We know that treatment for addiction
is effective. However, relapse rates during treatment and soon after remain high. As a result, we have many opportunities to improve the way we deliver care.
Addicts are the experts in themselves, and if recovery is not motivating and rewarding, if they don’t find a heightened sense of meaning, they will not stay sober.
“Positive recovery,” therefore, aims to fill the gaps in how addiction is treated through a balanced approach that attends not only to the disease, but also to the elements that make life most worth living.
Addiction results when people are misguided in pursuing those elements, a.k.a. happiness. Happiness does not result from single, or even heroic, leaps, but is cultivated over a lifetime of repetitively forging good habits, building character, and adding to one’s own and other people’s well-being. Enduring well-being, then, requires that positive habit-driving activities become automatic—and become who you are.
To borrow from the PERMA Model for Well-Being developed by renowned positive psychologist Martin Seligman, the building blocks for lasting recovery from addiction, PERM, can be broken down this way:
Addiction develops when human beings seek out the following through drugs:
- Feel positive emotions (P)
- Generate flow-like experiences (E)
- Be accepted, form relationships (R)
- Discover meaning in life (M)
Building the positives is at least as important as eliminating the negatives. Here are just a few ways we can build positivity into our lives:
Savoring. Savoring is defined as awareness of pleasure and a deliberate attempt to make it last. “We are a lot that demands to have fun,” says the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. On that point, my spiel is if recovery were not more pleasurable, nobody would stay sober long. Instead of the cheap hedonic variety associated with quick thrills, pleasure in recovery more closely resembles the eudaemonic type Aristotle extoled, which emphasizes active engagement, mindful presence and excellent character.
Using your signature strengths. Character strengths are 24 things that go right with people and that cultures and communities have valued throughout history. These traits, such as creativity, leadership, love of learning and curiosity, contribute to optimal human development. Research shows that those who take advantage of their highest strengths achieve more success than when they spend their energy trying to raise their deficits. For example, University of Zurich researchers Claudia Harzer and Willibald Ruch have found that a job is particularly revered if you are using at least four of your signature strengths. Take the VIA Survey to discover what drives you.
Character strengths are vital in recovery because they help determine how individuals think, feel and behave. In essence, our character determines how we react in certain situations and whether we will make an appropriate decision in that situation. Thus, addicts who invest time developing their character strengths may be less likely to relapse. We can maximize our strengths by:
Creating high-quality connections. Any social interaction—the line at Starbucks, the front desk of the hotel—is a chance to create a positive connection.
Directing attention positively. Break the grip of rumination and curb needless negativity. Get your mind off your troubles. Distract the negativity bias with meaningful thoughts and actions. These demand your full attention. Get lost in the activity, get fully absorbed by it, and cleanse yourself of the blues.
Meditating mindfully. Deepen your mindful awareness with daily meditation. Carve out 25 minutes. Sit comfortably in a quiet place, no interruptions. Rest your hands lightly in your lap. Let your eyelids drift closed. Take a few breaths. Practice being present. Catch your mind if it wanders. Let your mental adventures travel. Start over when you find yourself ruminating.
Limiting stress. Goals can help reduce stress. Without goals to guide you, you may develop a tendency to jump from one project to another instead of focusing on the most important ones. As a result, you may come to realize that your overall production is suffering and you'll be wondering what you're actually accomplishing, creating a sense of worry.
Practicing gratitude. If you would like one simple way to increase your gratitude, try the “Three Blessings” exercise, a validated positive intervention in which you describe people, events, places or things, small or large, that you are thankful for. At the end of every day for a month, write down three things you are most happy about. A crucial piece of this exercise is to not only recognize the good things that happened, but to explain why they happened. You get to decide.
Flow describes the state in which we're fully engaged in an activity, losing track of time and place. We can increase the likelihood of entering the flow state by setting compelling goals and challenging ourselves, and, as a result, enjoy peak experience and peak performance.
Flow can increase self-esteem, which is associated with better treatment outcomes. Flow also facilitates learning, helps build mastery (habit), and connects people.
Find things that challenge your strengths in just the right amount so you're neither overwhelmed by too much challenge nor bored by too little.
We are the results of ancestors who were naturally driven to form social connections. Group membership increased defenses, resources and opportunities to reproduce. Group belonging and group survival have been hard-wired into our genes. The benefits of grouping together exceed mere survival. Social relationships improve health, longevity and overall well-being.
These connections come with other benefits. For instance, they increase oxytocin, a hormone that produces pleasure, reduces anxiety and improves concentration. In addition, social connections lower cortisol, a stress hormone associated with higher all-cause mortality.
Feelings of support correlate with happiness. Indeed, many research studies document the link between society and psyche: people who have good friends, kindly neighbors and supportive coworkers are less likely to face loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem, and troubles with eating and sleeping. Several researchers have also found that AA works because of social networks.
Meaning is a personal and complex understanding and feeling about our life’s value and impact. Meaning is what the mind does when comprehending anything and everything in the world. Human beings are meaning-makers: meaning is part and parcel of being conscious, aware and surviving.
Leading researchers define meaning in two main parts - meaning and purpose. Meaning is thinking, while purpose is active. Meaning and purpose tell an overarching story that connects past, present and future events, and guide us to act because we have a role to play in that story. Life is then infused with goodness or positivity, and supports specific types of behaviors. Meaning and purpose show us that we can make a difference.
A life full of effective pursuits of happiness makes recovery more rewarding and ultimately more motivating than relapse. People who choose to see that they have at least some amount of control over their own sense of well-being, and who believe that their choices, efforts and strengths, rather than chance, dictate the experience of life are predominantly happier, more resilient and more successful.
Jason Powers, M.D., is board certified in addiction medicine and family medicine. He is chief medical officer at Right Step’s family of addiction treatment centers and Promises Austin.