How can we become a happy person in sobriety, and learn how to live sober and be truly free?
Is following a program of recovery the only way to do this? Are there other paths to recovery that can create lasting happiness for us?
What is the goal really? Is it to be blissfully happy every single day? To be content with our lives? To be inspired to grow and to learn? To enjoy the challenges of life rather than to be dragged down by them?
I have fought with many of these questions myself over the years of my own recovery, and I feel like I have made some significant progress.
Note that I do NOT have all of the answers. I definitely would not consider myself to be “blissfully happy every single day.” In fact I am nowhere near that. But on the whole I would say that I am very content in my life, and I definitely do have moments when I feel like I have achieved a state of real happiness.
Getting to this point has been a long journey that started out of the misery of drug and alcohol addiction. I had to start this journey somewhere, and unfortunately that meant that I had to start at the bottom.
Leaving the misery and chaos of addiction and alcoholism
The decision to get clean and sober was really a decision to stop being miserable. But before I could ever make the decision to stop being miserable, I had to do a few things:
1) Admit to myself that I was miserable.
2) Admit to myself that my misery was of my own making, and entirely my own fault (stop blaming others for my addiction).
3) Admit that my drug and alcohol addiction was the primary source of misery in my life.
Getting to the point where you can honestly admit all of that to yourself is what it means to work through your denial. Until you can fully concede all three of those points you are likely still in denial and will be unable to make any sort of real progress.
If you want to be both happy and free then sobriety is a necessary starting point for that journey to occur. Note that just getting physically clean and sober will not insure happiness or freedom. Those things require extra effort, and may even be essential for continued sobriety. The problem is that if you do not pursue freedom and contentment in sobriety then you are likely to return to your drug of choice at some point. Things either get better in recovery or they get worse, but they rarely stay the same. Therefore you must take action in order to maintain and sustain your recovery. If you sit idle and do nothing to improve your life or your life situation then eventually the temptation to relapse will overwhelm you. The key to preventing this is to take positive action on a regular basis. Recovery programs are geared towards getting you to take this positive action on a consistent basis.
Once you have established your sobriety and have some stability in your life, your happiness is NOT insured just yet. In order to be truly content you have to work awfully hard at it! Is this a paradox? Maybe. But the alternative to working hard at creating a successful life is to stagnate and perhaps relapse because of it.
The key is to embrace the process itself rather than to struggle for happiness that seems to be forever out of your reach. Doing this consistently is not easy.
Why we get confused about happiness
Happiness is a difficult thing to pursue. The reason for this is because chasing happiness itself prevents you from achieving it. If you try to achieve it directly you will only manage to get caught up in a life very similar to your addiction–a series of peaks followed by valleys, with no real contentment.
So instead of just chasing after pure happiness, we have to find another way. This was something that challenged me for a long time in my own recovery. I was clean and sober but I was not exactly happy all of the time, and I wanted to discover what the problem was.
One thing that I learned over the years in my recovery is that I did not have to be happy 100 percent of the time in order to be truly happy with my life. On the other hand if I was miserable every day, even for part of the day, then clearly that was not “true happiness.” Chasing after “the things I wanted” was not really serving me. I had to find a better path.
I could see that the suggestions in traditional recovery might possibly lead me to contentment, but I wanted a less social path. In other words, I could see how some people who were active in AA and NA had found peace and contentment in their lives, but they were also dedicated to being very social in the AA community and in the meetings. This was not a good fit for my personality and I did not want to follow that path, so I wanted to figure out if I could achieve successful sobriety on my own.
The problem that I was experiencing was that it was not necessarily going very well. I was not miserable in my recovery, but I was not exactly happy, joyous and free either.
I realized deep down at some point that personal growth was the driver of success in recovery. I was studying people both in and outside of 12 step programs, and I had determined that success was all about taking positive action. The idea that a specific set of steps could lead everyone to sobriety was becoming a myth in my mind. Not that it could not work for some people, just that it was not a perfect match for everyone.
I had to find a more personal path to growth that would work for me. I could see that if I dove into AA and dedicated my life to the social aspect of the meetings, it could certainly work out for me. But I could also see that this was a forced solution. I could probably make it work but it was not the right fit for me. So I started instead on a path of personal growth and exploration.
What I learned after several years of this was very counter-intuitive: fixing the bad stuff in my life was far more effective at producing happiness than chasing my dreams was. Strange but true.
Fixing negatives in your life versus chasing your happiness
In my early recovery I had a number of goals and things that were suggested for me to pursue. I would separate these goals into two categories for the purpose of our discussion:
1) Fixing bad habits or negative things in my life.
2) Chasing positive goals.
Now when I was first starting out in my recovery, I believed that chasing happiness depended almost entirely on the second idea of chasing positive goals. For example, attaining the job or career that I always wanted.
But what I have learned after several years of recovery is that the majority of my happiness has instead come from eliminating negatives. This is a significant discovery when you consider how it affects your overall happiness in life. You get more bang for your buck by eliminating the negatives than you do by chasing the positives. Counter-intuitive but true.
For example, when I first got clean and sober I was still smoking cigarettes, and continued to do so for a few years of my recovery. At the same time, I was pursuing other “more positive” goals in my life, such as exercising, finishing a college degree, and finding employment that better matched my interests.
In retrospect, none of those goals brought me as much happiness as quitting smoking did. The same could be said of my drug and alcohol addiction–overcoming that brought me more happiness than nearly all of my other life experiences combined.
Eliminating a negative from your life may not sound exciting or glamorous, but in my experience it is extremely worthwhile to do.
How to prioritize and structure your goals for personal growth
Because of the counter-intuitive realization discussed above, we can learn something about how we might better prioritize our goals in recovery.
If we want to pursue happiness, we know that we cannot chase it directly, because that doesn’t work.
The key is to create freedom and set the stage for personal growth by seeking to eliminate the blocks in your life, or the negative things that hold you back from success.
In my life, drug and alcohol addiction was one of the major blocks. I had to get clean and sober before I could make growth in any other areas.
Once I was clean and sober, my next major block (or negative thing in my life) was nicotine addiction. Eliminating this negative was a much bigger deal than pursuing positive goals. Again, this is counter-intuitive.
When I was actually living through this process, I was clean and sober but I was still smoking cigarettes. I did this for several years and continued to smoke while telling myself that other goals were more important. At the time I really believed this. I believed, for example, that pursuing my education in college was more important than quitting cigarettes. So I continued to smoke while I attended classes in college, telling myself that I was doing OK.
The truth was that I was fooling myself. My nicotine addiction was, in fact, my greatest opportunity for personal growth. Quitting smoking was actually a greater benefit to me than earning a college degree. But I could not see that at the time because I was too close to the problems and did not really know how these goals would work out.
Today I know much more about how such goals will work out, because I have gone through the experience of reaching several of them (and failing at some too). In meeting a whole host of different goals in my recovery, I can now look back and realize that eliminating negatives is more powerful than pursuing positives.
Let me clarify that last statement because it is important. You have different goals in your recovery and in your life. Some of those goals are about pursuing positive things, such as “going back to college” or “starting a business” or “connecting with others in recovery.”
Other goals are about eliminating negatives in your life. Addictions are always negatives. So my drug and alcohol addiction are the first example of this. Nicotine addiction is completely separate from this and is another negative element to be conquered. Lack of fitness and laziness is another negative that I had to overcome.
What I am saying here in terms of happiness is that each of these negative things in my life was a huge opportunity. When deciding if I should pursue “positive goals” (such as a college degree) or to eliminate negative goals, the answer is now clear to me: Eliminate the negative stuff from your life as your first priority. This produces more happiness.
Now many people who hear this strategy will say something like: “Why not do both? Why not pursue the positive goals and also try to eliminate the negative stuff? Why limit yourself?”
That is a fair question, but I want you to pay very close attention to the answer.
The answer is that the negative things in your life prevent happiness. This will always be true, even if you attack all of your “positive” goals and achieve every single one of them. You will still be miserable because the negative stuff is holding you back. This is a truth that I had to learn myself over several years, and I am trying to help you out by giving you this insight right now. Find the negative things in your life and eliminate them as your first priority. Yes, you could do both—pursuing both positive goals and working to eliminate the negatives. But you should prioritize and focus heavily on eliminating the negative stuff as your top priority, because this is where 90 percent of your happiness comes from.
Some people believe that they will be miserable if they are not chasing their dreams and achieving them. The truth is that you will be miserable if you are stuck in addiction or negative patterns in your life. Misery breeds misery. The way out is to get the garbage out of your life and get back to a clean slate. When you achieve this “clean slate” you will be happy and content, even without your dreams fully realized. Freedom is the baseline of happiness. When you are stuck in addictions and negative patterns of living you are not truly free. Therefore your first step in pursuing happiness is to break free from the negative patterns of living.
Becoming comfortable with personal growth and change
In order to become happy in long term sobriety you have to become comfortable with personal growth and change. This is easier said than done because most people would prefer to get into a comfortable routine. For example, this is why most people in traditional recovery prefer to attend regular AA meetings as their primary strategy of recovery.
If this is your approach then you should ask yourself how happy the routine is making you. If it is not leading you to happiness then perhaps you should change your routine. Many people find that when they work closely with a sponsor in recovery they get more happiness and benefit out of it then they do from the daily meetings. Why is this? It is because they are actively pursuing growth and making changes based on their sponsorship, but not necessarily based on the daily meetings.
People who go to daily meetings do not necessarily use them to inspire personal growth and positive action. But most people who are working closely with a sponsor in recovery are taking action. Therefore if you want to be happy then you need to be more like the sponsorship group than the “daily meeting group.” Or rather, whatever motivates you take positive action is probably the path you should be following.
Some people in recovery can even find the motivation to push themselves to make positive changes, rather than depending on others in order to motivate them. This is ideal because then you are much more in control of your own recovery and less dependent on others.
Happiness in long term sobriety
If you want to be happy in long term recovery then you have to embrace the cycle of change and acceptance. Amazingly, after over a decade in recovery I have discovered that it all comes back to the simple Serenity prayer. That old battle between acceptance and change. Change what you can, and accept the rest.
In long term recovery this battle plays out as a cycle, from what I have experienced. The way it works for me is this:
I find something in my life that I do not accept. I want to change it. I believe that if I change it that I will be happier. So I take action and I push myself to grow. I may talk with other people to find out what they have done in order to change. And I may struggle and fail many times before I finally make a break through and create this new growth in my life. But generally I persist with such a goal until I finally achieve it (or determine that the goal is not worth achieving, and that my energy is better spent elsewhere).
At this point when I have achieved a goal it is time to pause and reflect. This is the acceptance part. So I go back to a state of acceptance, where I am happy and content with my life for a while. But eventually I find something else that deserves changing, and then the cycle starts over again.
If you want to change things up, you have to get a bit mad. This is another way of saying that you have to get motivated. You are not going to put out lots of energy into something unless you are truly motivated to take action. So this battle wages for the rest of your life between acceptance and personal growth. When you discover something in your life that could be better, you make a decision that you want to change it, and you do it. Then you go back to accepting things as they are.
People who are unhappy in long term sobriety are often doing one of two things. Either they are not accepting their situation for what it is in order to get serenity, or they are not pushing themselves to make the changes that they are responsible to make for themselves. I have found that most people are more guilty of inaction than they are of not practicing acceptance. In other words, the Big Book of AA is a bit misleading when it says “…and acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” For most people’s situations in recovery, this is poor advice. I have found that most people should be taking more positive action rather than using the “acceptance card” to justify their laziness.