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What ultimately drives drug or alcohol addiction? In the 1970’s, scientists at Simon Fraser University set out to answer that question, by carrying out a series of “Rat Park” experiments. What they discovered was eye-opening: rats that were placed in solitary confinement couldn’t stop pressing a morphine lever to self-administer the powerful painkiller; in marked contrast, the rats that were placed in a rat amusement park of sorts, which offered plenty of engaging social stimulation with other rats, had no interest in pressing the morphine lever. The stress and boredom of being alone in a cage—not the inherent addictive potential of the drug itself—seemed to be the real driver of addiction. In other words, way too much time in a cage alone was the stressor that triggered addiction.
The Link Between Stress and Loneliness
The “Rat Park” dynamic may also help to explain how stress (the brunt of which is reportedly work-related) and loneliness are both at near-epidemic levels in this country:
- A recent article in Fortune Magazine called “chronic loneliness” a “modern-day epidemic.”
- Research by the Pew Research Foundation has chronicled a growing tide of social isolation: Americans are less connected to others than they were 50 years ago.
- Meanwhile, Americans’ stress levels are up from where they were just five years ago, according to the American Psychological Association: nearly half of all Americans say they are currently experiencing moderate to high levels of stress.
One Antidote to Stress – More Workplace Community
This link between stress and loneliness has a positive takeaway, however—namely, that community and connection with others can significantly reduce stress and its negative health impact, including substance abuse.
And while the precise equivalent of a Rat Park for humans may not be achievable in the workplace, finding more meaningful community with colleagues is. What follow are thus some things you can do to deepen a sense of community with the people you work with, thereby reducing your own stress levels and chances of relapse:
- Take time to get to know your colleagues personally. Take time out of your workday to have lunch, or make the most of opportunities to socialize outside of work. These intentional windows of time with other employees are not just opportunities to show you care about your job; they also convey that you value the people you work with and want to be in relationship with them.
- Engage in appropriate self-disclosure on meaningful/substantive topics. Professionalism doesn’t have to exclude sharing your personal feelings or experiences with colleagues (so long as these aren’t discriminatory or cause unnecessary conflict). Even in the workplace, displays of vulnerability (when appropriate) can help build bridges with others and contribute to a greater sense of wellbeing, according to research cited in The Atlantic. Study participants who engaged in substantive conversations with others, as opposed to empty small talk, were more likely to report higher levels of contentment (i.e., less stress).
- Don’t take yourself too seriously, by finding the humor in situations where appropriate. Exercising your funny bone, by being willing to laugh at yourself or at your circumstances, is a great way to relieve stress and break the ice in relationships.
- Be quick to point out the positive contributions of those you work with. When the sentiment is genuine, be quick to say “thank you” for a job well done and call out the positive contributions and/or strengths and talents of those you work with.