It is common for people to wonder whether they have an addiction or simply a bad habit. Perhaps it was the success of Alcoholics Anonymous in raising the culture’s awareness of the power of addiction that led to a proliferation of new addictions: being a shopaholic, a chocoholic, a workaholic, and so on. The common thread is that, in each of these addictive conditions, the person feels an inner compulsion to shop or work or eat the chocolate.
But is this inner “compulsion” really the same thing as being addicted? Curiously, it doesn’t even enter into the definition. Psychology defines addiction as any behavior in which the cost outweighs the benefit that is repeated due to cravings. And that’s it. The psychological definition may not convey the subjective sense of helplessness or compulsion found in the term’s common usage, but it has the benefit of resting on a solid theoretical and experimental foundation.
There are three elements to the definition. The first is the cost of behavior, which one knows through a mental compilation of all the negative and positive consequences of an action, analyzed in light of objective values. This process takes place in one’s intellect, and is a form of perception.
The second element is repetition of the behavior, as one consents to and then carries out the act. This process takes place in one’s will, and is the essence of the action.
The third element is the cravings that outweighed the intellectual analysis of costs and benefits and coerced the will to choose to repeat the behavior. The cravings take place in one’s emotions, also called one’s passions. Another word for “cravings” is simply desire (so if you want to read what Aristotle and Aquinas have to say about addictions, you will need to cross-reference this word).
One benefit of the psychological definition is that it helps us to conceptualize a spectrum of disorders, with varying levels of severity. More serious addictions have greater costs, more frequent repetition, and stronger cravings during periods of abstention.
One concept that could be added to the psychological definition, which might help harmonize it with common usage, is automation. Addicted behaviors are not the result of a calm, deliberative process. It’s true that one uses the analysis of costs and benefits to determine if the behavior is technically an addiction; but in the life of the addicted person, the mark is the opposite of deliberation: they act automatically, mindlessly, and they do this in many areas besides just their addiction.The automation is the inner sense of compulsion. It is what leads to feeling out of control, helpless, and hopeless.
So perhaps the best definition would include this: an addiction is any automatically repeated behavior, in which the costs outweigh the benefits, that one engages in due to cravings.
Does this apply to you?