Unexpected Paths to Happiness in Recovery from Addiction

Unexpected Paths to Happiness in Recovery from Addiction


If you manage to “stick and stay” in addiction recovery, then my guess is that you will find happiness eventually. Not the fleeting bursts of pleasure that we experienced in our addiction, but a lasting joy of peace and contentment–a joy that can look at all of life, both the good and the bad, and be grateful for all of it at once. Such moments of deep reflection and joy will become common enough if you can stick it out in the long run in your recovery. Of course you also have to be “walking the walk” in order to get this payoff, you have to be pushing yourself to make personal growth on a regular basis.

The point here is that you will find happiness and contentment, but you may not be able to choose how this happiness finds you. It can often come from an unexpected path. Many times in our lives we have this goal out there in front of us, and we are telling ourselves “I will be happy if I can just achieve this one goal.” But then in truth we look back and realize that this was false, that in fact that thing that we thought would lead us to true happiness was just another flash in the pan, and the real lasting joy was to be found through some other means.

In other words, you can’t always force happiness to occur. In fact, you may never really be able to force it. Instead, you take the right actions in your life, and then happiness happens.

Also, I have found in my recovery that there is a difference between being happy and being content. Being content is actually a very worthy goal. This is not something that I would have agreed with when I was still stuck in my addiction and hooked on drugs and alcohol. Back then, I wanted it all. I believed that I deserved to be happy, all of the time, and I was using drugs and alcohol to try to achieve that goal. But today I realize that it is more important to be content than it is to be happy. There is a slight difference here but I believe it is an important one.

Many of us are under the false impression that we should chase happiness, that we should seek happiness, that we should stop at nothing until we are happy, joyous, and free. Today I realize that not only is this unrealistic, but it will also make you miserable if all you do is chase after happiness. Really, this is how we lived in addiction and alcoholism–we constantly chased after a happiness that we could never quite achieve. This is what fueled our addiction, the pursuit of happiness. In recovery we have to find a new path and that means trying something different. Chasing happiness has not really worked so well for us, so it is time to do things differently.

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The question is, how can we achieve this state of contentedness if we are not allowed to directly pursue happiness?

Following advice and feedback from others

One way that we can become content and free in our recovery is with the help of others. This may sound boring or even distasteful, but if you take advice from other people and do what they tell you to do then your life will get better and better. Note that living this way leads you to being content and free in your life, not necessarily deliriously happy. The goal is not to be ecstatic every day as it was when we were trapped in addiction, the goal is to slowly build up a life where happiness can occur on its own.

In early addiction recovery we don’t really know what we are doing or how to be happy. The problem when you first get clean and sober is that you are not measuring your happiness the right way. When you first get sober you are comparing your state to the “old you,” when you used to get messed up on drugs and alcohol all the time. The “new you” needs to find new ways to be happy in life and this can take some time to learn. Therefore you need to give yourself a break so that you have time to learn how to enjoy your life again. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen overnight.

Before I got clean and sober I was not willing to listen to anyone. I did not trust that anyone could help me to be happy again in my life. After all, how could someone else know what I was feeling and what would make me happy? All they seemed to want to tell me was to stop using drugs and alcohol, but at the time I believed that I needed these things in order to be happy. My attitude was one of saying “If you were as miserable as me then you would get drunk and high all the time too.” And I also thought that if I was denied the ability to use drugs that I would become so miserable that I would just kill myself. Of course this was not really true and in fact the drugs and alcohol were just making me more miserable (rather than helping to make me happier).

So what I had to do when it finally came time to surrender to my disease was to embrace the fact that I could not produce my own happiness. I knew that I was ultimately in charge of my own happiness and yet I was doing a terrible job of making myself happy. In fact I was completely miserable and I had no one to blame but myself. Of course while I was in denial I was busy trying to blame other people for all of the chaos and misery in my life, but in the end I had no one to point the finger at but myself. I had plenty of alcohol and drugs at my disposal and everyone had finally left me alone to myself (as I said that I wanted) and yet I could not seem to get happy. And it was then that I realized that my “happiness experiment” was a failure. I had believed for a long time that I could produce my own happiness, at will, just by using drugs and alcohol. But in the end I had to admit to myself that this was not the case.

After admitting that I could not make myself happy, I had a decision to make. Did I want to give recovery another shot? If so, was I willing to listen to other people this time and take their advice? Because in the past I was never willing to take direction and guidance from other people in recovery, and that had been my downfall. So I had to get honest with myself about the fact that I did not have all of the answers, and that if I was going to become happy in life again that it was going to have to be under the direction and guidance of others. I needed help. I needed new information in my life. I could not rely on my own ideas to produce my happiness, because I had been trying that for a long time and it was not working. I had been stuck in addiction for ten years and that was clearly a dead end road as far as making myself happy.

So here is the bottom line: as soon as I started to listen to other people, my life got better. And not just a little better either, we are talking about leaps and bounds. And all the while I was taking advice and direction from other people in recovery, but I had this little voice in the back of my mind saying: “Well, as soon as things start getting worse, then I will go back to my old ideas about how to make myself happy.” But as I continued to take advice from others, I realized that things kept getting better and better in my life, and so I kept pushing that little voice down. I am glad that I did, because things just kept continuing to get better and better.

Even though I was taking advice from others, I was still ultimately getting credit for what I was accomplishing. For example, others suggested that I go back to college and finish up my degree. I took that advice and followed through with it, and so I still had to put in a lot of footwork in order to accomplish that goal. It may not have been my own idea (to go back to school) but I still had to put in the effort and I still got huge benefit from taking action.

Learning to enjoy the simple pleasures in life again

One of the most unexpected sources of peace and contentment in my life came from the transformation that happened during the first year of my sobriety. What happened is that my idea of fun changed. This was a very simple but profound transformation.

Before I got clean and sober, I believed that I would never be able to have fun again without being able to get drunk or high. Because I was trapped in addiction, I could not have any fun in life unless I was also drunk or high at the time. So it stood to reason (at least from my perspective) that if I were to become sober, I would be miserable forever.

The few times that I dabbled in a detox setting I pretty much became miserable due to withdrawal. This only helped to confirm my suspicion that I would be miserable forever if I tried to break into recovery. Of course I was wrong, and the only thing that could prove that would be time itself. In order to become happy in recovery (or free, or content) you have to give yourself a break. You have to give yourself time to heal, and time for your life to change.

Within a few months of getting sober, this transformation was already happening. For example, the simple pleasure of enjoying a meal with friends was suddenly as amazing to me as getting drunk used to be. The simple things in life were able to bring me joy again. But this did not happen overnight, and it took some time for me to reach that point. The key is that I had been so miserable when I reached the point of surrender that I did not care if I was never happy again. This desperation allowed me to trudge through the misery of detox and withdrawal to get to the point where life becomes worth living again.

Deepening of relationships

This is another unexpected joy of recovery–your relationships that used to be mostly surface-level suddenly become much deeper as you learn how to communicate honestly in recovery.

When you strip away all of the drugs and alcohol, all of the games are over. This allows you (forces you?) to be honest with the other people in your life, and therefore your relationships will become more meaningful.

certain people will drop away from your life, while other new people will likely come into your life. The difference is that while you are clean and sober you can actually have meaningful interactions with these people. Relationships are more important in recovery because you are no longer caring only about yourself (and how you can chase your own happiness). This is where much of the joy of your recovery will come from.

Exercise and fitness as a path to freedom

Part of being happy and content in recovery has to do with your freedom. If you are not free then this can put a huge damper on your overall happiness.

The problem is that there are many different degrees of freedom in life. You may think of the obvious type of freedom where you are not in jail or prison and are free to walk around as you please. But there are many other forms of freedom and one that is often not given a lot of thought is physical fitness and health.

When you are in terrific shape and in good health then you have a degree of freedom that other people do not enjoy. This is deeper than just being “happy” because you are in shape, because being fit allows you additional freedom to be able to create your own happiness. For example, some people do not have the energy that is necessary to even go out and play with children in the yard. Such a limitation can obviously put a damper on your happiness.

The gift of personal growth and incremental improvement

Another unexpected source of joy and contentment in recovery is in the process of growth itself.

At first, the idea of making changes is nothing more than a chore. This is especially true for any addict or alcoholic who is still in denial about their addiction. They do not want to change, nor do they want to be told that they need to change.

But after they surrender and start to make positive changes in their life, they will slowly (and sometimes more quickly) start to see the benefits of doing so. After a while in recovery they may come to realize that recovery is defined by personal growth, that the two are really synonymous. Recovery IS positive change. At that point, the push for more growth and learning should become almost automatic.

The key is to maintain balance at this point in your lifestyle so that you do not get burned out from trying to do too many things at once, or create too many changes in too short of a time frame. The question is: “What can you change about your life, and what can you commit to?” It is more important if you can commit to changes than if you simply start making all sorts of radical changes. We all know what it is like to promise to change our whole world, only to fail over and over again. Recovery is about making slow but steady progress. If you make fast changes and then quickly revert back to your old ways, then that is not in line with true growth in recovery. Success in recovery is really defined by making lifestyle changes that actually stick.

Once personal growth becomes a gift unto itself, you can start to evaluate your life and make plans for what you want to improve about yourself. Of course you can always ask others for feedback and advice as well, but in long term recovery you also get to be in the driver’s seat again (just don’t try it too soon, or you may sabotage your own recovery efforts. This is why you should rely on input from others in early recovery!).

Creating your new life in recovery

I will go out on a limb here and say that in long term recovery, you finally get to create your own happiness–just as you once tried to do (unsuccessfully) during active addiction. But now that you have gone through the learning process of early recovery you will be much more effective at creating what you want in life. You will also become much more effective at creating various types of freedom for yourself.

This doesn’t work the first day that you get clean and sober, nor does it work after, say, one month of sobriety. You have to go through the learning process of recovery first before you can create your own life and do it successfully. If you try to create your happiness too soon in recovery then you will only sabotage your efforts and even risk relapse.

Many people will disagree with these ideas because it sounds like I am saying “once you have more sobriety then you will be happier, just wait.” But that is not really what I am suggesting at all. What I am saying is that you have to go through many different learning processes in early recovery so that you can become more effective at creating your happiness. And in the end you realize that it is not about chasing happiness, it is about pushing yourself to learn and to grow in your recovery. But over time you can become much more effective at this as well. And discovering that you are content in the process of growth is what recovery is all about.

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