The idea behind addiction recovery is not just that you stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs, but that you build a life worth living as well.
Do you believe that you deserve to be happy in recovery? Do you believe that it should be easy, that it should just come to you automatically?
Part of how happy you are in recovery has to do with how you perceive this particular challenge. I would say that the best attitude that you can have is to be grateful as much as possible for every little bit of peace, joy, and serenity that comes your way. But not all of us can do that, and sometimes it is learning process before we can “get there.”
Do you have a right to be happy just because you stopped drinking alcohol?
Alcoholics and drug addicts are not necessarily all that different from other people when it comes to happiness and overall life satisfaction. Many people are unhappy, not just alcoholics.
But in particular, when an alcoholic or a drug addict sobers up, they are generally not in a state of blissful peace and joy right off the bat.
The first question is: Why not?
A big part of this has to do with the patterns and behaviors that were established during your addiction. So there are bound to be some left over things, some negative things, that will hold you back from happiness in recovery.
Everyone in sobriety has the same “right” to happiness, but that right is not just granted to you for nothing. You have to work for it.
And so there is the real truth of the matter: You can be happy in recovery, just as non-alcoholics might find happiness in life as well. But it is not automatic. It doesn’t just drop into your lap. Many people are lazy and they want everything handed to them and they are upset when they don’t get it. They have a bad attitude. Instead, they need to realize that in order to achieve real peace and contentment in life they are going to have to put in some effort.
The question is, what does that effort look like?
Because if you get right down to the heart of the matter, every alcoholic and drug addict has already been chasing happiness the whole time. That was the whole point of their addiction. They believed that they could find happiness in a bottle. And they continued to chase after that happiness until they had to admit to themselves (finally) that it wasn’t working. That is the moment when they finally work through their denial.
If chasing happiness in the form of alcoholism and drug addiction is a dead end, then what is the real solution in recovery? Just because you leave the alcohol and the drugs behind does not mean that you will automatically be happy.
So what is the answer?
Get sober and then chase after your fantasies? Try to run from one pleasure to the next in search of the next big thing? How do you achieve fulfillment?
What is the true path to happiness in recovery? Is it getting what you want and living out your fantasies?
There are essentially two ways that a person in sobriety might try to achieve happiness.
The first path we might think of as the direct path. This is where you chase after happiness directly.
Figure out what you want, then chase it. Achieve the goal. Be happy.
Only the problem is, this method doesn’t really work all that well. In fact, it almost never results in true happiness.
There are at least a few problems with chasing happiness directly. One is that we often don’t know what we want.
Human beings, they have found lately (through controlled studies actually) are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy in life.
So we might believe that certain things will make us happy and that if we could just achieve some specific goals then we could finally be happy. This almost never works.
One good example of how bad we are at predicting happiness is with the best and worst case scenario. They have tested this in real studies and found that people are terrible at predicting their happiness.
So the best case scenario for most people is “win the lotto” or come into a huge sum of money.
The worst case scenario for most people is “paralyzed” or “incurable disease” that renders them rather helpless.
And yet when they actually study people in these situations, what they find is surprising. The people who experience the worst case scenarios are often times just as happy as they were in the past, and people who experience the best case scenario are often times no happier than they were in the past. The actual data in these studies is pretty astounding, and it leans heavily in favor of the idea that we are really, really bad at predicting our own happiness.
Now then…..do you really think that recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are exempt from this tendency?
No, we are not.
We are just as bad at predicting our happiness as anyone else is….whether that be a lottery winner or someone who just got paralyzed from the neck down.
Chasing after your fantasies in recovery will not, as a general rule, make you happy.
Now I am not suggesting that you never set a goal during you recovery. What I am suggesting, though, is that you should never make your happiness contingent on meeting that goal.
Your brain should not be saying “I’ll be happy once I finally finish my degree and get a better job.”
Or your brain should not be saying “I’ll be happy when I finally achieve this random goal, or that random goal.” It doesn’t matter how important you believe that goal is, or how big of a deal it is to you. After you meet that goal it will quickly become old news. It doesn’t matter if it is something huge like becoming the president of a country or inheriting a billion dollars. Your happiness will NOT change permanently after meeting this fantasy goal.
And yet we think it will. We believe that if we can just finally achieve this one thing, then we will finally be happy.
It’s a lie. We will just move the carrot further out in front of ourselves, and delay our happiness again.
No, the only way to be happy is to find that happiness right now, in this very moment.
You can’t be happy in the future. The future never comes. It is always right now! If you are not happy now, then when will you be happy? If you are saying “after achieving some goal in the future” then you are lying to yourself and living a fantasy.
You can’t chase after happiness by setting a goal and thinking that meeting that one goal will make you happy. It doesn’t work.
So if that doesn’t work, then what does?
What is the real price that you pay in recovery (or in life) to achieve real happiness?
The price of peace, contentment, and lasting joy in sobriety
I think that the price of happiness is paid in two separate parts.
The first part is in gratitude. This has to do with your attitude at the present moment.
Again, you cannot really be grateful in the future. You can only be grateful in the present moment. It’s all happening right now. Either you are grateful, or you are feeling selfish. Which is it? One is conducive to happiness. That would be gratitude. On the other hand, if you are ungrateful and selfish right now, then you are saying to the universe “I won’t be happy until my demands are met!” And the universe responds back to you: “Well OK, fine. Be unhappy, and keep making your little demands. I don’t really care! You could, instead, choose gratitude though….”
That is the first part of happiness, in the choice that you make in every moment as to whether to be grateful or not.
If you can drop to your knees right now and kiss the earth in front of you, I would argue that you have plenty to be grateful for. There are people in prison right now who are actually grateful to be alive. Who am I to lose sight of gratitude just because they raised the price of my cable television or whatever? That’s ridiculous. The miracle is that I am alive and breathing right now. Even my freedom is a bonus on top of the fact that I just simply exist.
The second part of happiness is the idea that you cannot chase after it directly. You can only achieve peace and contentment indirectly, through doing the work in recovery. And once you achieve peace and are practicing gratitude then you will start to spontaneously experience real happiness. You can’t really force it though. If you try to force it then it will always remain elusive.
So how do you do that?
You do the hard work in recovery by taking an honest look at your life and cleaning up the negative stuff.
Every drug addict and alcoholic has negativity in their life that is left over from the addiction.
Most of this is internal. Some of it is external. You need to work on both and take real action to fix this stuff.
So let’s say that you work at a job where everyone drinks and uses drugs with you. That is an external problem, it is in the outside world, and you need to make a healthy change. The same thing might come up in terms of toxic relationships in your life. You may need to eliminate certain relationships in order to move forward and become healthy in sobriety. Again, that is an external change. It is outside of your brain.
Now there are also internal changes that all exist in your mind. These are things such as fear, anger, resentment, self pity, shame, guilt, and so on. These things can eat you up and drive you to relapse if you are not careful.
And even if they don’t cause you to relapse, they will still cause you to be unhappy in recovery. They consume your mind and they create negative emotions. You don’t want to live like this if you can help it; you want to be happy. Peace and contentment arrives when you eliminate all of these things. The fear, the anxiety, the anger, the shame, the guilt, and so on. All of it has to go.
So how do you do that?
It takes work. It takes months or years of effort. It is an ongoing process. I have done a lot of this kind of work in my own recovery. This is how you achieve peace.
It is not comfortable work. It is not easy to do. It is not fun to do this stuff. It takes real effort and you will feel real discomfort. You have to push through the discomfort and do it anyway. And then when you realize that it is working, that it is helping, you dig a little bit deeper. Get a little bit more honest with yourself. This is how you reveal the real “you,” the person that you were meant to be in life, in recovery.
But in order to get to that person, in order to achieve that ideal, you have to shed the dead weight. You have to get rid of the fear, the anger, the resentment, the self pity, and all of the negative emotions that hold you back.
Do you have a right to be happy in life?
Sure, everyone does. But if you have all sorts of baggage or negative emotions swirling around in your mind then guess what? You are not really going to be happy. Because even if you chase after “happiness” and you meet all of your goals, you will still be unhappy in life if you fail to do the work I am talking about here.
In other words, the price you pay for happiness is to eliminate the negative stuff in your life. The negative emotions. The traps that are laying within your mind. You have to clean that stuff up and do the hard work in order to create a foundation where real happiness can occur.
So the question is, how do you do this work? How do you eliminate the negative garbage in your mind? What steps do you take to do that?
What steps to take if you are unhappy in recovery
If you are sober and unhappy then the bottom line is that you have some work to do.
Don’t be afraid of this work. Don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you are unhappy.
First of all, be grateful that you identified the problem. You discovered that you were unhappy and now you are going to do something about it. Great! You are already making progress. This is a good thing. In addition to finding happiness you will probably also prevent relapse. Because eventually a dry drunk will go drink. If you are miserable for too long in recovery then eventually relapse starts to look pretty good. And obviously we don’t want that, because it just spirals down into more and more misery.
So one thing that you can do if you want to “do the work” that I am speaking of is to go to AA meetings, get a sponsor, and work through the steps.
This works but I do not necessarily recommend it to everyone in recovery. AA is not for everyone, meetings are not for everyone, and sponsorship is not for everyone.
In addition to that, I would argue that the 12 steps themselves are not magical in any way and that they are but one path to sobriety. They are NOT the only path. Nor are they even necessarily the best path in some people’s opinion. But they do work if you actually follow through with them and do the work involved.
So if AA is convenient and you have a sponsor that you trust then this might be the best path for you to take.
Another thing you might do is to see a counselor or a therapist in sobriety. They can guide you to take action as well, and help you to see what your challenges are so that you can avoid relapse.
You have to ask yourself: If I am not going to go to AA or get professional help from a therapist, who is going to tell me how to get sober?
And if you try to get sober completely on your own and you fail, then you have to get honest with yourself to the point where you realize that you need some help. If you relapse when trying to do it all alone then you have to admit that you need more help to make it work.
All of this assumes that you have at least made it through the detox process and have a bit of stability in early recovery. If you are not even clean and sober yet then my biggest suggestion to you would be to go check into a 28 day residential treatment program. This is generally the best option for anyone who is still struggling with physical dependency.
If, on the other hand, you have been sober for a while but you are still unhappy in life, then you have a decision to make. Do you want to continue your slow and dangerous slide towards relapse, or do you want to take action and seek new direction so that you can start cultivating gratitude and building peace in your life?
Strive for peace, not happiness. Cultivate gratitude. These are the principles that will create future happiness indirectly. Most people struggle to do these things because it is always so much easier to chase after whatever shiny object is in front of our brains right now instead.
You have no excuse not to do the work
If you are already sober but you are unhappy then you have a simple choice to make: Do the work, or not. It really is that simple.
If you don’t know exactly what “doing the work” entails then you need to ask for help.
Today, after 13 years sober, I mostly know what it means to “do the work.” But believe it or not, sometimes I still have to learn a new lesson. Sometimes I still have to reach out to someone in recovery with real wisdom and ask them for help. Sometimes others need to help me be accountable in my own journey, even after 13 years of solid sobriety.
It is a learning process and it never really ends. You don’t get to put your feet up and be lazy after being sober for 3 years. You don’t “arrive” and finish with your recovery journey. It just keeps going, and you have to keep working at it. You have to keep learning. You have to keep doing the work.
The art of staying sober in long term sobriety is really the art of continuously reinventing yourself.
What does that mean?
It means that you get honest with yourself, over and over again, and you keep eliminating the negative in your life.
That’s hard work. It is exhausting. And it isn’t much fun being critical of ourselves. We would rather be proud than be humble. We would rather be confident than to ask for help.
Yet one path leads to growth (humble, asking for help) and the other path can cause relapse.
What about you, do you expect to be happy just because you sobered up? Or do you believe that there should be some work involved to achieve real happiness in sobriety? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!