science of us

Is There Such Thing As an Addictive Personality?

Photo: KIM Sang Ho/Getty Images/EyeEm

When I was a kid I thought having an addictive personality meant being so fun/compelling that people couldn’t tear themselves away from you. Later I came to understand that it refers to someone prone to becoming addicted to things.

Over on the Harvard Health Blog, Dr. Peter Grinspoon examines the science behind addictive personalities, and whether addictions really are substitutable — if whether developing an addiction to one substance makes you predisposed to becoming addicted to others, throughout your life, whack-a-mole style. Grinspoon outlines the two schools of thought: On one hand, yes (this is the “traditionalist” view). Medically speaking, different addictions “can have a common final pathway” in our brain’s reward center, he writes, so it stands to reason that “the body might try to find a second pathway to satisfy these hungry neurotransmitters if the first one is blocked — a ‘cross-addiction.’”

On the other hand, not necessarily — and in fact recovering from one addiction might “improve [one’s] resiliency to new addictions.” As he puts it:

… by making the life-affirming transition from addicted to recovered, we gain a recovery “toolbox” that helps us navigate life’s challenges and stresses in a much healthier way. We learn to connect with people, push our egos aside, and to ask for help if we need it. Thus, when faced with stressful situations that formerly would trigger us to drink or drug, we might respond by exercising or calling a friend, rather than using a substance. As such, we substitute addictions with healthier activities that perform the function that the drink or drug used to, albeit in a much more fulfilling way.

The general answer to whether an addictive personality is “real” is probably impossible to determine (“It seems as if no one definitively knows the answer about whether people substitute addictions”) but Grinspoon, himself a recovering opiate addict, ultimately comes down on the side of being “skeptical” of the addictive personality. “Vulnerabilities can improve over time,” he writes. And “people aren’t static, which is what reminds us to never give up hope when dealing with an addicted loved one, no matter how dire the circumstances appear to be.”

I found myself reading the post almost as if it were a horoscope and I was parsing it to find my own “sign.” (What Kind of Addict Am I?) Until now I’ve enjoyed believing addictive personalities are real, even inescapable. Partially because I’ve enjoyed expanding my own personal definition of “addiction” to include those positive “activities” he mentions — now that I don’t drink, I knit a lot, for instance, and I like idea of throwing myself into replacement habits (activities? addictions?) with a similar kind of devotion. Personally it’s seemed easier to allow myself to indulge in “good” addictions rather than attempt to eradicate the impulse entirely.

Of course, it all depends on how you define addiction, which Grinspoon reinforced when I emailed to ask for his thoughts on “positive” addictions. Is an addiction anything you do over and over again, or must it be something specifically destructive?

While “it’s absolutely possible to be addicted to good things,” he wrote — such as exercise, coffee, and physical affection (!) — thinking of addiction in that way calls for a more colloquial understanding of the word. (Whereas addiction’s more technical definition — “use despite harm” — wouldn’t apply.)

Even as I align with his skepticism of the addictive personality, I’m still drawn to the idea of the positive addictive personality (using the term colloquially) — almost but not quite the way I misunderstood it when I was younger. Could someone with a history of addiction be especially good at throwing themselves into things — both good and bad — almost as if it were a dangerous superpower? Or is that just wishful thinking?

While not quite on board with the idea, Grinspoon at least left me room to hang on to it:

“I would say that the tools we learn that help us get and stay into recovery,” he wrote, such as “living in the moment, asking for help, not focusing on the past and the future, and humility … give us a lot of power that we can harness, which is sort of like a superpower.”

Is There Such Thing As an Addictive Personality?