Practicing Healthy Hedonism

By Rob Dinsmoor 05/18/18

After leaving rehab, I started to become concerned that I would have trouble finding enjoyment again. I used to have fun drinking. How could I replace those good times?

Mature man cooking in kitchen.
Cooking makes me savor the sight and smell of the food, and gives me a sense that I’m an active participant in my meal.

After I got out of rehab and had already been sober for three months, I started to become concerned that I would have trouble finding enjoyment again. I used to have fun drinking. How could I replace those good times? Or could I? In rehab, I had heard stories of people who had developed anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure from activities that were once enjoyable. It wasn’t uncommon in people with addictions, as alcohol or drugs somehow depleted the brain’s reward system. Fortunately, over time, I managed to rediscover many of my natural highs.

Exercise: I had been an exercise fiend even when I was a drunk, and it wasn’t unlike me to run a road race with a hangover. But now my emphasis is on engaging in exercise I enjoy—and on variety. I swim, take and teach yoga, and take Zumba at my local YMCA, but I prefer to exercise outdoors. I traded in my road bike for a trail bike and discovered that riding on trails was so much more enjoyable because I could enjoy nature and I didn’t have to worry about dodging cars. I also love hiking and kayaking. Exercising outdoors in nature is particularly helpful in dealing with stress.

Food: Until the very endstage of my alcoholism, I was an avid eater, and I became an even more avid eater when I got sober. These days I love food more than I ever did before. I’m constantly trying different tastes and love to explore new restaurants, especially ethnic restaurants.

I also like to cook. I’ve gotten pretty good at cooking Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Creole cuisine. I never took cooking classes, but I can read. I’ve got plenty of cookbooks but now I can find a lot of great recipes on-line.

I sometimes get sick of the local restaurants, but I rarely get tired of my own cooking. And cooking actually makes me savor the sight and smell of the food, and gives me a sense that I’m an active participant in my meal.

Chocolate: There is plenty of research showing the health benefits of chocolate, especially dark chocolate. Stressed out? A small 2009 study showed that, after eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate every day for two weeks, participants had lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and catecholamines.

Socializing: Isolation has been shown to be as bad for one’s health as smoking so I make socializing a priority. In my drinking days, I used to throw potlucks where everybody drank too much and I would get full reports from more sober friends about who fell off the front porch and other drunken antics. I still throw potlucks but they are centered around food (various cuisines featured) and games, such as Pictionary or charades. Sometimes we forget to play the games and just have lively conversations. I’m perfectly okay if others want to drink, but some of my guests still abstain out of respect for me. Nobody falls off the porch anymore.

Creating Stuff: Writing short stories and novels puts me in a blissful state where I’m unaware of my surroundings and the passage of time. I know artists and musicians who experience the same thing. Here’s the key: You don’t necessarily have to be any good at it to make it rewarding. I whiled away many contented hours in rehab sketching palm trees with colored acrylic pencils my professional artist friend sent me, and they were nothing to write home about. But sketching these trees made me really look at them and took me out of the hum-drum daily routine. And I saw a lot of my peers totally engrossed in pretty primitive art projects and extremely proud of what they had created. Research has shown that people experience a deep drop in cortisol levels after just 45 minutes of creating art.

Laughter: There is nothing like laughter to bring me out of a bad mood--it’s like a quick-acting antidepressant. Studies have shown that laughter leads to reductions in stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. Got pain? Laughter stimulates the release of the endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killers, and another study showed that pain thresholds are significantly higher following laughter. The world is full of funny books, movies, and stand-up comics that come in many different flavors. More than that, however, developing a sense of humor helps me get through challenging situations. I also love to tell funny stories and write them, and every time something crummy happens to me, I think, “This would make a great story!”

Music: Music is a useful tool for improving mood. Recent studies suggest that upbeat music is especially good at chasing away the blues, but even sad music can be comforting, especially when someone has just ended a relationship.

Pets: Pets can have many positive effects on well-being and mood. Stroking animals can improve mood, reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing levels of oxytocin, a neuropeptide thought to promote social behavior and ease anxiety. Spending time with dogs has also been shown to increase the circulation of endorphins and dopamine, creating a sense of euphoria. People with severe depression report feeling more relaxed and less lonely and experiencing less pain following brief visits with therapy dogs. Pets can make people feel less isolated, offering unconditional love.

Yet having a pet, especially a dog, can be a burdensome responsibility for some people. If so, you can get a “quick fix” by visiting your local animal shelter and playing with the cats and dogs. It’ll make you feel good over the short term and it won’t do them any harm either!

Learning to appreciate pleasurable activities and developing fun habits can help you stay sober—and live a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

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Rob Telling Stories.jpg

Rob Dinsmoor is a freelance writer who specializes in clarifying medical issues for the lay audience. He has also published several short stories and three memoirs--including You Can Leave Anytime, about his long three months in a rehab facility. His Website is You can also follow Rob on Twitter.