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The Most Helpful Definition for Addiction

What I’m going to describe here is a definition for addiction that is:

  • Based on more recent research
  • Helps you quickly understand how it works
  • Provides guidance on a way forward

First let’s cover the traditionally accepted definition in the medical field, of which I am a part of.



“A chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.”


The good parts about this definition:

  • It helps to have a major governmental body legitimize addiction as a real and biological.
  • We need institutional definitions that we agree upon, especially when we communicate around clinical terms.

The parts I’m not so crazy about:

  • While addiction often is chronic, research shows us that it usually resolves (unlike most other chronic medical conditions). Proper treatment makes that even more likely.
  • Addiction is not limited to chemicals. We now know that it has to do with a deeper psychological drive to seek out other addictive behaviors as well (like porn, gambling or food) to avoid or numb the pains in life. I’ve written more on this: here.
  • Some people take ‘relapsing’ to mean that it’s a disease that has a mind of its own. The reality is there are several factors people can gain control of over time to reduce or end relapses.
  • This is more a statement of fact. It doesn’t help people understand how it works or what to do about it.



I’ve spent thousands of hours studying and thinking about addiction, and I try to be as informed as I possibly can about the science and research. But I also respect just how strange the behavior is, and that it’s difficult to nail down a definition that explains why someone would continually harm themselves even when they know better.

Here is the definition I created that most accurately and simply describes how addiction works:


A trained pattern of seeking pleasure to escape intolerable painful emotion.



Now let’s break this definition down so you can see why it’s so important to think about addiction in this way…


  • “A trained pattern of seeking pleasure to escape intolerable painful emotion.”

When you define addiction as a trained behavior, we can quickly see that nobody with addiction is broken or doomed by how they were born. It also means we can’t blame any one person, but instead look at the larger system (like family, friends, and culture) that trained the person to behave a certain way.

The way forward: All learned behavior can be unlearned. You can accelerate that process by finding healthy ideas and people to learn from.


  • “A trained pattern of seeking pleasure to escape intolerable painful emotion.”

Addiction is all about manipulating the way we feel. That’s a very natural thing to want to do, and why addiction is so common. Who doesn’t want pleasure? That’s not the problem. The issue is when we continually rely on something outside of us to sooth, numb, or avoid life. Pleasure reached from avoiding life is always going to be a short-lived, false pleasure. When we become habituated to seeking pleasure, it starts to control us rather than the other way around.

The way forward: Going for pleasure is fine, but recognize the difference between false pleasure from escaping life, versus healthy pleasure from doing things you are deeply proud of. Recognize that we are not entitled to euphoric bliss 24/7. Healthy and lasting pleasure is something that emerges and fills us when we’re living well. Chasing pleasure is the quickest way to not finding it.


  • “A trained pattern of seeking pleasure to escape intolerable painful emotion.

Addiction isn’t about a lacking of morals or intellect. It’s about the underlying pain (that could be a formally diagnosed anxiety disorder, a difficult childhood, a feeling of emptiness, lack of connection, boredom, or anything that feels bad). More on this: here.

The way forward: Get to know the pain you’re running from and learn from it. Pain is a very normal and expected part of life, and building the skills to tolerate it is one of the most powerful skills a person can have. Until you address the underlying distress, you’ll always be on the run. Build a practice of relying on yourself (aka self reliance) to tolerate life.


I hope you can see the value in defining addiction with an accurate, psychological perspective. I don’t find it helpful to make it sound like this terrible thing only some people have. Sure, the consequences can range from death to sneaking into the pantry at night. But the underlying process is the same: we all want to escape life sometimes.

This definition has helped my patients finally understand their behavior and figure out constructive steps to take. I hope it can do the same for you or someone you care about too.

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