What is the true path to happiness in life? When you overcome an addiction, what are the things that lead you back to joy, happiness, and peace in your life?
How do you figure out what you really want in your life, after you realize that you no longer want to get drunk every day?
Let’s take a closer look at some of these questions.
Figuring out what you want should NOT be your first priority in recovery. Here is why
In early recovery it can be tempting to say to yourself:
“OK, I am sober now, I am doing the right thing, now I deserve to figure out my true desires in life and go after it!”
Well, not so fast. I really believe that this sort of passion and excitement is jumping the gun just a little bit.
Here is why:
In early recovery, you have work to do.
Hard work. You have to fix stuff. You have to fix all of the negative stuff in your life that has piled up during your addiction.
For example, when I first got clean and sober I had a very strong tendency to engage in self pity. I would sit around and feel sorry for myself all the time because this used to be how I justified my drinking to myself. It had become a part of who I was.
If I wanted to remain sober for long I was going to have to fix that issue. Why? Because it was my excuse to drink, and every time I was feeling sorry for myself in recovery, it simply dragged me down and made me want to self medicate. My tendency to pity myself was not helping me at all in recovery. Therefore it had to be changed. I had to fix this problem. It was a negative aspect that was left over from my addiction and I was going to have to address it in order to remain sober.
In early recovery you have a choice. You could potentially focus on two different sorts of things:
1) Figuring out what you want in life, and pursuing it.
2) Identifying all of the negative stuff that holds you back in life, and trying to fix it (like self pity in my example above).
Now what I am telling you here is that you want to focus on the second one, on fixing the negative stuff.
Because if you don’t, then all of that bad stuff that you accumulated in your addiction will continue to hold you back and drag you down in recovery.
“Yes, but you see” you might protest, “if I am figuring out what I really want in early recovery then I will achieve it and become happy, and life will be good.”
And that would be where you are wrong. Because if you fail to address the bad stuff that is left over from your addiction (which we all have) then you will stay stuck in your recovery. You will not be happy, because the negative stuff will hold you back.
It is only after fixing all of that negative stuff that you can later move forward, figure out what you want, and then build the life that you really want in recovery.
So your first task in early recovery is not to explore your true desires. Your first task in early recovery is to build the foundation. In order to build the foundation you are going to have to do some serious work. You must eliminate the negative stuff that is left over from addiction.
How to go about fixing all of the negative stuff in your life first
There is more than one way to “do the work” in early recovery.
One way is by going to AA and getting a sponsor and working through the steps with that person. If you do this right then it will involve doing some serious work on the internal stuff, the things like resentment, self pity, shame, guilt, fear, and so on. The 12 steps can take you through identifying those things and then eliminating them one at a time.
Of course, you don’t really need a 12 step program to identify and eliminate these things from your life. You can also do so on your own by simply paying attention, making decisions to change, and then taking real action.
If you don’t know how to eliminate something negative in your life then you need to learn how to do it. This probably means asking for help from someone else who has already done it before. If you cannot find anyone who fits that description then I would suggest that you go to a few AA meetings and start asking questions. Questions like “Who here has worked through the steps and used them to eliminate shame, fear, anger, self pity, or guilt?” It is possible to find people out there who have “done the work” and are willing to share about it.
For example, I had to figure out how to overcome my tendency to feel sorry for myself. In doing so I had to talk to other people and figure out what sorts of things that they did in order to get beyond self pity. I found at least two suggestions that I did not really like at first, but which turned out to do me a lot of good: Exercise and gratitude.
I had to start practicing gratitude so that I could overcome the self pity. It was taught to me that you cannot be engaged in self pity while you are also grateful. They two states are not compatible at all. Therefore, if you practice gratitude every single day then this will go a long way in overcoming self pity. This is something that I did not know when I was still stuck in my addiction. I had to learn this from other people, then I had to implement it (practice it).
Second of all I learned that if you are active and engaged in regular exercise that you are much less likely to feel sorry for yourself. This was suggested to me by different people throughout my early recovery and for several different reasons. Eliminating self pity was only one of those reasons. So eventually I took the suggestion to give exercise a chance in my life and it turned out to have a major impact on how I felt every day. Not only did it help to eliminate self pity but it also helped me in many other ways as well, ways that I never could have predicted.
So there is an important message here in these examples.
First of all, realize that my recovery went well because I was willing to work on the negative stuff first. I did not rush into my recovery and declare my right to be happy and to pursue the things I wanted. Instead, I asked other people what I needed to be working on and what I needed to fix in my life. They pointed to the stuff that made me most unhappy (self pity) and then they made suggestions about how I should fix that. At that point I took their suggestions and put them into action. After testing out a few ideas (I also tried meditation, for example, but found exercise to be more helpful) I found what worked well for me and my life started improving a great deal.
Second of all, I learned that being happy in recovery is more about eliminating misery than it is about pursuing joy. This is counter-intuitive to say the least. Avoiding misery led me to happiness. More on that in a second.
Third, I asked for help and then I took the advice I was given and I followed through with it. This alone can lead you to success in recovery. Actually applying the advice you are given = priceless!
Being happy is a lack of misery. Helping others can bring real joy
This is very counter-intuitive and therefore it needs special attention, because most people will get this wrong.
The truth is this:
You need to fix the bad stuff in your life first and foremost before you try to “pursue happiness” or “achieve your dreams.”
In early recovery you may think that you are in for a boring ride if this is the case. You might think that there will not be any fun, because you will be working on clearing up the negative stuff from your addiction rather than figuring out what will really make you happy.
If this is your attitude then you are in for a pleasant surprise.
First of all, most people are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy. So we are constantly wanting things in life, but when we get those things, they usually do not make us as happy as we were predicting. At the same time, we experience other things that we had not planned on (we were not wanting them badly) and yet some of those random things are what we can look back and see that made us truly happy. We are poor predictors of happiness.
Now combine this with the fact that we have stuff in our lives that definitely makes us unhappy. Stuff like fear, shame, guilt, anger, and self pity. This is the stuff that runs around up in our heads and prevents us from feeling happy at any given moment. Even if we “achieve our dreams” we will not really be happy if we still have that negative stuff running loose in our minds. It will cloud our happiness and bring us down.
So we get into recovery, and we start doing the hard work of fixing all of this mental garbage, and we probably don’t believe that we will be very happy in recovery. This is because we based all of our happiness on getting drunk or high in the past. So we sort of expect our recovery to be unhappy.
Another thing we find is that helping others in recovery brings us true joy. This is something that is very difficult to predict or anticipate, but once you experience it you will realize that this is what true happiness is all about. It is about connecting with other people. It is about helping others to eliminate that garbage that is holding them back (just as you had garbage that was holding you back).
If there was a simple road map for happiness in recovery it might be this:
1) Do the work of fixing all the negative stuff that goes on upstairs in your mind.
2) Help others to do the same thing.
It would be pretty tough not to be happy if you were doing those two things in recovery. And yet very few of us would predict that this is what we really want in life, or that this would make us happy.
Figuring out what you want can best be done after you have “done the work” in early recovery. This is why they say it “get’s greater, later.”
After you have done the hard work in early recovery then you should make progress at cleaning up all of the garbage, the resentment, the negative self talk, and so on.
At that point you are a blank slate, expect that now you also know how to eliminate all of that misery in your own life. So now you can help others to do the same thing if you want.
You are now at the point where you can figure out what you want in life and explore your true desires.
So how do you go about doing this?
One way is by establishing and following a daily practice.
With this method you do not just sit and figure out what you want and then go after it. Instead, you let opportunities come to you after establishing a healthy pattern for yourself, or a daily practice.
What is this daily practice?
It is the action that you take every day in order to establish healthy habits in life. It is part of the holistic approach in which you take positive action every day in order to improve your:
* Physical health and fitness.
* Emotional health and stability.
* Mental health and education/learning.
* Social health and relationships.
* Spiritual health and connection with a higher power.
You want to take positive action in these areas every day of your life. If you are doing this work and you are taking positive action and establishing healthy habits like this then opportunities will come to you. In other words, you will find joy and happiness in life simply by establishing healthy habits in your life in all of these various areas.
Relapse can happen in recovery when you are not pursuing holistic health in a particular area. That may sound a little bit strange, but I have found it to be true over the years when observing my peers. If someone neglects one of those “themes” for too long then they can get into serious trouble. For example, the common way that people relapse in 12 step recovery is when they drift away from spiritual growth for too long. But I have also watched it happen as a result of poor physical health, or because of a failed relationship as well. In those cases it would have served the person well to have more of a holistic approach, so they would have been addressing those weak points on a daily basis instead of ignoring them.
Following the daily practice is how you set yourself up for success in recovery. It is the only way that you can set yourself up to discover what makes you truly happy, because by following the daily practice you will be actively eliminating all of those problems and pitfalls that can hold you back from experiencing happiness in recovery.
In other words, if you are not using the holistic approach in recovery, then you will be vulnerable to traps and pitfalls that will make you miserable from time to time. Being miserable every once in a while during recovery is not true happiness. In fact it is only slightly better than addiction.
This is why recovery takes work. You have to put in the work each and every day in order to avoid the negative stuff, the stuff in your mind that threatens to drag you down or make you miserable.
It gets greater, later, because that is when you have done the hard work and you have eliminated most of the pitfalls. Only after you have achieved this blank slate will you be able to create what you really want in life without having it blow up in your face or mysteriously turn back into misery somehow.
Setting a goal for yourself in recovery and then going after it
Most of recovery is testing and experimenting.
This is also how you should pursue happiness in long term sobriety. Through testing and experimentation.
If you set a goal for yourself then you have to ask yourself two questions:
1) Does achieving that goal make you happy?
2) Does pursuing that goal make you happy?
The second question is a lot more important than most people realize.
You should try to find goals in life that make you happy just to engage in the process itself. In other words, if you have to be miserable just to achieve some goal that you are hoping will make you happy, that is probably not a goal that is worth pursuing. Or rather, you are likely to find out that such a goal does not lead to as much happiness as you had hoped.
You might also try seeking inspiration from other people, or getting feedback on which goals you might pursue in your life. Remember that we are often quite bad at predicting what will make us happy in our lives. So if you have a sponsor in recovery for example, you might ask them what you think your next goal in life should be. You might ask the same thing of your peers in recovery (hopefully some of which have more sober time than you do).
Those are really the two best suggestions for exploring your true desires and finding happiness in recovery:
1) Establish a daily practice and healthy habits in your life. Seek holistic health.
2) Get feedback from others in recovery on what goals they think you should pursue.
If you can give both of those methods a fair chance to work in your life I think you will be very surprised with the results. We secretly think that we know best as to what will make us happy in life, but we are often wrong! Following these two techniques will help you prove that to yourself, and in the end you will be much happier for it as well. Good luck.