Is there such a thing as workaholism?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on March 14th, 2013 - Last updated: November 20th, 2023
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Dear Stanton:

Is there such a thing as workaholism? I’ve read three-fourths of the material on your website and haven’t run into any material dealing with the topic. I do understand that under your model of addiction, any activity can be addictive if it’s done compulsively and to the detriment of other areas of one’s life, leads to dissatisfaction b­ut continues, etc.

I’m being a little bit sly here. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your work on your site (and I even dug out my 1992 printing of Love and Addiction and reread that after reading it for the first time ten years ago). So I want to ask a nosy question: have you ever thought you might be a workaholic? You’re incredibly prolific and bring not only tremendous intelligence, but a great deal of soul, to your work. Where do your inspiration and drive come from? What makes you work so hard? What’s the dividing line between the dedicated genius and the work addict? I’ve read biographies of hundreds of artists and scientists I admire and I have to wonder if they had lives.

I’m trying to refocus my career (lifelong but seldom-published writer, adjunct instructor of English at community college for 13 years, graphic designer to pay the bills, talented but still unfocused at age forty-three) and am studying the careers of people I want to emulate. You’re one of them. It’s a privilege to be able to pose this question to you and perhaps hear part of your story.

Many thanks,

Dear Loretta:

What a fascinating question — and you tie it directly to me, challenging me but expressing empathy and admiration as well! That’s always a good clinical technique.

By the way, if you want to read about a successful workaholic, you might try Roy Jenkins’ biography of Winston Churchill. Churchill published voluminous works, was a first class painter, and was in the middle of British politics for 65 years — while he was drinking a ton of booze — and lived until ninety, being productive through virtually his entire life span.

He had a good, understanding, I think loving, relationship with his wife, although they were quite often apart. He also spent time with his four children (at least more than his father spent with him!) at home and on international jaunts together. (Somehow, that did not prevent alienation and alcoholism on the part of his eldest son, Randolph, named for Winston’s father.)

It’s funny you should write with this question, because I just had a disturbing letter from a woman — accomplished, with a boyfriend — who wonders if there is something wrong that she has nothing in life that she cares particularly about.

I would like to know if there is something unhealthy about not being excited about anything. I just turned 42, am in good health, exercise, take vitamins, and have a several good friends who I get together with weekly to monthly.

I have probably only been excited about about one or two things in my life (trips/vacations which I certainly cannot afford on any regular basis). As I’ve gotten older when I think of places that I thought I might really like to go when I was in my teens, they do not even give me a glimmer of interest.

I know people who get up on weekends at day break to ride their bikes, going on mega mile trips, and do this almost daily year after year.

Gamers have a driving passion that I have never had for anything in my life. Most of the above types are men. Women I’ve known have been interested in crafts, collectibles and romance novels. I have zero interest in all of these. Nothing excites me.

When you read this, Loretta, don’t you feel lucky that you are motivated to write things, despite your lack of success in publishing them? I thank God every day when I get up that (at age 56 next week) I still have so many things to do that excite me, and may matter to the world. I consider myself fortunate beyond belief.

By the way, much of what I write is also rejected — by popular magazines, academic journals, newspaper opinion pages, book publishers — and I continue to be irate that my critical insights about addiction, alcoholism treatment, drug policy, et al. continue to be fairly largely ignored. But I still care and keep trying. I also went to law school in my late forties to develop a new area of expression, social action, and achievement. And I have an entire separate career as a local environmental activist, which I share with my wife and a community of people (I just become the first person banned from the grounds of a local Catholic school/Monastery, Delbarton, because of my actions to prevent them from violating the state plan and reneging on their prior agreements by building a commercial retirement village on their property).

I did write about workaholism in Love and Addiction. Basically, I said that when work is creative and evolving, it is not addictive. When it is sought as an escape from everything else, particularly (often) family issues, it can be addictive. But, just as alcoholism is not determined by how much one drinks per se, so too is workaholism not simply a matter of how many hours you spend in front of a computer, in a workshop, on the road, or whatever.

At this point in my life, I am most struck by how many people drag themselves through work without finding any meaning to it. And they continue this way, even beyond a point where they really have no need for more money (although they tell themselves they need $x million to retire, always a figure beyond what they have already acquired). Yet they can’t separate themselves from their lifelong habits because of a lack of imagination, a superabundance of anxiety and caution, or whatever.

So, my advice is to keep striving, looking for which of your talents can be best appreciated by others and be most satisfying to you. And thank God every day that you have a drive to express yourself, make a difference, achieve personal goals, and so on.

Yours best,

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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