Announcer: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 21: Creating Happiness.”
Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?
Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.
Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.
Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.
Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.
Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.
Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.
Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.
Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.
Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.
Female Speaker: It's generational.
Female Speaker: I think of him every day.
Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, a podcast by and for family members of anyone with an addiction. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I'm a clinical social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Centers in Texas.
Kira Arrillaga: I’m Kira Arrillaga, addiction counselor intern and recovery coach at Windmill. Casey and I were in our addictions together for over ten years and have now been in recovery together for almost twice that long.
Casey Arrillaga: I've led hundreds of family workshops, but just as important is that Kira and I have lived the experience of being family to addiction as both children and adult.
Kira Arrillaga: Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together.
Casey Arrillaga: In this episode, we will be looking at how you can create greater happiness for yourself, and by extension, your family. We will look at the basics of positive psychology and how you can put it to work in your life, and then dig a little deeper into several of major concepts. For each concept, we will present a practical exercise you can use to start seeing benefits. All this after a word from one of our sponsors.
Welcome back. Greater happiness is possible for your family. If you didn’t believe this, there’d be little point in listening to this podcast, let alone doing anything I suggest in it. That being said, it can be hard to keep this in mind when addiction is having its way with a loved one. It’s important to remember that you can’t force happiness on anyone else, but by increasing your own happiness, you’ll be setting a good example and raising the overall atmosphere in your family. That’s why it’s so important to have some understanding about how happiness can be created, despite the challenges you face. To achieve this, we will be turning to the ideas and techniques of positive psychology to see how they can help you.
Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to give a shoutout to my mentor in this, Dr. Jason Powers. He’s a pioneer in taking the presets of positive psychology and applying them specifically to addiction recovery through his positive recovery program. He has his own podcast and he was on Episode 10 of Addiction and the Family. I highly encourage you to check out his work. Many of my thoughts here are based on things he taught me which I then explored further in my own studies. Part of my mission is to teach these ideas to family members so that they can also benefit from this groundbreaking work.
While a full explanation of positive psychology can’t possibly fit in one episode, I want to cover some of the major ideas and look at how they can help you in your journey. This will include getting a better understanding of what research tells us about happiness, a brief overview of positive psychology, and a few ideas that you can put into practice today.
People have probably philosophized about happiness for as long as people have philosophized about anything. There have been many theories and earlier scientific efforts to study happiness, but until the turn of the 21st century, there hasn’t been such a concerted effort to study happiness using scientific principles. That is partly because there has been a common misconception that if unhappiness is removed, then happiness will automatically result stemming from the medical idea that removing sickness will result in health. Unfortunately, this is not true. Instead, removing unhappiness and doing nothing else can get you to a kind of baseline, which may feel like relief, but will not bring more joy and wellbeing into your life. For that, you must work on adding happiness.
This turns out to be more about working on your thinking than changing your outside circumstances. A simple analogy is that if I want to improve my physical fitness, I’ll want to cut out junk food. This is a good start but it doesn’t do anything to build muscle. Similarly, getting rid of negative thinking is a great move but it doesn’t automatically get me thinking positively. Instead, positive thinking is a skill that can and should be exercised regularly. As with all such skills, this will come more easily to some than others but everyone can improve with practice.
Another important finding is that unhappiness doesn’t have to be all cleared out before work on happiness can begin. It turns out that people can improve their happiness level no matter what their circumstances. To paraphrase an Al Anon saying, no situation is so bad that it can’t improve and nobody is so unhappy that they can’t become happier. This is not achieved by changing all the outside circumstances in your life so they match with what you think will make you happy. Outside change can feel wonderful but the positive effects tend to be temporary. Instead, deep and fulfilling happiness comes from changing inside circumstances, which is all about changing how you think about yourself and your life.
In my own life, I struggled because I thought I had to get my family members to behave a certain way in order for me to be happy, whether it was my childhood schemes to get my dad to stop drinking alcohol, adult efforts to convince my wife to dress and act the way I thought she should, or parenting strategies to get my daughter to do her homework. It was all about my certainty that if they would change their behavior, I would feel okay. I rarely thought of it so explicitly, but if I’m honest with myself, that was my goal.
Along with getting people to behave, I also believed I needed to be a professional musician, preferably a rockstar in order to be fulfilled. I thought everyone needed to see me as I wished to be seen and if I had more money, sex, shiny new things, etc., then I would have happiness. When my life didn’t go the way I wanted, I grew sad, fearful, and angry. I felt that the outside circumstances were keeping me from feeling happy. To make things worse, sometimes everything went exactly as I wanted, but the happiness was always fleeting. As a result, I tried even harder to get everything to line up again or I lived in fear of losing the things I thought were making me happy.
When I turned my inside circumstances, I got better results, but could still fall for some of the same thinking traps. I told myself that once I got rid of every unhappiness, I would finally feel okay. Needless to say, this did not go much better. I have had the benefit of working with a couple of brilliant therapists in my time, and they helped me immensely, but healing the traumas and negative thinking in my life did not automatically create joy. That took its own work. Looking back, I didn’t need to wait for all the issues to be resolved before I could start building a solid foundation of happiness and fulfillment in my life. I could have started that on day one if I had been more open to it. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait for all the yucky stuff to be gone because issues and negative thinking still come up. The difference today is I not only have more tools and experience to deal with those issues, but I also practice positive thinking skills every day.
Research shows that this kind of regular practice of positive psychology techniques can improve happiness in people who deal with adverse outside circumstances but also in people who have difficult inside circumstances, such as mental health issues. This is important to know for those who are struggling with addiction in themselves or a loved one. Addiction and other mental health issues often go hand in hand. No matter which one came first, it’s likely to exacerbate the other. Knowing that happiness doesn’t have to wait until all these things are resolved can be a relief for those who see a lifelong battle ahead of themselves.
Next, let’s look at some concepts of positive psychology. Core concepts of positive psychology include PERMA, a focus on strengths, resilience, and the power of gratitude. Positive psychology does not downplay the importance of recognizing and dealing with what goes wrong. Instead, it shows that it is possible and even necessary to build happiness at the same time. We will take a broad overview of these ideas.
PERMA is an acronym referring to five aspects of human happiness, positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. According to the principles of positive psychology, each is important and should be sought and balanced with the others. PERMA can now be measured by a scientific survey, correlates well with other ways to measure wellbeing, shows relevance if models perfectly across different closures, and interfaces with other positive psychology concepts, like character strengths. Here’s a brief explanation of each aspect.
First up is positive emotions. This refers to the idea that we all have to have emotionally positive experiences in our lives. This might include a moment with a friend, feeling sunshine on our face, smelling a rose, enjoying delicious food, receiving affirmation, doing something thrilling, listening to music, or any other experience or feeling intrinsically pleasurable. Such experiences contribute to a pleasant life. While this is vital, it should not be mistaken for the whole enchilada.
Addicted people may seem to be seeking a constant external stream of pleasurable experiences, most likely in an attempt to deal with a constant internal stream of negative thoughts and feelings. What is mistaken for pleasure in these cases is thus really relief from discomfort. In its attempts to stay in balance, the addicted brain dampens its ability to feel natural pleasure, leaving this aspect of happiness elusive during active addiction and for a time in earlier recovery. If recovery is sustained, the response to such naturally pleasant experiences will return, although this will often take months. In your own recovery, it will be important to find pleasant experiences for yourself, both as an act of selfcare and to take the focus off trying to control your addicted loved one.
Next step is engagement. We all need experiences to captivate and inspire us. Such experiences usually include a sense of flow in which we no longer focus on the time involved but instead find ourselves immersed in what we’re doing for its own sake. These experiences often challenge us to grow in some way, such as becoming more adapt at a skill or acquiring new knowledge in an area of interest. Examples include playing music, athletics, education in something that fascinates you, training dogs, playing video games, playing chess, gardening, or any other activity that includes a sense of interest and challenge. As you move your focus from your loved one’s recovery to your own, seek that sense of engagement by discovering a new interest or rekindling one that may have gone neglected.
The next aspect of PERMA is relationships. Human beings are not human beings unless they have relationships. As children, we define ourselves by our connections to our parents, siblings, extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and classmates. As adolescents, we seek out peer groups with a new urgency, thinking of ourselves as belonging to these groups in a way that feels more important than it may at any other time in our lives. We also take a new interest in potential relationships to romantic and eventually sexual partners. As we transition into adulthood, we may define ourselves by changing relationships with parents and the family in which we’re raised. If we start families of our own, we invert the relationships with which we started as we take the role of parent with new people, literally, in the role of our children. When these relationships feel positive, they contribute greatly to our happiness. When the relationships go badly, we tend to suffer as a result. This is especially true when it is our primary relationships that are in trouble, as often happens throughout addiction. Thus, we feel a strong instinctive drive to heal those relationships and bring happiness back.
In my experience, loss of relationship is one of the most powerful fears that plagues people around addiction. This is the likely root of codependent and enabling behaviors because family members fear losing a relationship with their addicted loved ones so much that they’ll resort to unreasonable behaviors in an attempt to save the relationship or get it back. For some family members, this means they will have to shore up or create new relationships if their addicted loved ones have not found recovery. This will work better than trying desperately to rest this vital aspect of happiness from people who are not in a position to provide it. I’m not saying you need to abandon your addicted loved ones, only that you should expand your circle so that you’re not leaning on addicted people for as much of your relationship needs. This highlights one of the many benefits of connecting with a recovery fellowship. It gives you a more ready source of healthier relationships with supportive people.
The next aspect of PERMA is meaning. This is considered by some to be the most important aspect of happiness. Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In other words, if we experience meaning in our lives and purpose in our actions, we can get through circumstances that are unpleasant or even threaten to be overwhelming. Research confirms that seeking meaning can help with the deepest grief or finding growth in circumstances more often associated with psychological harm. This may be helpful to those who struggle with the fear, or worse, the reality of losing a loved one to addiction. Meaning may be found through spirituality, close relationships, creating art, experiences of awe and wonder, and anything that feels like it contributes to the greater good.
The most powerful experiences of meaning are those in which someone feels that they’re being of service in some way, especially if they’re contributing to something good that is larger than themselves. This may involve things like helping or teaching a child, volunteering to walk dogs at a local rescue shelter, feeding the homeless, painting an uplifting public mural, or helping others to find emotional healing. As a family member, you may find yourself constantly trying to help your addicted loved one, even if they don’t seem to want it or rather respond in the ways you would’ve hoped. Consider that the world has so many other opportunities to be of service. You might find greater meaning in life by reaching out to someone who really wants the help.
The final aspect of PERMA is achievement. These are the milestones along the road of happiness. Achievement can be daily things, like making your bed or getting all of your work done before heading home, the combination of practice, like learning to play a new piece on the piano or marking a new personal best in athletic, or long-term goals, such as writing a book or getting a career award. Achievements can be highly valued and are necessary to show progress and the rewards of effort, but like positive emotions, can be mistakenly thought of as all a person needs. This belief can leave people chasing the next achievement and then the next thinking each one will bring lasting happiness. This usually ends in disappointment and feeling like nothing is ever enough. Sometimes people in early recovery get caught in this trap because they fear they have wasted so much time spent in addiction or focused on others, they often want to rush into a flurry of activity to make up for this. If you or your loved ones seem to be falling into this way of thinking, strive instead to bring this part of your life into balance. Enjoy the achievements, large and small, as an opportunity to reflect on progress in your life in recovery rather than seeing them as the end goal.
The ideas of PERMA can be seen throughout the culture of recovery fellowships, which foster positive emotions, encourage members to engage through things like sharing in meetings and the written exercises of each program, build relationships with people at the meetings, offer meaning through volunteering to help others recover, and celebrate achievements, such as reaching a new phase in SMART, completion of one of the 12 steps in Al Anon, or just counting the success of another day spent in recovery.
Want to improve how PERMA is showing up in your life? Take a few moments to look over each aspect of happiness, then rate each one between 0 and 20. Next, add all the scores together. This gives you a baseline score between 0 and 100 of how you are currently experiencing overall happiness in your life. Now look over the aspects and contrast with each other. Which ones are doing best? Which ones could benefit from improvement? Brainstorm some ideas about how to bolster the areas in which you scored lowest. Talk with a trusted friend or advisor about your ideas and get some feedback. This builds relationship. Then make a list of ideas you’ve gotten. Spend some time contemplating what it would be like to add some of this happiness to your life, positive emotions, and then set about accomplishing some of the things on your list, which gives you achievement. If some of the things on your list promote engagement and meaning, then all the better. After you have done some of the things on your list, rate the aspects of PERMA again to see how your overall score in each aspect you’re doing. This gives you a way to find out what is working best for you and note the progress in your journey of building happiness in your life.
Another one of the foundational ideas in positive psychology is that all people have innate strengths and that focusing on these is just as important as offering healing for pathology. In order to move this into an actionable idea, some of the pioneers of positive psychology set about to compile a book of identifiable character strengths to counter the more well-known books of diagnosable mental disorders. To do this, they look through the literature of major world cultures throughout different time periods to find common themes in the virtues, big ideas of moral excellence, and values how these ideas show up in someone’s life that seemed most universal. This led to the distillation of six virtues which in turn were broken down into a total of 24 values. We’re simply going to go through them in this episode but this is such an important concept that we’ll probably do a full episode dedicated to these virtues and strengths at a later date. That being said, here’s a list of the virtues with the associated strengths listed after each virtue.
The first virtue is wisdom and knowledge. That gives us the strengths of creativity, curiosity, judgement, love of learning, and perspective. The next virtue is courage, which breaks down into bravery, perseverance, honesty, and zest. The next virtue was humanity, which gives us the strengths of love, kindness, and social intelligence. Next on the list was justice, which breaks down into teamwork, fairness, and leadership. The next virtue is temperance, which gives us forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation. Last but certainly not least is the virtue of transcendence, which gives us the strengths of appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.
Positive psychologists worked to come up with reliable and verifiable ways to measure these values so that they have some validity in a scientific sense, much in the way that there are ways to verify a given pathological diagnosis. This led to the creation of the VIA survey. As of this writing, it can be taken by anyone freely at any time at viacharacter.org, which is sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania. The survey will give a ranking of how the 24 strengths show up in your life. The results are not considered immutable but instead are a good way to see which strengths are dominant right now. The strengths are like muscles. They can be exercised and improved through deliberate effort. Some will come more naturally and these are referred to as your signature strengths. They’re likely to be the top five or six on your VIA results. None, however, are out of reach. If there is a character strength you admire in others, that is because it is in you somewhere perhaps looking for expression.
I tell you all this in a podcast about addiction for two main reasons. First, many people who love someone with addiction need to rediscover their strengths because their self-esteem can take a hit as a result of that relationship. Sometimes the person with the addiction tears down those around them as a way to deflect from their otherwise obvious problem or perhaps as a way to cope with their own shame. Other times, it is simply the result of loved ones feeling helpless to save the addicted person. Either way, a reminder of core strengths is in order. Those who grew up around addiction may not be rebuilding their self-esteem so much as discovering it for the first time. Positive psychology in general and the VIA classification of strengths in particular could be a good way to start this process.
The second reason I bring up the strengths-based approach is because when people are in the throws of active addiction, they often show up at their worse. By the time they enter recovery, everyone in the family may have lost sight of each other’s strengths. At the very least, those strengths have been often obscured and family members can become alarmed or angry at the slightest hint that the old behaviors and attitudes are back. Some family members are not in any mood to affirm or even support the person who is newly in recovery because the hurt is too fresh or too deep. Seeing this, the person with addiction may become defensive and tempted to fire back or give up. If everyone can learn to view each other through a strengths-based lens, such flare ups can be diminished or even eliminated.
One way to do this is through strength spotting. Just like it sounds, this is all about deliberately looking for the strengths displayed in yourself and the people around you. You might start by looking over the VIA list. Pick three strengths that stand out in each of your family members. Take a few moments and think of all the ways that each strength shows up in their lives. Notice what it’s like to make this your central focus and how you feel about each family member after concentrating on their strengths. Consider how it might feel to look at everyone in your life, including yourself, through this lens.
In my own life in recovery, this has been a powerful tool. When my brain is on autopilot, it will tend to pick up negative traits and features in any situation. Unfortunately, this means I’m more likely to notice what’s wrong in myself and the people around me first. This can lead to shame and resentment, two things that do not serve me, my recovery, or my relationships. Taking a strengths-based look at myself and those around me can quickly turn this around. I may have to remind myself to do this but it makes a big difference in how I see and relate to others and myself.
As an example, I recently started feeling resentful towards my wife for areas in our relationship in which she wasn’t doing what I wanted her to do. As this resentment built, I noticed I was treating her with less kindness and more criticism. I didn’t like my behavior but it was hard to get myself to stop. As I was grappling with this, I remembered to look at her through the lens of her strengths. It’s easy to see that she’s one of the most loving people I’ve ever met, which led me to think of all the ways she loves me and has shown that love throughout our time together. I immediately felt the resentment melt away. Nothing in her behavior had to change in order for me to feel better towards her and to treat her with more kindness and respect. All it took was concentrating on her strengths.
Let’s take a break to hear from one of our sponsors and then we’ll have more about creating happiness.
Welcome back. Resilience, or the ability to come back from and even thrive after difficulties, is a key focus in positive psychology. This is also a trait that makes recovery possible. After all, if people weren’t resilient, they would not be able to recover from the devastating effects of addiction. This is just as true whether it is their own addiction or someone else’s. Extensive research shows a strong correlation between resilience and overall wellbeing, although the relationship is not as straightforward as resilience leads to wellbeing or wellbeing leads to resilience, but it’s more like resilience and wellbeing tend to feed each other. Resilience has also been shown to reduce the negative effects of stress, depression, anxiety, and trauma.
The question thus becomes whether resilience is an inborn trait or if it can be learned and developed. The answer seems to be that both are true. Resilience comes more naturally to some than others. It seems unlikely that there’s one resilience gene, but as with all human behavior, a given person’s genes combined with their life experiences should produce personality characteristics and traits, such as resilience. It is worth noting that some resilience patterns may be highly adaptive in one life circumstance and then be detrimental later in the same person’s life. Addiction and other dysfunctional behavior can be the result of this shift. If the person in question can find their way to recovery, then the underlying resilience can become a helpful trait again.
For instance, when I was adopted as a toddler, I felt emotionally overwhelmed, but needed to keep going and survive. I made an executive decision at two and a half years old that my best bet would be to stop fully trusting anyone and go it alone emotionally as much as I could. At the time, this was a much more resilient strategy than crawling up in a ball to die. Nonetheless, it caused me problems for a long time afterwards. I know this also made things difficult for family and friends who wanted to connect to me and love me. They often scratched their heads at my behavior or just gave up on trying to get too close.
Moving towards adolescence, I began to feel more anger and self-pity at my miserable fate, having long forgotten my survival decision of the past. My life circumstances had completely outgrown my early resilience strategy, but by then, I just thought it was who I was. My addictive acting out provided escape and relief, and so it ramped up. By the time the price of this started to become apparent, I had firmly established the neurological pattern that encouraged me to keep going anyway. In other words, my addiction harnessed my resilience and I continued for about another 20 years.
When I first entered recovery, my natural and developed resilience worked as both a help and a hinderance. It helped when I showed up at meetings believing I could conquer recovery like I had so many other things. It hindered me when I still saw myself as different than others and not subject to their rules. The longer I stayed in recovery, however, the more my resilience helped. I kept showing up at meetings and doing the suggested work, even when it was hard. When I relapsed, I got up and got going again immediately. No matter what, I stuck with recovery. Since then, my resilience has been a force for good in my life.
How can resilience be learned and increased? Recent analysis of multiple studies suggests that resilience training, such as group therapy and education, can be beneficial not only during and immediately after the training, but several studies have shown that the positive effects were still consistent at six-month follow-ups. The two techniques that show the best results were cognitive behavior therapy, often known by its abbreviation, CBT, and mindfulness training. CBT is a well-established set of techniques based on the simple premise that if you change the way you think about yourself, your life, and any situation you are in, you will change your feelings in experience. A wide variety of therapeutic techniques are based in CBT, such as EMDR, dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, etc. CBT has been shown to improve many mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. SMART Recovery is built around CBT techniques.
Despite all this, it is only recently that research has been done to see how CBT positively influences resilience. One CBT idea that gets used in positive psychology is to work on more positive and realistic thinking about future events. Take a moment now and think about something in your loved one’s future. Notice if you tend to catastrophize, which is to say you expect the worst to happen. For instance, when your loved one is in early recovery, you may find that you are on edge waiting to see if relapse is going to happen. Perhaps you feel anxiety about this and so you want to ask them a stream of questions about the recovery and their plans, subconsciously seeking reassurance that they’re going to be okay.
Now take a piece of paper and write out that worst-case scenario you have in your head. Next to it, write down how likely this is to happen, 0% to 100%. Next, write down the best-case scenario and how likely this is to happen, 0% to 100%. Now, see if there’s some other outcome that seems even more likely than the best or worst cases and write this out as well and how likely this is to happen, 0% to 100%. Look over all three possibilities, taking a few moments to concentrate on each one. What do you notice in your feelings? Which possibility seem like the best use of your energy? Make an effort to focus on that one more often. After all, your loved one is not more or less likely to stay sober based on which possibility gets your attention, so you may as well pick the one that helps you the most.
To get even more from this exercise, get feedback on what you’ve written from at least one trustworthy source who knows something about addiction in the family. This might be a member of a recovery fellowship or it might be a trained professional well-versed in these matters. No matter who it is, listen to hear if they notice things about the situation that you may have missed or give a perspective that helps you see things in a whole new way. Sometimes just knowing that others understand is helpful. Based on what you find, revise your original possibilities and percentages and notice how you feel about the situation now. If you’re able to feel better about it, recognize that nothing in the situation itself needed to change in order to improve your feelings. All you had to do is change the way you think about it. If you practice this type of exercise, you will develop greater resilience as you face other scenarios and challenges in your life. If you want to explore more about CBT, there are many numbers of books, workbooks, and webpages dedicated to CBT ideas and exercises. Any social worker, therapist, or counselor should be well-versed in CBT. As mentioned earlier, SMART Recovery is based in CBT, sometimes also referred to as REBT.
Next on our list of resilience tools is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the idea of being rooted in the present moment and experience and accepting that experience as fully as possible. This is in contrast being preoccupied with the past and future. This can be quite helpful to wellbeing because the present moment is often just fine, whereas guilt, regret, etc., are based in the past, and anxiety and worry are all about the future. Research links mindfulness, particularly the practice of acceptance, with greater resilience in even the most difficult circumstances. Mindfulness has also been shown to help with anxiety, depression, emotional distress, chronic pain, and many other ailments. It meshes well with CBT leading to some of CBTs more modern iterations, such as DBT. Mindfulness practices are becoming more and more popular so it isn’t hard to find mindfulness exercises online. Explore these resources and find some techniques that seem like a good starting point for you. Choose one and start working on it until it feels comfortable. Then add another and another and soon you will find yourself living a more mindful life.
One simple idea is to sit still and experience your breathing as fully as you can. You may choose to take long slow breaths while doing this or you may decide to let breath flow naturally. Either way, notice everything that goes with each breath. What temperature is the air? How does it feel in your mouth and/or nostrils? How does it feel in your throat? Feel your chest expand and contract. Notice how your diaphragm feels. Follow each breath as it goes to its natural cycle. When your thinking starts to drift, bring it gently back to the breath, making this the center of your attention. Keep this attention for as long as you can. With practice, you will likely be able to go longer and longer, leading to a greater sense of relaxation. You can also focus mindfully on your breath while stuck in traffic, during a stressful meeting at work, or as a way to relax and recenter yourself when you get home in the evening.
Notice how this method of relaxation contrasts with so many of the more common ways people try to relax, such as watching television, playing a game, or reading a novel. Mindfulness leaves you more present in your life. All of the others take you away from your life, much as addiction promises to do. As I have asked many of my clients, how much of the rest of your life do you want to spend escaping the rest of your life? As mindfulness puts you in touch with your present experience, it may also point out opportunities for growth. Many people seem to avoid mindfulness because they fear it will force them to feel their negative feelings or deal with unpleasant truths. While ignoring feelings and facts is an understandable impulse, it makes a terrible long-term strategy because doing so does not make them go away nor will it lessen their effects in your life. Instead, consider that mindfulness can help to reduce the effects of all the stresses in your life by keeping you in the present moment. This not only helps you move out of anxiety but also helps you accept things you’ve been fearing. In doing this, new solutions may become apparent and positive actions are easier to take.
The final positive psychology concept we’ll look at in this episode is gratitude. It is hard to overstate the importance of gratitude in both positive psychology and addiction recovery. This is because gratitude can have a profoundly positive impact on many other measures of wellbeing, such as satisfaction in life and better mental health. Gratitude also increases the odds that people with severe addiction problems will remain sober in the long term. You may recall that gratitude shows up as one of the core human strengths in the VIA list earlier in this episode.
Some mental health researchers refer to the people who consistently display this trait as having dispositional gratitude. This is different than what we might call situational gratitude which would be gratitude for a specific thing or set of circumstances in their lives. For instance, people who have strong dispositional gratitude tend to do better in recovery in general and even report doing okay if they never completely stop using alcohol whereas AA members who are sober more than 90 days display situational gratitude that may be based more on having gotten their lives back than on having a naturally grateful outlook before recovery. In both cases, gratitude helps make lives better, both in the short and long terms. In other words, whether you are naturally grateful or have to work at it, gratitude will bestow its benefits.
Like all the other strengths, gratitude is a skill that can be learned, like a muscle that benefits from regular exercise. There are many ways to do this and they almost universally come down to taking the time to notice what is good in your life. As someone in one of my recovery fellowships likes to ask, how much time do you spend concentrating on what you do have instead of what you don’t have?
One great way to do this is to engage in gratitude journaling. This simple idea can have a profound impact on mental health and positive outlook on life, even in people who struggle to find optimism or positive self-image. Gratitude journaling is often as simple as making a list of positive things you noticed in your life in the past 24 hours. Listing the same things every day can get repetitive and thus loses power so you want to mix it up a little to get the most benefit. Here are a few ideas to keep your gratitude journaling fresh.
I call the first one feature presentation. Write a few things down each day and write a paragraph or page about what you particularly liked or appreciated about having this as a part of your day. The second one I call I know my ABCs. Write something that starts with each letter of the alphabet. This might be hard to do daily without getting repetitive but it makes a great way to get out of your routine. I find that an ABC gratitude list shows me where my thoughts are that day. Hungry, I’ll have apples, bananas, cherries. Feeling spiritual, I might have altruism, blessings, compassion. I have a friend in recovery who says they make an alphabetical gratitude list in their head to drift off to sleep at night. I call the next one never repeat. Write a short list, three to five things daily, but never repeat anything. In other words, if you’ve ever included something on your list before, you can never use it again. In a short while, you would have used up all the obvious things and will have to be on the lookout every day for new things. This will train your brain to be in a gratitude mindset, which is a great way to be. I call the last one pace yourself. Write a daily list for 30 to 90 days and then switch to weekly for a while. This will keep it from getting stale but still maintains momentum.
There is abundant research showing that gratitude journaling yields positive results so try it out and see how it can help you. Practice more gratitude in general, such as talking about it with others and expressing gratitude for the ones you love and you will likely feel a difference in your life, even if things on the outside aren’t getting better as fast as you’d like. This can be especially helpful as you move through the difficulties of loving someone who struggles with addiction. Having an attitude of gratitude won’t get or keep them sober, but it can help you find greater peace and acceptance for their journey and for yours. As you explore these concepts of positive psychology, find what works best for you. Try each one out to see what impact it has on your happiness. Explore any that inspire you as there is abundant information available on each one. Most of all, enjoy.
Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe. It means a lot to us. If you know anyone else who could use what we have to offer, please tell them about Addiction and the Family. If you have comments about this podcast, have a question you’d like answered on the show, or want to contribute your voice, or just want to say hi, you can write to us at email@example.com. We’re also happy to be your friend on Facebook and we can be found tweeting on Twitter.
Kira Arrillaga: Addiction and the Family is produced, written, and engineered by Kira and Casey Arrillaga, with music by Casey.