The National Council of Problem Gambling recently reported that approximately 6 million adults and half a million teenagers in America engage in problematic gambling, or have what one may call gambling addiction. Gambling addiction refers to a pattern of making risky monetary bets in a way that impairs a person’s social, psychological, emotional, physical, or financial functioning. The rate of occurrence in youth is about two to three times that of adults, with almost half of those with the problem as adults having started before age 17 years.  Moreover, men tend to develop problematic gambling habits more than women do, and develop such habits earlier than women, as well.

At first glance, it seems as though gambling addiction is driven by a desire to accumulate money.  After all, gambling often involves making high wagers with the hope of receiving significant monetary returns in a short period of time.  When those with gambling addictions talk about their gambling history, they usually glamorize circumstances where they might have instantly won large sums of money and describe it with euphoric nostalgia.  With such focus given to the money, it is easy to think that gambling addiction is all about making money.

However, this addiction is not really about making money.  In fact, when looking more carefully at the process of gambling, specifically at how such habitual gamblers win and lose money with such ease and nonchalance, it becomes clear that they don’t respect money. After all, if they did, many would stop after acquiring significant gains.  But it almost never works that way. Those with gambling addiction usually gamble away considerable money and won’t stop until they have lost almost all of it, or exhausted significant assets. These facts, combined with the relief they feel when losing money, suggests that on some level those with gambling addiction are actively seeking to lose money.  There is a part of them that does not want the money; they want to disconnect from it.  Of course, this begs the question: why would anyone want to lose money?

To understand this phenomenon, it’s important to first appreciate what money is really about.  At the core, money is a sign of power, status, and control.  It is a social marker signaling that the beholder is special and able to perform certain functions, often to the amazement of others.  Money is attractive to people, and everyone wants it because of the convenience it brings and attention it garners. At the same time, society today is very focused on promoting the acquisition of wealth, sending the message that the key to living a happy, successful life is having lots of money.  This social glamorization of money is problematic because the truth is while money may buy convenience and attract attention from others, it is inherently vain and will never leave a person fulfilled.

While people with gambling addiction may not consciously be aware of the shortcomings of money, deep down they understand how futile and empty money actually is. They are arguably stuck between the social messages of money and the truth about money, and in a way are frustrated by this. They are struggling inside and the gambling experience offers a powerful distraction as the thought of making instant riches can become intoxicating.  But in the end, it’s merely a distraction, and a costly one, too. In gambling addiction, the act of gambling seems to represent an ambivalence and insecurity surrounding the concept of “value and worth.”  Money can powerfully mask one’s feelings of personal worthlessness and emptiness with the façade of having social value and worth. The pursuit of money distracts from the truth of how empty one feels, and offers a quick patch to give the illusion that one is valuable because, after all, they have “all this money.” However, inherent in this process is a confusion between social value and one’s true self-value.  By feverishly pursuing money in such a reckless manner, such gamblers are trying to gain social value to mask their personal emptiness.  That’s why they are not satisfied with any amount of money they win, and might even feel relief when they lose it.  Losing the money inches them closer to their truth, which deep down they are probably yearning for.  In a way, they are upset at the money because the money has let them down.  The social promises of money has not filled their internal void, hence the devaluing of money.  In reality, those with gambling addiction are not looking for more money, wealth, or social attention.  Deep down, what they’re looking for is true meaning, honest self-worth, and genuine fulfillment. Ironically, all things money cannot buy.

Any successful gambling addiction treatment regimen must include an open, honest, and truthful look into the root causes of the addiction.  In particular, it’s important to pay special attention to why the person turned to this behavior in the first place, and why he or she continues to engage in it. Once this is clarified, it’s key that the person be offered customized tools that will help him or her successfully cope with triggers in healthier, more effective ways.  While the road of addiction recovery is not necessarily an easy one, the truth is that with the proper drive, motivation, persistence, and help, it’s definitely possible. People who successfully recover from gambling addiction are probably some of the most focused people in life.  They know who they are, they know what they value, and they know what they’re worth.

Not in dollar amounts.