Sobriety And The (Misguided) Pursuit Of Happiness
When you are in the thralls of addiction and heavy drinking, it feels like if you can just quit drinking, things will be fine. You’ll be the happy, vibrant person you know you can be.
The drink becomes the villain.
And in a lot of ways, it is. But sometimes we make monsters out of external things to hide from the ones within us.
Drunk me was desperate to be happy.
I’ve tried and failed to get sober countless times in the past. Sometimes I caved because I wasn’t really committed to sobriety.
I wanted to BE sober, but I had no interested in the work or process of getting there.
But on the real attempts, I failed because I ended up disappointed with sobriety. It sucked. I felt miserable, lonely, couldn’t find joy in anything, and on top of that, I lost my one escape. That is a miserable feeling y’all.
At some point, I figured I would never be happy or okay. So I might as well drink.
Other times, I didn’t know who I was beyond my own misery. I was completely defined by it. To be someone who functioned without alcohol was terrifying even though I knew that drinking was destroying me.
Here’s the thing about happiness…
It’s elusive. Fleeting. And it’s meant to be.
Nobody is ever going to be truly happy 100% of the time. Not you. Not me. It’s just the reality of the human experience.
Even the Dalai Lama admits to getting a little miffed from time to time.
So maybe the best thing to do is manage expectations. Sobriety is going to eliminate hangovers, bad decisions you can’t remember making, improve your physical health, and reduce your cancer risk tremendously.
It’s not going to make you happy. But it WILL make some happiness possible.
As a member of our Soberish community (who would definitely NOT want to be named in an article) so wisely stated:
Happiness is overrated.
I chuckled when I read this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very on-brand for this person who we all know and love in our group. Secondly, it’s the damn truth!
This idea that we’ll ever be this bubbly, walking on clouds kind of person 24-7 is a delusion. Sure, when you log onto social media it seems like we’re the only ones who aren’t living their #bestlife, but it’s all bullshit.
Sobriety means you get to live a full and healthy life if you choose to. You get to take back control, try new things, be brave for once, and make positive changes that will greatly improve your quality of life.
But we’re humans so even though we quit drinking, we’re still going to get frustrated, have days when nothing goes right, and feel sad and depressed from time to time.
Besides, I think we mostly get happiness wrong.
What does happiness even look like?
For me, happiness looks like a fun day out at the zoo with my daughter and her cousins, hanging with my brother and sister-in-law. We’re laughing at the kids’ reactions to the orangutans and eating delicious street tacos from a food truck.
It’s fun! I’m smiling and happy.
But after a couple hours of that, I’m ready to go home and chill.
Is the giggly, high-adrenaline state of bliss what we mean when we talk about happiness? Because I can’t do that 24/7.
Is happiness a state of total satisfaction with every aspect of our lives? Because that’s not a great goal either.
Evolutionarily speaking, if human beings could ever achieve total happiness, we’d be in big trouble.
We were built for misery. It’s what kept us alive in the savannah. Happiness would mean we let our guard down which could lead to getting eaten by a lion.
All great innovations and breakthroughs are a result of some level of dissatisfaction with the human experience.
And anyone who has caught themselves in a perfect state of bliss knows just how delicate and impermanent it is.
And that’s okay.
Bad feelings are important. They let us know that we need to take care of something. It’s how we grow and become better people. It’s motivating. We push through things that challenge us so we can get to the good stuff.
Rafael Euba has an excellent article on this point in The Conversation. I’ll highlight a key quote here that expands on this idea better than I ever could:
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain.
The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration.
If you’re looking for another excellent resource on this happiness stuff, I HIGHLY recommend reading Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck.”
The problem is that we are constantly bombarded with messages about happiness. It sparks some weird emotional FOMO that does more to confuse and deflate than uplift. And we’re all susceptible to it. It’s why the world of self-help is an $11 billion industry.
Give peace a chance.
I realized along the way that I didn’t want to be happy so much as I just wanted to not feel so horrible all the time. I’d hoped that sobriety would put an end to the constant self-loathing inside my brain.
It was as if the world had a thick, gray film over it and nothing I did helped. Not yoga, not green smoothies, not meditation, not even sobriety.
But that’s not sobriety’s fault. It’s depression. And I had to admit that my mental health required professional attention and even THAT wasn’t going to make me instantly happy.
But it was a start.
Feeling Better & Finding Peace in Sobriety
I started to improve when I began to feel at peace with my life and circumstances. In the past, I was a frequent traveler of Memory Lane and it wasn’t a great street to be on.
Maybe I wasn’t drinking, but that didn’t stop me from swimming in regrets and guilt or feeling sorry for myself. There was a point where those feelings felt uncontrollable. I no longer believed that I could get out of this mental space on my own.
So I asked for help. And then I stopped acting like I knew everything.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
That was the beginning of a huge shift.
I learned to genuinely accept that I couldn’t change the past, that the way I thought about the world was often illogical, and that I could change it.
I could learn to see things differently. With a commitment to a healthier diet, exercise, some much-needed medication, and (of course) sobriety, eventually I’d emerge from the fog.
And I have!
It doesn’t mean I’m happy all the time or that I don’t cringe when I think about past behavior. Sometimes I think about my 20’s and wish I could have them back.
Every now and then I let my emotions get the best of me and “eat” my feelings.
But most of the time I don’t do any of those things.
And I’m not afraid of difficult or challenging experiences anymore.
Here’s the great thing about finding peace…
Once you make peace with yourself, “happiness” gets a lot easier. That’s mostly because you stop relying on external situations and people to make you happy.
You just find that you feel happier more often than you used to. You create something or achieve a goal. And that feels pretty friggin’ sweet, so you decide to go out and do it again.
It doesn’t matter that you fail along the way, which is inevitable. Rough patches don’t completely shatter you like before. They fuel you. And after a few wins, you start to like yourself a little bit more. Maybe not to Lizzo levels, but you notice that you don’t berate yourself as much.
These are subtle shifts. There’s no miracle moment or epiphany where you wake up one day and love yourself completely.
You come to peace with yourself (and life in general) when you stop expecting to avoid all the bad stuff like grief, anger, pain, or suffering. That stuff is never going away.
But maybe now that you quit drinking, you can stop causing yourself unnecessary pain. Even develop some emotional agility!
From Mark Manson again…
Seriously, check this guy out.
He writes in a blog post appropriately titled “Stop Trying To Be Happy“:
It’s the perpetual pursuit of fulfilling our ideal selves that grants us happiness, regardless of superficial pleasures or pain, regardless of positive or negative emotions. This is why some people are happy in war and others are sad at weddings. It’s why some are excited to work and others hate parties. The traits they’re inhabiting don’t align with their ideal selves.
The end results don’t define our ideal selves. It’s not finishing the marathon that makes us happy; it’s achieving a difficult long-term goal that does. It’s not having an awesome kid to show off that makes us happy; it’s knowing that you gave yourself up to the growth of another human being that is special. It’s not the prestige and money from the new business that makes you happy, it’s the process of overcoming all odds with people you care about.
Sobriety IS a huge accomplishment.
Once you hit those milestones, you feel energized (as you should)!
But you’re probably not going to feel that as soon as you’d like.
So instead of wishing that sobriety could make us happy, I suggest we eliminate that idea altogether. Let’s use sobriety to help us become more clear-headed and offer us space to improve our lives.
Sobriety has so many benefits. It helps you get to know yourself and once you do that, then you get a better idea about who you want to be. I don’t know about you, but one of the things that kept me going back to the bottle is that I didn’t know myself anymore.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And that kind of aimlessness destroyed me.
Once you stop escaping your life and choose to fully live it, you’ll notice that you actually do feel more fulfilled. You can give positive things more of your attention instead of sitting around a stewing all the time.
And I guess that’s what happiness ultimately ends up being: the ability to come to peace with yourself and care about your life enough to do something with it.
Been sober for 2+ years now I feel so down and sad. My anxiety is all over the place. One day I feel ok and energized then for 2 weeks I feel like I can’t leave my bed or talk to people. I remember the high lcohol gave me and the happy mask it made me wear I know I can’t drink because I will never stop l. I’ve tried medication it’s not working and my doctor keeps on doing trial and error medication I feel suicidal every morning .
Ryan, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It sounds like you’re suffering from very severe depression and anxiety. I wish I had a solution for you that could fix this quickly. Can you switch doctors or counselors to see if a different approach can help you?
I really like where you are going with this. I’m in a bad way mentally and emotionally and the only thing that I can think about doing is getting some drink and dropping this until tomorrow when the misery starts again. I really screwed my life up…been drinking and getting stoned for the last 30 years (just turned 57). I was near suicide the day after my birthday (I promised everyone I would quit during my 56th year). I do believe that Jesus made an appearance to me and made me think about why I wanted to be done with life.
Anyway I don’t know if I trust anything or anyone. I tried AA and I know that my group is praying for me…but I suck. Just a self indulgent person who only cares about the temporary bliss of partying. Recently (last week)…pulled over by cops after at least six beers and amazingly I was let go (didn’t even write me for running a yellow )…I didn’t drink the next day…but I did shortly thereafter and I want some now and probably will. Tomorrow I will try AA again, but I have for years and I just never got it. I’m not a bad person. I love my fellow man but I’m a slave to this and I don’t see why I can’t get it. I pray at night and in the morning. I don’t know what else to do. But I know that eventually all of us will leave this earth and hopefully it will be to go to heaven
Hi Phillip! Thank you for sharing. I can feel how much pain you are in. Alcohol does some truly horrific things to our brains and it sounds like you are stuck in a dark place with it now. Please do not give up hope. Have you considered an in-patient program combined with therapy?
Excellent article and I relate to this deeply.
I just hit 30 days and im in unknown territory. Discovering who i am and what do i genuinely want.
Terrifying still, but not knowing or facing this kept me drunk. Thank you for your article.
Hi! I battled with this for such a long time, coming to terms with the fact that my drinking is indeed a huge issue. How do you handle the situation in terms of family and friends? Do you tell them about your addiction for support even though you know they’ll just end up saying it’s not that bad, or do you just quietly stop drinking and they’ll see? Sorry if this is a stupid question but I am struggling with this thought.
Thanks for giving us hope and relatable material.
I think it all depends on your family dynamic. If you’re a close bunch, then I think you should divulge as much as you feel comfortable divulging. If you foresee issues, maybe just downplay it. “I’m not drinking anymore. Been there done that” kind of thing.