Ever spend the whole evening flipping through catalogs, watching mindless TV shows, or complaining at length to a friend on the phone? To Judith Wright, co-founder of the Wright Institute for Lifelong Learning in Chicago, these may be "soft addictions," the seemingly harmless activities and routines that diminish the quality of our lives. In a recent Q&A, she spoke about how to recognize and overcome soft addictions.

In your book you say that many of us live unsatisfied lives and have the sense that there is "something more." Can you explain what you think this "more" is?

The answer varies from person to person and includes experiencing more life, love, and meaning and having more time, money, energy, intimacy, and feelings-more of everything that matters. By not spending so much time, energy and money on insidious soft addiction routines, we have the wherewithal and resources to pursue more meaningful activities. We feel more awake, alive, and present in our own lives. We spend more time developing our gifts and talents and making a difference in the world.

What do you mean by soft addictions?

Essentially, soft addictions are time wasters, things we do habitually and indiscriminately, mostly to get away from uncomfortable feelings in a fruitless attempt to fill our emptiness. It could be watching too much television, shopping, sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves, fantasizing, flipping through catalogs for hours on end, sitting around eating...

How did you learn about soft addictions?

As a child, I kept feeling there must be more to life. I grew up in a factory town, where most people spent their time zoned out on an assembly line. When they'd go home, they would look for ways to chase away the tedium by watching TV, hanging out, comparing rumors about plant co-workers, and using other diversions. To me it seemed like no one was home, that the people around me were trapped in limiting behaviors that led them nowhere. It was almost as if they were sleepwalking. And that I was too.

What were your numbing behaviors?

Food had a powerful hold on my time and energy. I devoured recipes in magazines and frequently fantasized about food, loved cooking, and looked forward to eating. I used this and other numbing activities-biting my nails, procrastinating, watching TV, zoning out over my textbooks. I didn't know at that time it was my spiritual hunger that needed feeding. So I did what I could to push my feelings out of my awareness.

What woke you up?

Even though I appeared to have it all-I had gotten married to my first husband, had a great job, had achieved prominence at a very young age, I still was empty, sad, unfulfilled and unhappy. I wasn't really living. I felt like I was sleepwalking through life. I realized that I was sharing soft addictions-mindless activities-with my first husband, not intimacy. I hungered for more. I finally made what I call my "One Decision." I decided that I would no longer mask my hunger by filling the emptiness within with meaningless, anxious activities.

I committed to do what I could to feed the hunger directly. I learned to be with myself rather than avoiding myself with limiting habits. I started to be aware of my feelings more, rather than numb them. I learned to honor my feelings and go toward them rather than running away. I also began to add more nourishing, life-sustaining foods and activities that brought pleasure and laughter and self-nurturing to my life. As I added nourishing behaviors, I noticed the soft addictions lost their grip on me. I ended my first relationship and discovered how much more intimacy is possible when I met and married my husband, Bob.

What's the hardest part of changing?

Most of us are so locked into our routines that we don't even know we're addicted. Unlike hard addictions-drugs and alcohol-soft addictions aren't obvious. They are easy to attain and socially acceptable, even encouraged in many cases. E-mailing, shopping, constant phone calling seem like pleasurable activities when we're engaged in them. Yet if used as a means of escape, they are lethal to the spirit. We've observed that people who stall in their personal growth work often have counterproductive soft addictions that stand in their way of having the life they say they want. It can be a simple thing, such as watching TV, instead of finishing a project.

How do you suggest we eliminate the soft addictions in our lives?

Once we recognize them, these limiting beliefs and behaviors can be challenged and replaced. There are eight key life skills to living a life of "more." One of these skills is to add activities that create satisfaction and fulfillment, and subtract activities that don't-what I call "the math of more." You'll find that adding real nourishment to your life naturally subtracts your soft addictions, literally pushing them out of the way.

For example, if you plan a dinner with your friends, you'll be less likely to stay home and watch reruns of "Friends." If you add reading a stimulating novel to your evening, you'll find yourself subtracting the amount of time you spend mindlessly poring over catalogs. When we learn new behaviors and break through to higher levels of consciousness, we can fulfill the deeper spiritual hunger within. As we get past our superficial material wants and instant gratifications, we connect to a deeper part of ourselves-as well as to others and the universe.

Common Soft Addictions
Here are some examples of soft addictions, what the underlying hunger might be, and how it can be fulfilled in a more direct and satisfying way. From theremustbemore.com.

Soft Addiction: Watching TV
Hunger: To feel connected
Alternative: Call a friend and go out to a play

Soft Addiction: Surfing the Internet
Hunger: To learn and grow
Alternative: Go to a museum or a lecture on a subject that intrigues you

Soft Addiction: Overwork
Hunger: To matter
Alternative: List the ways you make a difference, and take pride in your contribution

Soft Addiction: Gossiping
Hunger: To connect and to belong

Alternative: Talk about yourself and the person you are with, rather than others

Soft Addiction: Name Dropping
Hunger: To be important
Alternative: Talk about what matters instead of who matters

Soft Addiction: Shopping
Hunger: To feel abundant
Alternative: "Shop" for friends, ideas, possibilities instead of stuff

Soft Addiction: Fast Food
Hunger: To be fulfilled
Alternative: Have quick treats that aren't food

Soft Addiction: Chat Rooms
Hunger: To feel connected
Alternative: Call a friend and "chat live"

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