What is the secret to happiness in addiction recovery? That is a big question and I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I do think I have learned a few things.
One of the most important lessons I have learned in recovery is that you should strive for peace and contentment rather than chasing happiness directly. That is a subtle difference but it is also a very important one. If you chase happiness directly you will probably never reach it.
Or rather, what happens is that if you put a condition on your happiness, such as “If I could just graduate from college then I will finally be happy,” then what happens is that you graduate and you are happy for like 2 seconds. Then you find another condition that needs to be met in the future in order for you to finally be happy. So then you go back into this stage of striving for happiness and putting conditions on your happiness and never really allowing yourself to enjoy the moment.
This is crazy to do if there is another way.
Luckily there is another way, though it definitely takes practice and persistence to break through your old habits of putting conditions on your happiness.
The myth of chasing happiness versus taking care of yourself as a life strategy
So what is the alternative to chasing after you happiness directly?
The alternative is to create themes in your life rather than to have goals. If you have goals that is fine, but they should be part of a theme. And you should focus on the theme and think about the theme that you are pursuing.
So instead of saying “I will finally be happy when I complete that marathon” you would say to yourself “I am enjoying the training and the long runs and I am happy to be happy today.” So instead of putting that condition on your happiness with the future goal you instead decide to enjoy the process itself and celebrate the theme of health and fitness.
So these could be part of your life strategy. One strategy is to simply figure out what you think will make you happy, set a goal, and then chase after the goal. This is the “chasing happiness” strategy and even if you are very successful at meeting those goals you probably won’t be very happy. It is like chasing a carrot at the end of a stick. You just reach your goal but then you move the carrot right away and put another condition on your future happiness.
If you are saying to yourself “I’ll finally be happy when….(fill in the blank)” then you are using the wrong strategy. Because all you are doing is keeping yourself trapped. You are denying yourself the happiness that you could experience right now, this very moment.
There is an alternative strategy to this.
Instead of chasing happiness by setting goals, look at your overall life and your overall health in recovery and create some themes.
So you might consider your holistic health and the themes that are built around being a healthy person:
1) Physical health – fitness, nutrition, good sleep patterns, disease free, quitting addictions, etc.
2) Mental health – being of sound mind, generating gratitude every day, eliminating obsession thinking, eliminating resentment, guilt, self pity.
3) Emotional health – being stable, having tools to deal with emotional upset, balance.
4) Social health – eliminating toxic people from your life. Cultivating good relationships. Helping others.
5) Spiritual health – practicing every day, be that prayer, meditation, gratitude, or some combination of all these.
These are themes. They don’t have to be specific goals, though you certainly will have some goals in some or all of these areas throughout your recovery.
But it is important to realize that these are the keys to peace and contentment if you can create more health in all of these areas.
It is also important to realize the relationship between each of those 5 areas and your unhappiness.
So instead of chasing after happiness, what you really need to do is to look at these 5 themes and realize that if you neglect one of those themes completely that it will result in unhappiness.
Is that confusing? So instead of chasing happiness, you are actually using a strategy to avoid unhappiness.
This is how you achieve peace and contentment in your life. By eliminating the negative stuff. By avoiding being unhealthy.
Think about it:
Let’s say that you are in the “chasing happiness” mode. And so you have a specific goal that you want to achieve that you think will make you happy. And at the same time, you may be neglecting one or more of those 5 themes in your life. Say that you are rather selfish lately and you are not practicing gratitude at all. And maybe you are not reaching out and helping others while also having a toxic relationship in your life.
But then you achieve your goal, the one that you thought would bring you happiness! And yet you still have these other problems holding you back, you are not really grateful and you are not working on a few of those themes in your life.
Are you happy?
No you are not. You met your goal and you thought that you would be happy, but then you realize that the toxic relationship you are in is overriding that with much unhappiness. And you are not feeling very grateful so it is difficult to be happy about your situation. You want for other things to make you happy. You are not practicing the 5 themes of holistic health and these are holding you back and making you unhappy.
So no matter what goal you may have in terms of achieving happiness, it will never be enough to overcome this limitation that you have created by not practicing the themes.
Here is another way to put it:
If you have unhappiness in your life, then chasing after happiness by meeting a certain condition will never make you happy.
And if you are not working on those 5 themes in your life every day, if you are not taking care of yourself in those 5 basic areas (spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, social) then you will always be in a battle with unhappiness.
So the key is to change your strategy.
Stop chasing happiness directly, and instead focus on living those 5 themes of good health.
If you can eliminate unhappiness then you will find peace and contentment.
And this creates a foundation through which you will experience real joy in your life.
But you can’t chase it directly. You have to put in the work and realize that it is a daily practice.
If you are unhappy with relationships then you won’t be happy, period
Relationships are a huge part of recovery.
For one thing, we need other people in order to recover. You can’t really recover all by yourself. Or rather, if you are a “real alcoholic” of the hopeless variety then it is very likely that you need other people in order to help you recover.
If you have a toxic relationship in your life then you are losing energy every day to that situation. If one of your relationships in your life is a source of unhappiness then it doesn’t really matter what else you do in order to try to achieve peace and contentment and happiness because you will always have this burden of unhappiness in your life.
Remember: Don’t chase happiness. Instead, look at your sources of unhappiness and then seek to eliminate them.
Get to the blank slate.
If you are doing this work as I suggest then your life will become more and more of a blank slate. No more drama or chaos or unhappiness filling it up. And this is exactly what you want. You want to create a blank slate because that is how real peace and contentment can blossom. You can’t be happy if you have negativity in your life.
Relationships are especially tough because we can get awfully comfortable in them and it can be very scary to leave. For some people it is almost impossible to break away from a relationship, even if it makes them very unhappy. I have been through this process myself and there is no way to simplify it or make it any easier. But if you are unhappy in any relationship then you should definitely seek out support systems and make the move to break free from the relationship entirely. A toxic relationship will never allow you to be happy in recovery.
Balance as a key to overall happiness
Most people who are happy and healthy in recovery have at least some degree of balance.
If you are far too focused on one area of your life then that can lead to obsession. If you are caught up in obsessive thinking then that does not lend itself to happiness. So having some balance can certainly be helpful.
Keep in mind that there are at least 5 basic themes of good health: Physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. There are more themes as well if you care to niche these down and get more detailed, but those 5 pretty much cover your entire life.
So if someone focuses far too much on one area of health to the point that they neglect the other areas completely then they are in danger of relapse.
People hear about these 5 areas of holistic health and they get overwhelmed. Don’t do that. Don’t feel overwhelmed. It is really not that difficult. You don’t have to be some kind of superman who does amazing things every day in order to get healthy in recovery.
Instead, you simply have to not neglect these themes. Don’t stray too far for too long in any one of these areas. If you have the right attitude in recovery then this should not be a major problem. For example, if you are willing to take suggestions and get feedback from others in recovery then you should hit on all of these major themes on a pretty regular basis. You go to a meeting and they talk about practicing gratitude. You see a friend who encourages you to go exercise with them. You are working on the steps with your sponsor and you are improving your relationships as a result. You take a suggestion to start writing in a journal every day and this allows you to achieve more emotional balance. You take a suggestion to start meditating every day. And so on.
These are just examples and random ideas. If you are open to a path of growth in recovery then you will probably hear a different set of suggestions. That’s fine. Take some advice and put it into action and see if it helps you. This is the path of growth in recovery. You learn by doing, by experimenting. And then you see what works for you and what can be discarded.
Physical health and fitness as one key to boosting mood
All of the suggestions that you find here are just that: Suggestions. They won’t necessarily work for everyone.
But some of them definitely worked for me.
And one of those was in relation to exercise and fitness.
Now I want to tell you the story because maybe your journey is similar. Here is the important point of this story:
I didn’t get it at first. I mean, exercise. It didn’t work for me at first.
I tried it because so many people around me were suggesting it to me. They were encouraging me to exercise, to work out, to go jog, to life weights, and so on.
So I tried it. I gave it an honest effort. I stuck with it for over a month or two.
And it didn’t work. It just did nothing for me. I could not get past that “hump.” I really did not see the point, and it did not seem to help my recovery in any way.
And this is an important part of the story. I gave fitness and honest effort and it did not seem to help me, so I moved on. I tried other things. I dismissed fitness as being an unimportant part of sobriety. I said to myself “Maybe it helps some people, but it does nothing for me.”
But here is the thing:
About a year or so later, I tried again for some reason.
I have no idea what prompted this. But I started running every day with my father (a lifelong avid runner).
And for some reason, it stuck this time. I got into it. I built up to 6 miles per day, and at some point it just clicked.
Suddenly, it was no longer work. It was no longer a huge effort. It was suddenly effortless. I was in shape! I felt great!
That was over a decade ago now. I continue to exercise on a regular basis to this day, and it is a HUGE part of my recovery.
So it was like I had to give it a chance. I had to break through the hard part (being out of shape when you first start exercising) in order to get to the real reward.
Because once it became effortless, the rewards were truly amazing.
It would be impossible for me to accurately describe all of the benefits that I get out of regular exercise. Here is a partial and incomplete list:
1) Emotional stability.
2) Mental clarity.
3) Better sleep.
4) Leads to healthier food choices, better nutrition.
5) Learned discipline that can be applied in other areas of my life.
That is by no means a complete list, but just those benefits alone have made a huge difference in my world since starting to exercise.
Again, I do realize that exercise and physical fitness is not going to be for everyone in recovery. The point is that you need to stay open to new ideas, because you can never be sure what will finally “click” for you. Realize that I tried and failed to “get into” exercise a few times before it finally worked.
In that same vein, I may eventually get back into seated meditation and find a lot of benefit by doing so. Right now I just don’t see the rewards in comparison to regular exercise, but perhaps in the future this will change. It is important to realize that the same solution may have to present itself to you several times before it finally clicks.
Personal growth and challenging yourself in the lifelong struggle against complacency
If you want to be happy in recovery you have two basic paths that will get you there:
1) Acceptance of self. Bliss.
2) Personal growth. Achievement. Challenging yourself.
Either path can produce real contentment and happiness.
The infamous Serenity prayer is about finding the right path for the right situation in your life. Sometimes that path will be about self acceptance, and other times it will be about pushing through some fear and making a difficult change in your life that leads to real growth. Your job (according to the prayer) is to seek out the wisdom to know when to choose each path according to the situation at hand.
I think a big part of this is getting feedback and advice from others. You don’t have to give up your entire sense of self in order to learn from other people and take advice from them. When I was still stuck in my addiction I had this irrational fear that if I went to AA and took advice from other people that I would suddenly become a non-person. I would become like the hole in the middle of a donut.
That fear turned out to be false. When I started learning how to get out of my own way and take suggestions and advice from others it opened up a whole new world to me. I realized that I was empowered rather than weak when I took suggestions from others in recovery. This was the shortcut to wisdom that I avoided for so long when I was stuck in denial. This was the missing piece of the puzzle that had kept me from real growth in my recovery, because I refused to believe that other people might know how to lead me to happiness. How could they know what would make me happy? Only I could know that! Or so I thought.
But I was wrong.
In truth, I surrendered to my disease, got out of my own way, and started listening to others in recovery. They taught me how to take positive action and also how to “do the work.” My life got better and better and it became like a blank slate. So I was able to become happy naturally rather than chasing after it and always finding it to be elusive. I was able to find real peace and contentment rather than chasing after the high like I did in my addiction. This was a new kind of happiness that I was not prepared for. I could never have predicted it.
Certain demands are made of you in your recovery journey. The biggest demand is that you keep taking positive action so that you don’t become complacent and relapse. This is a huge bonus though because in taking positive action you will continuously improve your life more and more. The rewards of recovery will compound over time and things will get really, really good. This assumes that you do the hard work and create that blank slate in your life after all of the negativity is stripped away. This allows you to become truly peaceful and content. That is the environment where real happiness can then occur naturally.
What about you, have you found any unique ways to boost your mood and create more happiness in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!