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Sobriety: Better Than Prozac!

Experts suggest that people in recovery are happier than their non-alcoholic peers.

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By Rachael Brownell

11/02/11

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Ask the average newcomer if they’re happy and (assuming you don’t get punched in the nose) you can almost guarantee they’ll list misery, struggle, and withdrawal as their primary life experience. After a few years, though, most AA regulars utter statements about how they never knew they could be so happy. This is tempered, of course, with vague references to health, marital, and financial challenges, but the seasoned AA veteran understands these struggles as part of that larger practice of accepting “life on life’s terms”—knowing that life is hard but not letting it keep you down for long. When I was new, I used to look around at the happy sober people and think I’d stumbled on a secret society of blissed out spiritualists with horrible pasts. “We are not a glum lot,” says the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, referring to the often raucous and downright gleeful nature of many meetings. Standing outside of one, listening to the thrum of voices and laughter, it can sound like you’re listening in on God’s little antechamber at social hour. So are alcoholics and addicts in recovery in fact happier than other people? 

According to Christopher Murray, a New York-based psychotherapist, “folks in recovery have learned to manage their emotions without reaching for a substance in order to let loose. Perhaps the step work and the sharing and anxious phone calls at three in the morning have taught them how to access all their feelings with greater ease.”

William Berry, a Psychology Today contributor and teacher, says recovery leads people down spiritual paths they might otherwise never have tried. “Although programs of personal growth, faith, putting priorities in order, and supportive peers are available to everyone…recovering people are given more of an opportunity for happiness,” he says. In other words, we’re willing to do all the hard work because our very lives depend upon it. 

One researcher argues that a person in recovery can learn to reactivate the pleasure center by doing things like exercising and having sex.

Of course, there are no guarantees. AA’s foundation rests on the promises made in the Big Book, including the program linchpin that “God wants us to be happy, joyous, and free.” Dr. Ingrid Mathieu, an L.A. based psychotherapist and the author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice, points out that people often mistakenly believe this means they’ll always feel good when “what the promise of happy, joyous, and free really means is they’ll feel good some of the time.” She adds, “Anything that promises delight without acknowledging the shadow is false.” Meaning: if you're looking for the Big Happy all the time, you're chasing the wrong goal. You need to strike a balance between expectations of unadulterated joy and finding satisfaction in occasional happiness and the struggle to improve.

Perhaps the reason many of us look so fervently for happiness in recovery is that we feel entitled: we've give up our drug of choice, damn it, so let's have some happiness and pleasure! This sense of entitlement is often strengthened by the fear that we’ll never recapture the joy of earlier days. As it happens, this fear is borne out by neuroscientific research.

Some addicts and alcoholics actually have to work harder to achieve happiness and pleasure than non-users, according to Dr. David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. In his research, Dr. Linden studied the impact of low dopamine receptivity (a shared neurological trait of addicts and alcoholics) on the ability of the brain to register pleasure. If you’re a person with low dopamine receptivity, your brain is less able to register pleasure than those with normal levels of dopamine function. Such a person therefore has to “overindulge in order to get to the same set point of pleasure.” In other words, for some of us, it takes more pleasure-associated activities (that is, more sex, food, and risk-taking) to feel the same amount of pleasure experienced by someone with normal brain dopamine function. 

On the upside, Dr. Linden argues that a person in recovery can learn to reactivate the pleasure center by doing things like exercising and having sex (taking care, of course, not to substitute one addiction for another). Even discovering a new hobby or learning and studying something new can stimulate the pleasure center of the brain.

Perhaps it’s the conflation of pleasure and happiness that has people in recovery wondering why everyone else seems to have it all figured out. Yet joy doesn’t come without that often uncomfortable (and essential) process of letting go. “Pain may be the touchstone of all spiritual growth,” Mathieu points out, “but no one likes it.” Whether you believe those happy, serene looking old-timers when they say they are happy and their lives are beautiful is up to you. But it’s clear from a biochemical as well as a spiritual perspective that the alchemy of AA does render many of us happy—or at least far happier than we were. Whether this comes from moments of pleasures linked together or an overarching sense of serenity and calm or a belief in a Higher Power or lives of happy usefulness depends on the person.

It’s clear that AA is onto something. “It’s too bad you have to be an alcoholic to go to AA,” my friend said recently. “It seems like such a nice way to live your life.”

Rachael Brownell is a freelance writer and author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here AnymoreShe lives in the Pacific Northwest with her sexy boyfriend, her kids, her books and her closet that is no longer full of skeletons. She has written about the importance of humor and what motherhood is really like in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix.

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