I’m used to seeing articles floating around on the internet with sensationalistic titles that often don’t live up to the hype so I’m usually skeptical when I click on a link. But I am glad I took a chance recently as I read one that completely blew me away. It was about the real cause of addiction, and that it’s not what you think.

This article cited a study in which rats were allowed to choose between plain water and water with cocaine; they kept frequenting the cocaine-laced water until they died of overdose. The article stated that this study was often presented as evidence of the deadliness of drugs and the danger of chemical dependency.

But later, another researcher thought something was missing from this study—he wondered what would happen if the rats were in a different environment from the original study, where they were kept isolated in stark cages. He devised his own experiment in which he offered the rats both plain and cocaine-laced water, but this time the rats were in cages together with other rats and with access to interesting toys.

The rats tried both bottles; they were probably curious at first.  But how the rest of the experiment played out is astonishing: The rats with companions and activities didn’t get dependent on cocaine. These rats did not die of overdose. This was a complete contrast with the isolated rats who were alone and unhappy and succumbed to addiction.  

Then he experimented to see what would happen if he took rats that were already hooked on cocaine and put them into a healthy environment with toys and other rats.  Even with continued access to the drug, those rats were able to eventually overcome their addiction within the context of activity and socialization. With these positive things in their lives, the rats just weren’t interested in substance abuse anymore.

The conclusion of the author was that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s human connection.  Having a social network kept the rats from getting addicted in the first place, and even those who were dependent were able to live healthy lives once they had a stimulating and supportive environment.

I could see someone joking that they wished they were part of that study, with unlimited access to cocaine. But this made me really sad when I read it; I felt sorry for the poor little rats. All they needed to keep from killing themselves were a few hobbies and some friends to share them with? Yet we see this all around us. Or we would see it if we allowed ourselves to.

The line from this article that really stood out to me is this:  “It’s not you; it’s your cage.” What cages are we in? What cages have we put ourselves in or allowed to be built up around us? Perhaps we thought that the purpose of the cage was to protect ourselves from getting hurt by creating a buffer zone between us and other people.

But isolation isn’t the solution. In fact, it may be the start of a downward spiral. The more you wall yourself off the more you open yourself up to some kind of addiction or at the very least some unhealthy habits. We often think of drugs and alcohol in this case but other behaviors can become addictions, like gambling or video games.

We need to build bridges, not towers. To stay mentally and physically healthy we must cultivate real human connections. I think cultivate is a good word because it is a lot like gardening; relationships take work and patience but the harvest is amazing. Stretch your comfort zone just a little bit. Start small and invite someone out for coffee just to get to know who they are.

Reach out to those around you who may need a listening ear. If you knew someone was hungry you’d probably feed them—but all around us people are starving socially. Maybe you can visit an elderly person who doesn’t ask for help for fear of being a burden. You could be an adult presence in the life of a teen. Perhaps you’re a family who could include a single person for Sunday dinner.

If you feel awkward remember that others are probably just as nervous as you are. Yet I imagine they will appreciate your overtures, even if they can’t immediately communicate it to you or even accept your invitation right away. Thinking of someone and including them in your plans sends a powerful message that they matter and that their presence in your life is important. Let’s all look for ways to break out of our cages and to help others do the same.