The Second Noble Truth

My path of acceptance.

What Recovering Alcoholics Can Teach Us About Happiness

Recovering alcoholics can teach us a lot about being happy.

Many people wonder how they can be happy. The answer is simple: acceptance. Just ask recovering alcoholics and many will tell you that is the solution. It has worked for Alcoholics, Buddhists and the followers of other Eastern religions for centuries. In our culture it is being recognized as a successful treatment modality for many mental health issues.

Two eastern philosophical methods that are quickly being adopted by many western psychotherapists are mindfulness and acceptance. In recent years these techniques have had profound effects on the field of psychotherapy and the individual lives of those who have sought help and been introduced to these techniques.

It seems many in the field of psychotherapy began gravitating toward Eastern philosophy long before the ideas became a formal treatment. (See "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road Kill Him: The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients" by Sheldon B. Kopp,1972). But these techniques had never been so rigorously studied and written about until Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was proposed. Marsha Linehan Ph.D struck therapeutic gold by successfully treating chronic suicidal patients and those with Borderline Personality Disorder with her treatment. In brief this treatment combines the eastern techniques of mindfulness and acceptance (her coined term "Radical Acceptance") with cognitive-behavioral techniques. Her work and success has led to a surge of therapists adopting similar techniques.

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An amazon search of "mindfulness therapy" will result in a list of 248 books, at least 52 of which are separate books combining mindfulness and therapy. Searching acceptance and therapy will result in a somewhat smaller list of 173 results. I have recommended the book "The Mindful Way through Depression" to many of my own clients, and have read several other books combining therapeutic technique and eastern beliefs. I have found these techniques very helpful for a variety of issues.

At the core of Eastern philosophies is an acceptance of what is. The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism proposes that desire is the root of all suffering. It has also been explained as: the desire for things to be different is the root of all suffering. If we are not suffering, we will be much more open to happiness.

I first came across the idea of acceptance when I began my journey in the field of substance abuse treatment.The paragraphs below in italics are from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. The passage and the book were originally published in 1939. The author of this section was Doctor Paul Ohliger. Whether he was a profound thinker or not, his words are among the most often quoted and advised in all of Alcoholics Anonymous. I believe alcoholic, addict, or not, we would all be much happier by following these words. I edited the quote to remove Judeo Christian wording, so as not to exclude anyone.

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation-some fact of my life-unacceptable to me, and can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in the world by mistake.

Unless I accept life completely on life's terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world, as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes. (Pg. 418, 4th edition)

This quote, from a doctor addicted to pills and alcohol who found sobriety and happiness in the application of the above words, is solid advice. How much happier might you be if you were able to apply this philosophy? What if as Eckart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and many other spiritual teachers purport, that even the worst events in your life are necessary to becoming who you will be? Isn't then acceptance of these situations in the present the solution to being unhappy?

Sometimes when I challenge clients with the idea of acceptance by discussing the Second Noble Truth, I ask them for their thoughts. Occasionally clients report they don't believe it; they believe acceptance would lead to malaise, no changes would ever occur if we simply accepted everything. This is a valid point. However a good counter to this argument also comes from addiction recovery in the Serenity Prayer. In case you are unfamiliar with it is reprinted here:

God, Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Some things in life can be changed, and as the passage on acceptance states, a good place to start is with personal attitudes. Fighting for a positive change, whether as broad as in the country or as close as the workplace can be a noble effort. Acceptance does not require that you accept the status quo. You attempt to make the change without attachment to the outcome. You work toward change, while accepting that you are doing what you can, and accepting that your way might not be the best avenue at this time. Many of us think we know what is best the majority of the time. I recently had an 18 year old client who believed, if people (his parents, teachers, administrators, friends) would just follow his direction, everything would be better. He, like many others (myself included at times) believes he knows best. Acceptance requires a bit of humility. Acceptance requires the ability to accept that you might be wrong. At the very least acceptance requires the ability to allow others to be wrong without letting it totally screw up your day.

Another related aspect to this is a saying about the second step of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step Program. "Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity." The saying is "alcoholics don't have to come to believe in a higher power, just come to believe that they are not the higher power!" This sounds comical at first. But many who lack acceptance, believe they are in control of everything. They get upset when the world doesn't conform to how they believe it should be. Many people suffer from this type of thinking from time to time.

In conclusion, the act of acceptance is really a small change in attitude that can bring about tremendous results. There are many avenues to get there: reading books by spiritual leaders, accepting that the god of your choice has a plan for you that is ultimately for the best (but includes difficulties at times), or simply having faith that this experience serves a purpose and you might know what it is later. Whatever path you choose that makes acceptance a pill you can swallow, you will be happier in the moment for it.

Copyright: Wm. Berry, 2010

William Berry teaches at Florida International University and Nova Southeastern University. His area of interest is substance abuse and individual happiness.

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