Is it possible to have both happiness and serenity in sobriety?
The answer is a resounding “yes,” but getting there does involve some serious work.
I never believed that this was even possible for me, even on the day that I surrendered and became sober. I honestly did not believe that I would ever be happy again. I thought that my only way to be happy in life was to be drunk or high. I had absolutely zero hope that I could achieve anything like real happiness in sobriety.
Luckily, I was wrong. My fear turned out to be completely unfounded. I did achieve happiness in sobriety, and it did not even take that long really.
To be exact, I think that after only a few short weeks in recovery I was already back to a point of happiness in my life that I thought of as being “average.” I wasn’t on top of the world just yet, but I was already much happier than I ever expected to be when I first put down the bottle. And this was just a few weeks into sobriety!
This changed over time even more, because the positive benefits of sobriety started to accumulate. Instead of just making one positive change in my life (quitting drinking), I continued to make more and more positive changes over time. Part of this was because people in recovery were encouraging me to make these changes in order to remain sober.
In other words, the key to preventing relapse was personal growth.
Stopping drinking is pretty easy. The hard part is in staying stopped. How does the alcoholic stay stopped? They have to work at it. If you don’t do any work in sobriety then it is very difficult (impossible?) to stay stopped. In other words, relapse prevention requires continuous effort. It takes real work and effort to avoid relapse in long term sobriety.
That might sound like a real chore to you, but I can promise you that it is all worth it. Why is it worth it? Because all of that effort gets you something. It gets you more than just sobriety, which is really gift enough, but you actually get a whole lot more. You get personal growth. You get the benefits that come along with positively changing your life. Life gets better and better every day, and over time that adds up to a whole lot.
You can think of it in terms of percentages if that helps. Say you quit drinking today and your life is therefore 1 percent better than it was yesterday.
Then every day you continue to push yourself to improve your life in other positive ways. Maybe you improve your sleep better, start exercising, work on your relationships, or whatever the case may be. Every day you take an active role in improving your life.
By pushing yourself to make these positive changes your life may improve by, let’s say, one percent each week. Or maybe some changes are fairly quick and easy and therefore your life improves by one percent in a single day.
Now think about staying sober and doing this work over the course of a few years time. What happens over three years time when you are improving your life by one percent each and every week? I can tell you what happens: Your life becomes absolutely amazing. And the benefits are such that you can never predict them all.
You probably don’t believe that unless you have actually experienced it for yourself yet. In other words, you may be saying to yourself “OK, yeah I get it, if you exercise every day and you stay sober then you feel better, have more energy, blah blah blah.” No….in reality it is so much more than that, because of the interaction between the different benefits that you are getting in your recovery journey.
For example, maybe you get sober and you are also exercising. What you cannot predict from where you are at now is how that exercise is going to enhance your emotional stability. Or how it will help to increase the clarity in your thinking. Or how it may function as a moving meditation and give you all sorts of cognitive benefits and stress relief.
Now let us imagine that you are also improving other areas of your life, for example, better nutrition and better sleeping habits. Those changes combined with your sobriety and with the exercise may create positive benefits in a completely separate area of your life that you cannot possibly predict or foresee right now. Maybe it will enhance a relationship that you are struggling with, or give you mental inspiration or spark new creativity. The point is that you cannot predict exactly how your life will benefit in recovery when you take on a holistic approach to recovery, because the positive changes that you are making in these different areas of your life will start to interact with each other.
When I quit smoking it gave me the strength and the discipline that I needed to be able to take on some really tough goals in my life. I had no idea that quitting cigarettes would become a source of strength and motivation for other areas of my life. I did not understand how that would even be possible until I did it, I succeeded at it (finally!), and then I got all fired up about it. I could not have predicted the positive downstream benefits of quitting smoking. I honestly thought things like “well, if I quit then I will be healthier probably, maybe breath a bit better.” That was quite an understatement! Instead, after I quit smoking I said to myself “Oh my gosh….I am powerful beyond anything I realized, I can set goals and achieve them, I can use the power of focus to accomplish nearly any goal that I choose.” It was like meeting that goal awakened a sleeping giant within me, and it gave me the positive inspiration that I needed to go tackle some monumental challenges. Specifically, I then set out to run a marathon and build a business. I remember drawing the inspiration to tackle both of those goals as a result of having achieved a previous goal in my life. Hence, the importance of momentum. Achieve one goal, use it as a platform to set another, to reach higher.
Building a foundation where happiness can occur naturally rather than forcing your desires on the world
If you want to achieve happiness in sobriety then do not try to force it.
Don’t just say “I am sober and I want to be happy, and I demand that the world cater to this desire for me!”
That doesn’t generally work. If you try to force happiness, it will squeeze right out of your hands. Or at least this is what happens to me.
Instead, what you should do is to start living your life in a way where happiness can just occur naturally.
How do you do that?
A couple of suggestions:
1) Do the work in early recovery to build the foundation. That means listening to other people who have created sobriety before you did. People who are already living the life that you want. They call this “modeling,” and in recovery it is generally done through AA or NA sponsorship. Generally not a bad idea if you can find someone who is willing to mentor you. You can do the work without a guide, of course, but there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Having some sort of direct guide in recovery makes it more efficient and you will waste less time and energy. You get to the positive benefits much quicker if you know exactly what to do. Side note: It is still a lot of work!
2) Don’t seek happiness. Instead, seek to eliminate negativity in your life, seek emotional balance, seek to help others and reach out to them.
3) Do the work that is in front of you. Be useful, be helpful.
4) Practice gratitude daily. Make gratitude lists every day. Say prayers of thanks to the universe, to your higher power.
The balancing act between both serenity AND happiness is harder than you think
If you want to be happy then you have to do the hard work that is required to build a proper foundation in your life.
If you want serenity then you have to learn how to accept the situation as it is now without fighting to change things.
Those two things may sound a bit contradictory. And they certainly can be, though not always.
Think of the serenity prayer: You accept what you can’t change, and you work hard to change what you can. Knowing the difference is at least half the battle.
This is why recovery is always a bit of a balancing act. You can’t just blanket accept everything and be totally blissful all the time. It doesn’t work like that. If you take that approach then eventually the negativity will pile up because you are not doing the work. You are not doing the work of “changing the things you can.”
If you go to the other extreme and work like a madman to change every little thing that bothers you in your life (without accepting anything) then you will be unhappy as well. Or rather, you will be chasing happiness at the expense of your serenity. Your mind has trained you to believe that if you work hard to change things and get your way then you will finally be happy. This is never really true though because as soon as you achieve a given goal in life (doesn’t matter what it is) your brain simply shifts to another goal, something else to latch onto in order to be happy in the future. This is madness. You will never be happy this way, because your mind just keeps putting the carrot out further in front of you every time you reach a goal.
The key is to learn how to be happy right now, in this present moment. How can you do that? One way is with acceptance. If you accept the current moment, the good and the bad and the ugly of the current moment, then you can be happy with it. But if you do that, then you cannot fight to change things in that moment. You must choose between accepting the moment or fighting to change it.
This is the central duality that I think is at the core of recovery. It is the same sort of duality that the alcoholic struggles with when they drink to excess, wanting the euphoria of the drunk but hating the negative consequences that come along with it. The question becomes: How do we transcend this duality? How do we both accept the present moment and experience serenity in it, while also pushing ourselves to make the positive changes in life that we need to maintain sobriety? How do we choose happiness and change at the same time?
One way is to enjoy the process, to recognize the process, to learn to indulge in the unfolding of each event. So realize that the process is the goal.
Say you want are walking up a mountain to enjoy a beautiful sunset at the top. It is a tough hike. Your mind is stuck in the future, it wants to be at the top, resting, and enjoying the pretty sunset. And therefore the mind decides that it is not happy right now, but once you are at the summit it will allow you to be happy then, in the future.
This is wrong. This is not the right way to think about things. You must recognize this sort of “time traveling” that your mind is doing where it says it will be happy at some point in the future. As soon as you realize that your mind is doing this, that your mind is deciding that it will be happy in the future when something else occurs, you must redirect your mind and tell it: “NO! We should enjoy the process now, we should enjoy the hike itself, the process, the journey. We should savor every moment of it, enjoy it as it unfolds, both the good and the bad. The struggle and the triumph both.”
It takes conscious thought to make this happen. First, you have to realize when your mind is “time traveling.” You have to pay attention to your mind, watch your thoughts, and identify when your mind has decided that it doesn’t want to be happy right now, but instead it will be happy in the future. And when that happens you need to deliberately practice gratitude right now, in the present moment. So you might say “I am grateful to be on this hike, to be healthy enough to struggle up this mountain, to be alive and able to appreciate the sun and the wind on my face, this is a beautiful day and I am lucky to be able to enjoy this exercise, even if it is really tough or challenging.” Turn the moment around by practicing gratitude.
Sometimes you have to work hard to find the silver lining. Sometimes you have to dig a bit to figure out where the gratitude is in the present moment. You can always find it though if you look hard enough, because existence itself is reason enough to be grateful. “I think, therefore I am.” If you can even have a thought and have awareness at all then that is a gift from the universe. Nothing more is really required to be totally amazed and grateful with the present moment. We just have to remind ourselves to practice gratitude.
The counter-intuitive requirement for eliminating negativity in your life as a precursor to happiness
If you want to be both happy and serene then you need to “do the work.”
In early recovery, especially in a 12 step program such as AA or NA, they have you work through the steps.
Part of that process involves taking a close look at your life (moral inventory) and figuring out what your character defects are. Then you do the work to eliminate those. You take action in order to identify those negative elements of yourself and then to purge them.
This is really important. When I first got sober and read through the 12 steps, I did not like this focus on changing the negative parts of myself. I said “why not focus on the positive instead?”
And what I learned is that this is a waste of time. Or rather, it is not the best use of your energy. Sure, you can focus on the positive instead, but you won’t be happy.
Because chasing happiness doesn’t work, and also because leaving those negative things in your life will eventually drag you down.
If you listen to people in AA you will hear this truth come up over and over again. For example, you will hear someone tell their story in AA, how they got sober in the past, and everything was going great and seemed very positive for them, but they still relapsed. And they relapsed over and over again, until they finally worked through the 12 steps. The question is, why?
The answer is because that person had negative things in their life that was holding them back from happiness and serenity, negative things like fear, shame, guilt, resentment, and self pity. And in working the steps, you set out to eliminate those things.
So you can get sober and focus on the positive all you want, but it won’t make you happy or serene in the long run unless you also “do the work” to eliminate the negative stuff.
This is counter-intuitive. Meaning, it seems like it would be a good idea to ignore the negative and focus on the positive instead.
Don’t do that. It won’t work. You will remain unhappy.
The key to being happy in sobriety (or in life) is to eliminate the unhappiness.
You are naturally happy. You are supposed to be happy. But somewhere along the way you learned fear, you learned guilt, you learned resentment, you learned self pity. And now you need to unlearn those things, so that you can create a foundation in which happiness can occur naturally again.
That takes work. You have to identify your resentments, your self pity, your guilt, your shame, your anger, all of that negative stuff. You must identify it and then eliminate it.
You can do whatever you want in recovery, but if you don’t do the work to eliminate those negative emotions, then you will never be truly happy.
As trite as it may sound, happiness really is a choice
If happiness is a choice in the present moment, serenity reflects your past choices
We hear it all the time, and it really is true of course: “Happiness is a choice.”
If that is true, then your serenity in the present moment is a reflection of your past choices. Because if you are angry and upset emotionally then you cannot necessarily choose that emotion.
To an extent, you can choose your thoughts. And you can choose to shift your attitude. This is how gratitude is so powerful. You can change your attitude by thinking differently.
But you cannot choose your emotions, or your emotional state. If your dog dies and you are sad, you cannot just change that instantly by thinking differently. The sadness is real, it remains there no matter how you choose to think about it.
And therefore your serenity is really a reflection of your current emotional state. You don’t get to change it instantly. That was the promise that our drug of choice made to us, that we could have instant bliss, instant happiness.
In recovery, we have to work for it. But we can still achieve it all the same. It just takes a bit more effort.
Are you willing to do the work in recovery? Are you willing to eliminate those negative emotions, to practice gratitude every day, to find the balance between acceptance and growth? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!