You have probably heard the saying “I want what I want, when I want it.” Our current culture here in the modern day world seems to be adopting that as its motto. And it could be this very mindset that is ultimately robbing us of our happiness.
The Guardian says that “Our ability to perceive happiness has been sabotaged by our modern incessant quest for pleasure, which our consumer culture has made all too easy to satisfy. ”
In other words, there is a difference between the instant sugar rush of pleasure that you might get from an ice cream cone, versus the lasting happiness and satisfaction that you can get from a life well lived that involves discipline, hard work, and real purpose.
And perhaps this is the ultimate lesson in addiction recovery, that happiness cannot be derived from some form of instant pleasure, and our goal in recovery is not chase after pleasure on a day to day basis as if we are trying to replace the instant hits of alcohol or drugs that once gave us pleasure in our addiction.
When we first got addicted to our drug of choice we were able to experience instant pleasure, and we equated this with instant happiness. I can remember saying out loud to other people during my addiction: “This drug is amazing. I can be instantly happy at any given time just by using some of it. It’s amazing.” And what was really happening was that I was simply giving my brain a brief burst of pleasure, not a lasting dose of real happiness or any kind of life satisfaction. And so in the long run it was exposed that my addiction did not, in fact, make me a happy person. In fact I had become a miserable person who was constantly trying to believe the lie that I could achieve instant happiness just by drinking a few shots of liquor and smoking a joint. I was chasing pleasure every minute of every day and wondering why I was not happy.
The denial in my life had convinced me that the only way that I could ever be happy in life would be if I had an enormous pile of drugs and booze and money, such that I did not have to bother with things like work, and I could simply sit in an empty apartment and self medicate my life away, one hit and one drink at a time. That is honestly what I thought of as being the pinnacle of happiness, and was something to be achieved. I was stuck because I thought that if I could only use more drugs and drink more often that I would one day be happy by doing so. That was how my denial operated.
And so what we are finding more and more is that the pursuit of pleasure is not the path to happiness.
You might find yourself asking the question: “Well if seeking pleasure doesn’t make you happy, then what does?”
I’m glad you asked! While I do not claim to have all of the answers in the world, I have learned a bit of insight as to what really does make people happy, and there is constantly being more research done that continues to disprove the idea that we can chase pleasure to find happiness.
So one thing that needs to happen in recovery is that we need to shift from looking after our own self interests and start caring about the welfare of others. At least this is what is prescribed in AA and in the 12 steps. We are to “let self seeking slip away” and then try to carry a message of hope to others who may struggle with alcoholism and addiction.
This is the shift from pleasure seeking to purpose. If you earnestly seek this sort of work then you will realize that you have adopted a real purpose when you try to help others in recovery. So this looks and feels like real work, because it is real work, and therefore you will not get an instant rush of pleasure when you first start doing it. However, in the long run, if someone in AA is helping others, giving back to others, and saving the lives of newcomers who also struggle with addiction, then that person is going to be far happier overall than someone who just sits on the couch and watches cartoons all day.
In other words, purpose matters. Purpose leads to real happiness and lasting contentment, whereas chasing pleasure in the short run is unfulfilling.
Now another concept for finding real happiness in recovery has to do with personal growth, holistic health, and doing the hard work in recovery.
What do I mean by all that?
Essentially this: Your health can be measured in a holistic sense. Let’s break it down into categories.
You have your physical health, and things like exercise and good sleep and a lack of disease. You have your mental health and the lack of obsessive and compulsive thinking, which is something that must be cultivated through the recovery process. You have your emotional health and stability, which is typically a roller coaster when you first get clean and sober. But later on your emotional health can smooth out and you can find ways to take care of yourself emotionally. Then there is social health and the company you keep and the people that you associate with. In our addiction we often spent time with the wrong crowd, and in recovery we try to be around more positive people. Then there is spiritual health, which a lack of looks like selfishness. When we are spiritually fit we are grateful for all of it, and we never hesitate to extend a helping hand to others.
So this would be the holistic health model in recovery. You need to consider your health in all of those different areas, rather than to focus on just one of them.
Now, what does this have to do with happiness?
In early recovery you are often going to experience some points of misery that are holding you back from real happiness. These “points of misery” are generally character defects that can be identified, worked on, and eliminated.
So what this means is that in order to find lasting happiness and real contentment in recovery, you are going to have to do the work to fix the negative parts of your life, rather than to chase after pleasure.
So if you are out of shape then you may have to start exercising regularly. If you are engaging in self pity all the time you may have to do the work to practice gratitude and eliminate your feeling sorry for yourself. If you are full of resentment then you may have to work with a sponsor or a therapist in order to figure out how to process those resentments and move past them.
In other words, we all have negative things in our early recovery that hold us back from peace and contentment. In order to find any kind of lasting happiness in recovery we first have to do the work to identify those “pain points” and then eliminate them. This is the path to avoid pleasure seeking and find real peace and contentment in long term recovery.