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A license to be happy

November 18, 2013
by Nicholas A. Roes, PhD
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Road to Recovery

If there is one protective factor that’s more important than all the others, it’s happiness—just as surely as despair, loneliness, emptiness, fear and frustration serve as risk factors. Happiness—true deep-down, love-of-life happiness—is within reach of our clients, and they deserve no less.

One of the biggest obstacles many people with substance abuse problems need to overcome is the idea that they could never be happy. They view treatment as preparation for an existence filled only with resisting temptation, sacrificing all pleasure, and avoiding any possibility of having fun. So it is really important for practitioners to offer clients a realistic alternative to a life of “white-knuckling” it.

We need to avoid slogans and fortune-cookie advice, and focus on down-to-earth, proven strategies that can lead our clients to a happier life. That’s where the science of happiness comes in. Though people since Socrates have offered advice on how to be happy, scientists only recently have begun testing these theories to try to determine the active ingredients in happiness.

A learned phenomenon

More and more research is supporting the idea that people can learn to be happy. Contributing factors seem to include good relationships, as well as helpful personality characteristics such as optimism, gratitude, forgiveness, and kindness to others.

Development of these helpful traits is built into the 12 Steps, and almost every other treatment approach as well, but sometimes clients do not receive this positive message. They get distracted by a focus on what they are losing, rather than what they are gaining.

Much of what we hear at our treatment programs contributes to this misperception. Some of the most popular advice, such as “take it one day at a time,” “once an addict, always an addict,” and “avoid people, places and things,” supports the idea that recovery is a bummer.

So help your clients increase their happiness while in your care, and teach them how to continue to build and maintain it in aftercare, by helping them focus on positive goals. Even abstinence is a negative goal (not doing something). It’s really hard to get people excited about not doing something.

“Quality sobriety” offers a more positive way to frame it for clients—almost everyone has the common goal of happiness. A relatively small shift in focus can make a big difference in the motivation of your clients. Concentrate more on starting the good things that make up happiness, and a little bit less on stopping the things we know are unhelpful.

Clients need to give some serious thought to the specifics of what happiness would look like for them. “Miracle questions,” which ask clients to imagine life when most of their problems are behind them, can be very helpful.

The more specific and detailed the vision, the more it will motivate your clients. The counselor’s job is to collaborate with clients to put a realistic plan in place, and to help them form a realistic view of their future potential. The Miracle Method, by Scott D. Miller and Insoo Kim Berg (W.W. Norton, 1995), and many books since, provides guidance for counselors interested in this technique.

The main ingredients

Research points to a number of common denominators as ingredients of happiness.

Optimism. Optimism is one of the most researched ingredients of happiness. Optimists and pessimists in the exact same situation have strikingly different degrees of happiness. Many cognitive techniques build optimism by identifying and changing pessimistic patterns of thought called catastrophizing, over-generalization, or fortune telling. The University of Pennsylvania’s website is a good resource for helping clients build optimism.

Gratitude. There also is a great deal of evidence to support the idea that gratitude is connected to happiness. Like optimism, gratitude carries health benefits and contributes to a longer life. A helpful article in The New York Times, appropriately published two years ago on Thanksgiving, offered many ideas that can be used with clients to develop gratitude. Among them are gratitude visits and gratitude lists.

Forgiveness. Research has clearly established a link between forgiveness and mental health. Virginia Commonwealth University offers free materials for forgiveness group leaders and participants.

Mutually satisfying relationships. By far, intimate relationships constitute the greatest predictor of happiness. People who have close friends, friendly neighbors, and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating or sleeping, writes Bill O’Hanlon in The Science of Happiness: A Positive Psychology Update.

Those who have these personality characteristics are likely to have better relationships, and those with better relationships are likely to develop and strengthen these same characteristics. So progress in any one of these areas likely will contribute to progress in all of the others.

Let’s not offer our clients “rot gut” abstinence. Let’s offer them top-shelf sobriety. Let’s believe in them and their power to control their own destiny. And let’s help them become happier than they ever imagined was possible.