The Science of Happiness and How to Apply It to Your Recovery
Following the commercial success of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s 2007 book, The How of Happiness, happiness and other emotions have gained the dignified status of being serious scientific matters—and perhaps the key to solving many social problems, including drug addiction.
It hardly needs to be said that addiction and lasting happiness rarely go together—yet nearly everyone who becomes addicted started using in an attempt to find happiness, or at least reduce unhappiness. Ask anyone in recovery why he or she took those first several drinks/snorts/joints/injections, and 99% of the time the answer will be a variant on one of the following:
- “Life felt so hopeless/boring, I just wanted to escape it.”
- “It helped me forget all the stress I was under.”
- “My doctor gave me a prescription to reduce pain/anxiety, and it got out of control.”
- “My friends were all using, and I didn’t want to lose them by being the odd one out.”
After someone gets addicted to the point that drug use is making them (and others) seriously unhappy, the answer to “Why can’t you stop?” is still tied to avoiding worse unhappiness: “I just feel so horrible when I try.” “Something always pushes my buttons and drives me back to it.” (Actually, “just stopping” without professional advice is not recommended, and may be seriously unwise. Withdrawal symptoms can turn physically life-threatening or trigger dangerous behavior.)
Those who stick out detox to the point drug cravings no longer dominate are very happy that it’s over—and overjoyed to be “free at last.” However, if they leave rehab without a long-term plan for reducing stress and avoiding temptation—for staying happy, if you will—the freedom may be only temporary, and any relapse into addiction will come with fresh misery generated by a sense of failure and guilt.
How can you effectively apply the science of happiness to your recovery?
CONSIDER YOUR “HAPPINESS SET POINT”
Most people’s overall happiness levels are about 50% biological—some of us really are “born” melancholy or moody. (Lest someone cite the proverb “Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be,” remember its origin is commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln, a pretty somber personality.) And while there’s little excuse for blaming a bad attitude on “what happens to you,” circumstances do affect happiness levels to the point of about 10% worth.
Don’t be discouraged: as Lyubomirsky points out, you can do a lot with the remaining 40% of the happiness pie. It may even help you feel better to know that being unable to “just cheer up” doesn’t make you blameworthy or deficient. If your natural “happiness set point” is on the low side (there are quizzes in The How of Happiness and at various websites), you can compensate by eating healthy, getting plenty of exercise and not overcommitting yourself socially or professionally.
GET A PSYCHOLOGICAL EVALUATION
If your natural happiness level (or the one generated by longstanding habits) is really low, consult a doctor to see whether you have clinical depression or another unhappiness-generating mental illness. (Over half of people with substance addiction also have mental disorders, so everyone in recovery should get evaluated in any case.) Treatment for depression may do wonders for your happiness level and the success of your addiction recovery. (Make sure the doctor knows about your substance addiction, especially if he or she recommends medication: most antidepressants aren’t strictly addictive, but anyone who’s been in the “pop a pill to kill unhappiness” habit should think twice before taking any mood-changer. If you do get an antidepressant medication, use it strictly according to prescription.)
DO SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE
In one experiment, Lyubomirsky found that students who performed five random acts of kindness each week saw their happiness levels rise significantly. That only confirms what most people know by experience: helping others willingly and voluntarily just makes you feel good. Volunteer for a service group or become a support partner in your sobriety network, and you’ll get your mind off yourself and significantly reduce “I need a drink” self-pity.
FOLLOW YOUR PASSIONS
One caveat to the “help others” principle: it only works if you do it because you want to, not because you feel you have to. There’s no happiness in feeling like a victim under obligation, so volunteer for a cause you support with all your heart.
Ditto for leisure activities and special projects: choose yours because you love them, and never mind what others think. And while you’re at it, set a few really audacious goals that follow your wildest dreams.
TAKE LIFE SLOWLY
Don’t, however, get so busy—or so impatient to achieve a goal—that you wear yourself out. Fatigue, combined with a growing sense of “this is impossible,” is a happiness killer.
Enjoy the everyday journey of life, not just the major destinations. Savor the world with all your senses. Minimize “hurry generators” by making shorter to-do lists, avoiding multitasking and turning off your phone occasionally. Keep a daily journal of little things you’re grateful for.
MAKE TIME FOR OTHERS
“It takes two to be glad,” said Elbert Hubbard in an acknowledgment that the best happiness is shared happiness. Too often, those we love get scraps of our time after the felt “obligations” are finished. Rethink your priorities, and make regular time to enjoy fun activities, plus times to just talk or sit, with friends, family and even your Higher Power.
PRACTICE GOOD OVERALL HEALTH HABITS
Too much junk food or too little sleep upsets your brain’s chemical balance and makes it harder to feel happy. Shortage of exercise leads to shortage of natural endorphins, which also reduces your positive-feelings level. Give your body every reason to feel good, and your mind will follow suit.
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF
The only way to be happy with yourself is to start with the person you are now. Make a list of your good qualities, and review it when you’re tempted to feel like a loser. Write down your dreams, and visualize yourself achieving them. Spend regular time with people who love and believe in you, and believe them when they tell you what they like about you.
Finally, if your self-image says “I’m an unhappy person” (as opposed to “I’m a naturally melancholy person, but that’s okay: I have creativity and a soft heart to compensate”), remember that chronic unhappiness can itself be a form of addiction. The idea of becoming a happier person may actually hurt your sense of identity, or your pride (“If I don’t feel sorry for myself, who will?”). Remember that you’ve already taken one courageous step out of your comfort zone and old identity by getting help for your chemical addiction. The good feelings that came with that will be at least equaled by the joy of applying the science of happiness to your recovery and life.