Feeding addictions or changing habits?

Feeding addictions or changing habits?

We all have addictions. I don’t mean we’re all addicted to a narcotic, to alcohol or to something that can cause harm to us, to our families or to our communities.

We think of addictions as negatives, because they suggest a dependency or a need for something without which we find ourselves unbalanced, uncomfortable or unhinged.

There are plenty of positive addictions. Many of us are, for better or worse, addicted to our children. We want them to succeed, to be happy, to live better lives than we’ve had and to have every opportunity to find their niche.

When they’re born, we become addicted to the sound of their giggling and laughter, which helps us get through those sleepless nights just as effectively as a caffeinated beverage. That sound is more pleasant than the most magnificent music we’ve ever heard, than the calls of birds outside our windows in the morning, or than the school bell that signaled the end of another week and the start of a much-anticipated weekend.

Outside of the home, we can become addicted to victory, whether it’s at work, on a softball field where we are competing against a group of people from another company, or at a traffic light where we want to beat the car next to us to the on-ramp for the Long Island Expressway.

Our bodies become accustomed to these addictions. Runners receive chemical endorphins in the brain that give them a high, allowing them to run much longer than someone whose would-be endorphins are knocked unconscious by alcohol or are far too overwhelmed from sugar overload to become active. When you’re driving in extreme heat or cold and you see runners pushing themselves up a steep hill, they are feeding that addiction.

Speaking of feeding, we are addicted to particular foods, or food groups. If we eat cookies every night, our bodies send signals to our brains to find those chocolate chip cookies. We can also become addicted to foods that are healthy for us, like broccoli, blueberries or gluten-free kale pizza.

We can also become addicted to long days of summer sun. When the fall and winter come, we might miss the light, craving it the way we would another cup of mid-afternoon coffee when we’re feeling run down through the day.

But is addiction really the right word? Aren’t these habits and not addictions? I see addictions and habits as a spectrum, somewhat akin to the discussion about what is normal. We all tend to believe we’re normal, but as we know from our own families and from the families we marry into, the range of normal is broad. Every family has its crazy uncles, its eccentric aunts and its oddball distant cousins. Much as we might like to believe the grass is greener with other families, we know that the more we interact with extended family groups, the more likely we are to observe behaviors that fall outside the range of what we consider normal.

So, if we recognize our addictions, can we change them?

Like any addiction, change is challenging. Plenty of support groups offer help, especially with addictions to alcohol, drugs or other substances. There are also groups like Jenny Craig, which offer to provide balanced meals that help people transition to a different diet.

Even without support groups, though, people can fundamentally change some of their addictions, often when they are so concerned with the happiness of someone else — a spouse, a child, a niece or a parent — that their own needs no longer come first.