, does not “take any particular medical point of view” (A.A., 1976, p. xx), asserts that “the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body” (p. 23), and consistently describes alcoholism as an illness with many dimensions. “Of necessity,” the book Alcoholics Anonymous notes early in its “There is a solution” chapter, “there will have to be discussion of matters medical, psychiatric, social, and religious” (A.A., p. 19).”

      • John L. says:

        John, Thanks for reference to Kurtz & Miller article. I found it online at: . For those interested, some of Milam’s earlier and more technical articles on alcoholism are also online.

        I don’t agree with Milam on everything, but on the whole am much closer to his “biogenic” approach than to Kurtz’s “spirituality” (whatever that is) approach. I do think that Kurtz and Miller misrepresent the ideas in *Under The Influence*, which are by no means so categorical and simplistic as they make them out to be.

        K&M repeatedly refer to the “AA approach”, and make charts contrasting it with other approaches. But what is the “AA approach”?
        AA members would give many different answers here. I consider the True AA approach to be everything descrited in the AA Preamble, the Traditions (minus the one mention of “god”, the Fellowship, and the 24-Hour Plan: total, lifelong abstinence a day at a time. K&M, in contract, consider AA a “spiritual program”, and leave the door open to “moderate drinking”, which for me and most true alcoholics would be a death sentence.

        I recomment reading UTI slowly and with an open mind. It really is the best book on alcoholism.

  3. Dave says:

    Interesting article but if culture was the main cause of addiction then everyone would be an addict.

  4. Andy Mc says:

    Allen, your writing seems to have validity but you imply that human species has only wanted for more in recent times. I would beg to differ in that survival itself is based on the accumulation of more tools, shelter, food, land, friends, mates etc. Sure media has exasperated these survival traits, but spiritual mumbo jumbo has been touted as the answer for all that which man cannot understand from fire to illnesses for eons also.
    Do good things, eat right, exercise, surround myself with friends, loved ones and tribe and my life becomes a better place.

  5. John K. says:

    I enjoyed reading today’s post. I heard Gabor Mate say that addiction is a social disease. I totally agree, especially the point pertaining to capitalism and the accumulation of STUFF. Money mostly. I travel to Cuba quite often, more than 15 times over the last 20 years. I have also lived there for 3-month periods and although being a tourist I was paying more and such, but from what I observed by watching the way the people acted and reacted to each other I was quite impressed. People would say Hola and smile as they met fellow countrymen and tourists alike. Try smiling and saying Hello to some woman in Toronto… you might get a restraining order, or at the least a look of suspicion. That I believe is because our society is based on who you are and what you have, or what you can do for my career. This is sad, but unfortunately the new world order. The illuminati strikes. Even in our fellowship there are circuit speakers that talk of good will and helping others, but once off the pedestal the vibe is different. All societies, including the 12-step organization, are not immune to what the writer of this article speaks. Thank you, and all the best at Christmas, or whatever holiday you practice, or what you don’t practice.

  6. steve b says:

    I’m sure that culture is a causative factor of addiction, but Berger does little more than hand-waving here, and does’t offer any solid evidence for his opinion on this. And, although capitalism has its dark side, let’s not forget that capitalism has been a major engine in bringing the human race out of its pre-industrial poverty. It’s an intriguing thought that a desire for more leads to addiction, but, again, where’s the evidence? In all, I think this essay is long on opinion but short on proof.

  7. John M. says:

    I like the “big picture” Dr. Berger presents. He is right on in diagnosing addiction as the symptom of our clinging to a higher power we call culture i.e., a culture defined by what the great Canadian political theorist C.B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism.”

    Berger is very astute, however, to see that our dissatisfaction – our sense of powerlessness – signals the emergence of, yes, power! Lack of power is our problem; power is our solution. AA’s program of recovery tapped into this awareness. Sadly and tragically, a certain element in AA (as well as many AA critics) can see only the “surrender” part of a paradox that Berger knows must be double-sided and thus vital to recovery.

    His last four paragraphs beginning here are especially strong:

    ”We are encouraged to abandon our true-self and become an idealized self riddled with our culture’s proscription of who we should be. We sell out but deep down inside we know something is wrong.

    Our dissatisfaction with this nonsense – is good news…”

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

  8. Thomas B. says:

    Oh yes — Allen, thank you. I’ve known and thought I’ve known this truth about American culture for decades, but it is so refreshing to re-experience the truth of it through your perceptive experience . . .

    Just last night while watching endless TV advertisements during one of the 35(!) College Football Bowl games during the next several weeks that pushed Christmas goodies across a land in deepening economic recession, I had this eureka thought: I get it, capitalism needs us citizens to be good little worker-bees, so that we’ll continue to buy more of their crap – some honesty here: I’m communicating this on the latest Apple MacAir about five months antiquated.)

    Let me share this gift (if, Roger, you can implant the url for this lovely Motion Art video):Gratitude HD – Moving Art™.

    I am so grateful I have experienced “daily reprieves contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition” from several virulent addictions, so I am enabled in my elder years to experience many similar moments of utter gratitude…

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