What is the secret to bringing more peace and happiness into your life in addiction recovery? What is the path to peace and contentment going to be like for you if you choose a path of sobriety?
I was honestly quite worried when I first got clean and sober that I would never be happy again. This is because I was basing my happiness on the ability to self medicate with drugs and alcohol. I really believed that if I could not get drunk or high in the future that I would never be truly happy again.
This turned out to be quite wrong.
I found happiness again in recovery, and it did not even take that long for it to start happening. My life transformed rather quickly and I was amazed at how fast I was able to get back to something like a “normal life” with real happiness and joy in it.
This does not mean that every second of every day I was bursting with joy after getting 30 days sober. But I was able to look at my life and realize that I was experiencing many moments of peace and happiness very early in my sobriety, and I had to compare this to the total and complete misery that I used to experience during my addiction. It was like night and day. Even a tiny bit of “real” happiness was better than the chaos and misery that I had been living in.
So naturally once I realized that my life was not truly over and that I could find real happiness and joy in recovery, I wanted to maximize it as much as possible. I have read a lot of material about how to do this and I have experimented a great deal with my life, especially in terms of maximizing peace, contentment, and happiness.
So here are a few of the things that I have learned along the way. Keep in mind that I am not a guru or anything and my own life is still very much a work in progress. I am learning every day.
Chase after happiness or avoid negativity in your life? Which is the better path to happiness?
When I was first introduced to the 12 steps of AA I was a bit put off by them. There was something that I did not like, that did not sit well with me. And here is what it was:
The 12 steps of AA seemed a bit negative to me. You had to look at your life, find the character defects, find the negative stuff, and then work to eliminate it.
I thought that seemed a bit threatening and I would have liked to have looked at some of the good parts of my life instead, focus on the positive, and so on.
Turns out I was wrong, and AA had it right all along.
Let me explain.
There are, I suppose, three possible options in recovery:
1) Focus on the negativity in your life and try to fix it (the 12 steps seek to do this).
2) Focus on the positive in your life. For example, doing positive affirmations every day.
3) Do both.
What I learned in my journey through recovery is that the answer to this little problem is very counter-intuitive.
AA has it right. You should definitely focus on the negative aspects of your life and push yourself very hard to try to fix those things.
This is not to say that you can never focus on the positive stuff or try to build yourself up in some way. But if you neglect to do the hard work, if you neglect to figure out the negative stuff and deal with it, then you will not be doing yourself any favors in terms of creating happiness in your life.
If you try to focus on the positive and chase after your happiness directly you will never reach it. It is like a carrot on a stick and it will continuously move further ahead of you. You might set a goal, say to yourself “If I reach this goal, then I will be happy,” and then finally reach that goal. But you will realize that once you achieve that particular goal that the carrot is now dangling even further out ahead of you. You never get to that point of permanent happiness. It is always a chase.
One alternative to this is to create a blank slate in your life. Eliminate the negativity. Find what is holding you back in life, what is creating negativity in your world, and then seek to eliminate it.
Do this over and over again. Find all of the problems and all of the negative stuff and work hard to get rid of it. Turn your life into a blank slate.
For example, when I was in early recovery I found myself always feeling sorry for myself. Everyone was telling me to work on my resentments and that I had to identify and eliminate my anger. But I did not have many resentments at all, and instead I realized that I was always feeling sorry for myself. That was how my disease worked. I would justify my drinking by feeling sorry for myself and trying to play the victim role. That was my primary defect.
So what I had to do in early recovery was to eliminate this defect of character. I couldn’t just walk around in sobriety and think positive thoughts and try to focus on what I was doing right. That would not have helped me. Because my brain had this problem, it was constantly running this destructive script in which I felt sorry for myself, and the only use for this little script was to justify my drinking. It was just a bunch of negativity.
I did not know how to do this at first, so I had to figure it out. First, I decided that I had to become more aware of when I started to feel sorry for myself. If I wasn’t even aware that it was happening then I would be powerless to stop it. So I increased my awareness. I wrote about it in a journal every day. And I started to figure out the primary counter-measure, which turned out to be gratitude. If you are grateful then by definition you are NOT feeling sorry for yourself. They cannot coexist together. It is one or the other. Therefore, I figured out that I needed to practice gratitude every day. I had to push myself to become more grateful, to cultivate gratitude.
Meditation to detect and avoid chaos and stress
Many people believe that in order to be more at peace that they need to increase their tolerance to stress.
This is backwards.
In fact, what you want to do is to decrease your tolerance to stress.
In other words, when stress happens in your life, you tolerate it less, and therefore you take action to eliminate it or move away from it, rather than enduring it.
One of the ways that you can do this is by meditating every day.
This doesn’t have to be fancy. You can simply sit in silence for 5 minutes, eyes closed, and not forcing yourself to try to think, or to not think. It can be that simple and yet this can still be profoundly powerful.
If you do such a seated meditation then you will notice that the volume knob on your life seems to go up and up. The noise gets worse. Or rather, you noticing the noise has become increased due to your 5 minutes of silence. And this will have the indirect effect of increasing your tolerance to the noise and the stress. If you meditate on a regular basis then slowly your life will begin to change in this subtle way. You will begin to naturally avoid the noise and the stress because your newly-tuned brain will not like it.
Of course this is just one tool out of many that might help you to achieve more peace in your life.
An alternative to seated meditation that I almost never discovered was distance running. Regular exercise can, in fact, replace meditation in some aspects, and in some cases it can even be superior to it. Several monks have been quoted as saying that they prefer distance running to seated meditation when it comes to achieving emotional balance. That is a very powerful endorsement for regular exercise that most people never give a second thought to. For example, if you went to an AA meeting and brought up the topic and said: “I am struggling to achieve emotional balance in my life” you would probably get a whole bunch of different suggestions, but it is very likely that no one would mention exercise. I know this because I have done it myself and was shocked to see that an entire room full of people did not have access to this solution. On the other hand, my sponsor, my therapist, and my family have all encouraged me to get into physical shape at one time or another, though it was exclusively for different reasons other than achieving any sort of emotional balance. The bottom line is that exercise can be a very powerful way to bring more peace and happiness into your life, but it is just one piece of the puzzle of course, and not a total solution. But it is definitely a part of the solution that works for me.
How the daily practice can make you happier in the long run
If you want more peace and contentment in your life on a regular basis then you need to form positive habits.
One way to do this is to create a daily practice for yourself in which you engage in positive activities on a regular basis.
I am talking about the power of habit.
Of course we may all have different habits that lead us to peace and contentment, but I also believe that there are some fundamental concepts that can certainly serve as guidelines here.
For example, you want to take care of yourself every day, and you want to find ways to love yourself every day. You can look at your overall health in your life through the following five “lenses”:
If you look at traditional recovery then the focus is almost always exclusively on your spiritual health. I believe that this is a mistake because a relapse can sneak up on you in so many different ways. I have had many peers in recovery who fell victim to relapse due to unhealthy relationships, poor physical health, becoming emotionally unstable, and so on. Having a strong spiritual program may or may not have fixed all of those problems, and I think that it makes sense to find ways to address those issues directly.
What good is sobriety if you are dead? Your physical health matters too. As does your emotional stability. As does your mental health. And so on. All of it is important. If you want to be truly happy in recovery then you have to address all 5 of those areas of your health.
Go back to the idea that you have to eliminate the negative rather than to chase happiness. This is definitely true when you consider these 5 areas of your overall health. If one of them is lacking and you have a bad problem in a particular area then this will drag you down and keep you unhappy no matter what is happening in the other areas of your life.
The daily practice is the daily habits that you do every day in order to take care of yourself. What these things are will evolve over time. They continue to evolve for me as I learn more and more about how to take good care of myself.
How to be at peace with yourself even amid chaos and confusion
There are several ways to find peace amid the chaos in recovery:
1) Journal. Write it down every day. Write down what your thoughts and feelings are. Or share them on a recovery forum such as the one here at Spiritual River.
2) Exercise. I have had some huge life events that threatened my emotional sobriety to the point where I was in danger of real relapse. At those times I went out and did an amazingly intense workout. When you push yourself to go above and beyond physically it really puts the rest of your problems into perspective. Just finished running a marathon? That deadline at work is like a tiny little gnat. No big deal, because you just went through something really intense physically.
3) Meditation. This works for some but not for others (like everything on this list, actually). Some people can close their eyes, breath deep, and get some peace during the storm. For me, running works better and accomplishes the same thing. Along with something like meditation would be things such as Yoga, Tai Chi, etc.
4) Meetings. Again, this is not my thing, but it works for some people. Go to an AA meeting and share your story, reach out and talk to others in recovery, etc.
5) Reach out and help others. This is seriously powerful, and is the basis for step number 12 in AA. If you can reach out and help others in recovery then it makes your own journey that much easier.
Helping others as a means to a more stable and happy life
It sounds terrible to say this out loud, but I really feel like helping others helps to put my own life in perspective. Because generally when I am helping someone else it is because they have a problem that I do not have at the time. Maybe I had that problem in my past but right now I don’t have the issue, and they do.
So you cannot help but compare in that situation. You look at your own life and realize “Hey, I got it pretty good here.” And so this helps to bring you gratitude and allows you to feel better about your current life situation.
The ancient stoic philosophers used this technique to feel better about themselves. They called it “negative visualization.” So if you picture your own life situation and imagine a much worse case scenario, then you will naturally feel better about yourself because that is not the reality. It is a way to produce gratitude out of thin air, simply by imagining yourself in a worse case scenario.
So you get this benefit of “negative visualization” when you help others in recovery (or when you help others in general).
And of course your own sobriety becomes quite a bit stronger when you reach out and help others. Your brain will not want to be a hypocrite when it comes to not practicing what you preach (though it is possible), so when you reach out and help others in recovery it will help to motivate you in your own recovery journey. When you teach others how to remain sober it reinforces your own learning of the lessons.
Essentially you have to do the work, assess your life and your life situation, find the negative elements and then work hard to eliminate them. If you can keep doing this until you have cleared away a “blank slate” in your life then you open the door to peace and contentment. This is how you get to happiness–not directly by chasing after it, but indirectly by creating a blank canvas in your life where happiness can then flourish. If you have negativity holding you back then you will never be fully happy or at peace with yourself. This is why in AA they focus on the negative stuff and “doing the work” rather than focusing on the positive and doing affirmations (which may or may not be helpful to everyone).
“Doing the work” is always helpful because it gets you one step closer to the blank canvas. Once your life is empty of the negativity then it can be filled up with joy, peace, and contentment. This is definitely not the same thing as chasing after happiness and constantly having the carrot move ahead on the stick, just out of your reach.
The key is that you have to be willing to put in this massive effort. Doing the work is not going to be comfortable and you cannot really expect it to be. You are trying to tear down your defenses that have kept you insulated and sheltered during your addiction. So things such as resentment, shame, guilt, self pity, anger, and fear all have to be confronted and explored. You have to look at each one of them and figure out how you can overcome it and eliminate it. Failing to do this work will keep you stuck on that treadmill where you are always reaching for happiness but coming up just short of it.