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The Use of Positive Psychology in Addiction Treatment

Meaningful recovery is achieved when the pain of the past is worked through.

This past week, I presented a paper at the 2nd Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology. The paper was titled, “From Despondency to Hope: Ending Addiction for Good Using a Positive Psychological Approach.”

Positive psychology is a relatively new field of psychological research and intervention. The University of Pennsylvania describes positive psychology in this way:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”

In effective addiction treatment, positive psychological approaches play an important role in achieving long-term addiction recovery goals. Traditionally, addicts are told that they have a disease; that they will have to manage it for the rest of their lives; to expect relapse and that from a statistical perspective, most will die from their illness. This is a tremendously demoralizing prognosis to provide to someone. A positive psychologist would reframe the situation, suggesting that addiction is a behavioral disorder and even the most entrenched behaviors can be changed. While not denying the negative statistics surrounding addiction recovery, a reframing of the opportunity to recover into something attainable is empowering and motivating to many who suffer from substance abuse.

After encouraging the addict by suggesting that recovery is possible not just for a select few, the positive psychologist then begins to work with the addict to re-envision life and begin a process of self-discovery in which the addict comes to know what activities and relationships are most important to him/her. There are no limits. For example, at the conference one researcher who works with suicidal geriatric individuals shared this story: She had a wheelchair-bound, elderly woman say that what was most important in life to her was saving seals. Instead of telling the woman that she could not save seals because she was too old and in a wheelchair or provide any other excuse, the woman was encouraged to look into what it would take for her to save seals. She decided that while she could not physically work with seals, she could be involved via the internet in those types of activities and fundraise to support the work. This is precisely the type of visioning process that is successfully used with addicts, to help them imagine a world beyond using and to give them tangible goals to work toward that will help them maintain their recovery.

Meaningful recovery is achieved when the pain of the past is worked through and goals for the future are set and worked toward. Part of the problem of addiction is an inability to envision a different future, a future in which happiness, good work, and strong relationships are the fabric of daily life. Using positive psychology, therapists are able to help addicts plan for and believe they can attain the kind of future of which they previously could not even dream.


I am the senior addiction research fellow and director of addiction research for Cliffside Malibu. I am also the co-author of the bestselling book Ending Addiction for Good with Richard Taite.