By Jenni Deming

Journalist and author Johann Hari spent three years studying addiction. He became interested in the so-called “War on Drugs,” and why it didn’t seem to be working.

On a more personal level, he wanted to know how to help friends and family members who struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse. During his 2015 TED talk, Hari explained some of the key findings from his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. His big takeaway: Disconnection lies at the root of addiction.1

The Link Between Isolation and Addiction

Mountain climbing friendsWhile genetics and chemical hooks play a scientific role in addiction, they don’t explain everything. In a Q&A session with The Fix, Hari describes a pivotal discovery he learned from researcher and professor Bruce Alexander.2

In Alexander’s experiment, a group of rats lived in a big, happy environment dubbed “Rat Park.” They had two water bottles to choose from: one infused with drugs and the other with pure H2O. In another scenario, rats were kept in separate, isolated cages. They had the same choice of water bottles.

The results were striking. The isolated rats almost always overdosed on the drug-laced water, while the socialized rats almost always chose the clean water.

“The implications of Rat Park are really massive,” says Hari. “It provides a massive answer to the War on Drugs because the War on Drugs is based on the idea that chemicals take people over and therefore we need to physically eradicate chemicals from the world. It’s actually that chemicals are not the main driver. In fact, the main driver is isolation and pain from disconnection. That suggests we should have a whole different structure to deal with treating it.”2

Hari notes that chemicals do play a serious role in drug and alcohol dependency, but that perhaps human connection plays a bigger role. In other words, drugs aren’t always the “why,” but the “way.” People use them to find relief from the their actual pain — loneliness.

So What’s the Answer?

In 2001, the government of Portugal decided to try an experiment. They decriminalized illicit drug possession (up to ten days’ supply).3 And with the money they saved on incarceration and prosecution, the government poured back into the lives of citizens affected by drug use. They did this through harm reduction programs like methadone treatment and micro business loans.3

“I was told about this group of 15 drug addicts who were in recovery and were given a micro-loan to set up a moving firm,” Hari says in The Fix. “So suddenly they had this sense of community. Some of the 15, of course, relapsed. But it meant that when someone relapsed that person had 14 friends there who had a huge investment in making sure he or she got clean. You know, supporting each other, loving each other — making sure that they got their lives back on track.”2

The ultimate idea was to restore an individual’s sense of purpose and meaning. And it seems to be working.

“It’ll be 15 years this year since that experiment began, and the results are in: Injecting drug use is down in Portugal, according to the British Journal of Criminology, by 50 percent, five-zero percent. Overdose is massively down, HIV is massively down among addicts. Addiction in every study is significantly down.”1

Practical Ways to Find Connection

Quality connections aren’t easy to come by. Unfortunately, you can’t just send out a Facebook post asking for a best friend or for a career that gives you purpose. But if you or a loved one is struggling with loneliness and addiction, there are some practical ways to find hope, healing and community.

  1. Open up to someone you trust. It only takes one friend to provide hope when you have none. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you’re in need — even if it’s hard to do at first. And if someone comes to you for help, listen and provide some much-needed positive interaction.
  2. Seek inpatient or outpatient treatment. When you’re in a supportive setting, surrounded by counselors and medical professionals who understand your pain, you can safely open up and work through underlying issues. If you’re a loved one, try to attend family therapy sessions (if available) and remind your friend or family member how much you care.
  3. Join a support group. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are highly recommended for a reason — they help individuals find and maintain community and accountability. Especially through relapse. Family members can invest in Al-Anon to find their own comfort and community.
  4. Reinvest in healthy relationships. Not every relationship should be rekindled after treatment, but some are definitely worth rebuilding. Focus on the people who are willing to try again, and let the others go for now. For support people, encourage your loved one toward the future without dwelling on the past.
  5. Slowly develop new relationships. The internet is great, but in-person relationships are the real deal. When you’re ready, join a church group or a hobby club or attend a simple neighborhood barbecue. Friendships are about quality, not quantity. If you have one or two good friends after a year, you’re doing brilliantly.

Building (or rebuilding) connections takes time and effort. Do what you can, when you can. Sometimes you’ll feel lonely, and you’ll have to cope with it alone. But you can also choose to get up and call a friend. That’s what they’re there for. They want to love you. Let them.


1 Hari, Johann. “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong.” TED, June, 2015.

2 Seigal, Zachary. “Ending the Drug War: An Interview with Johann Hari.” The Fix, February, 12, 2015.

3New Study Shows Portugal’s Decriminalization of All Drugs Was Followed by Reductions in Student Drug Use, Prison Overcrowding, Drug-Related Deaths and HIV/Aids.Drug Policy Alliance, November 17, 2010.