The Surprising Science of Optimism in Addiction Recovery

The Surprising Science of Optimism in Addiction Recovery


So here is how you should use the power of optimistic thinking in addiction recovery.

One, you should be hopeful that you can live a different sort of life. This is the first bit of optimism that will take you from the chaos and misery of your addiction and propel you into recovery.

The problem with this is that you really have to wait for that magic moment in which surrender finally overtakes you.

In other words, can a struggling alcoholic just randomly, on a whim, decide to have hope for sobriety, and then ask for help and get the treatment that they so desperately need?

I don’t believe that they can. Instead, that alcoholic goes through a great deal of struggle and turmoil and then they eventually reach a point in which surrender finds them. They don’t choose to surrender because it sounds like a neat idea. Instead, they arrive at a point of misery and chaos in which surrender is the only available option that they have not yet tried.

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So that hope that they get when they are at the lowest possible point, that is the first bit of optimism that is necessary to get started in recovery. The alcoholic or addict is saying “well, things cannot get any worse, so I may as well go to rehab and see what happens, even though I do not expect for that to help me or make me happy.”

It may be just the tiniest bit of hope, but it is hope. And so the alcoholic surrenders and they ask for help and they go to treatment (hopefully).

So then the struggling addict is in rehab and they are starting to learn about their disease of addiction and how they have to overcome it. They start going to groups, talking with their peers, and going to AA or NA meetings. They learn about the spiritual path to recovery and they start to develop a spiritual connection with something outside of themselves. They begin to transform their life in order that they may avoid drugs or alcohol in the future.

Now when you are in early recovery and you are going to meetings and you just got out of rehab, that is a very vulnerable time in your recovery journey.

And there is one school of thought that says that you should be very cautious and go to lots of AA meetings and basically to do whatever you are told to do by people in recovery. And there is another school of thought that says that you should dive back into life and figure out what you want and to go after it.

So here are a few suggestions for the struggling addict or alcoholic on how they might increase their level of optimism when they are in early recovery during this period of vulnerability.

One, do not expect to be happy every single minute of every single day. That is not a realistic goal and that is not what optimism is about.

Science and researchers have been doing a lot of studies over the last decade or so about the science of happiness, and much has been learned.

It is not realistic to think that we should be constantly happy. Instead, human beings are designed to go through a range of emotions, and overall we can still be generally happy, but we can get ourselves into trouble if we expect to be happy every minute of every day. Our expectations will let us down and we will be miserable in comparison to this expectation.

Speaking of expectations and comparisons, think for a moment about social media. Research is telling us that Facebook and other social media websites are essentially making us miserable.

Why? Because people do not post their failures or their misery, they only post “the good stuff.” So if you are having a bad day and you look at your Facebook feed, all you see are the highlights and the happy moments of everyone else’s day. So your brain cannot help but to make comparisons. That is what your brain does best. It compares your present reality with everyone else.

Therefore, looking at social media all the time is actually a real downer for your brain. It’s not helping your cause to remain positive and optimistic.

Expecting happiness all the time is a recipe for failure.

But in addition to this, chasing after happiness all the time doesn’t really work either. While you may have some high points in your life, chasing happiness is a fool’s errand.


Because if you look at real life satisfaction, you will be able to look back and see that it was not the thing that you wanted and finally got that made you happy, but it was the person that you became as you chased that thing down.

For example, what produced more “happiness” for me, buying the nice car that I wanted, or running the marathon?

The surprising truth is that running that awful 26 miles led to more positive feelings. But why?

It turns out that process and the effort and the work that went into the marathon training are what really produced life satisfaction for me, that is not what “made me happy,” but instead, in taking all of that positive action, the natural byproduct of that training led to an increase in happiness.

We tend to think in terms of “I want this thing, and when I get it, I will be happy.”

The real formula is closer to “I want to achieve this goal, and in going through that process, happiness was one of the results.”

So instead of chasing happiness for the sake of happiness, we should instead seek to “do the next right thing” in our lives. We can still set goals, we can still want to achieve things, and we can still have hopes and dreams and aspirations.

But we need to keep those expectations in check and realize that it is not necessarily the getting of things or the achievement of the goal that makes us happy, but instead it is the journey that we endure for those things.

The other suggestion that I would have is to turn negative situations around and use optimism to make them into a learning opportunity, or as a challenge for self improvement.

So in each example, take a seemingly “bad” situation and turn it into an opportunity for good. Find the optimistic angle:

“The car is in the shop for a week? Good. Now I can get in my exercise every day with no excuses, because I have to walk!”

“The church says we can no longer do our AA meeting here on Friday nights? Good. Now we can find a more stable venue and create an even better meeting schedule for our area.”

“We don’t have enough money to cover all our expenses? Good. That gives us an opportunity to streamline our budget, create new income sources, and live more efficiently.”

If you get good at turning a situation around and finding the opportunity for growth, then this is the pinnacle of how optimism can enhance your sobriety.

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