Happiness in Recovery: More than Just Being Abstinent

Many of our online alumni support programs focus on “positive change.” By practicing these new ideas, clients learn to apply some of the leading-edge approaches in psychology developed by researchers who have recognized that being “disease-free” does not necessarily equate to being healthy. This is true regardless of whether we are talking about physical disease such as cancer or mental illness such as depression.

When it comes to addiction, researchers are also reaching similar conclusions. Being simply abstinent is not enough. This is not really news for people who have worked in the addiction field. We all know a client who focused solely on being sober and then relapsed after coming to the conclusion that “if this is what recovery is like, then I might as well go back to being a drunk!”

Using Your Strengths: Creating Good Feelings in Recovery

Researchers in a particular branch of psychology known as Positive Psychology have recognized that some of us are happier than others and more resilient to problems when misfortune strikes. Over time, researchers have identified certain virtues and character strengths as the key to happiness and resilience. In their book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and ClassificationPeterson and Seligman have created a systematic classification that lists 6 virtues and 24 strengths to go with them:

Peterson and Seligman explain that their classification of positive characteristics is distinguished at three conceptual levels:

1. Virtues

Values by which society judges an individual to be of good character (wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence). Seligman and Peterson found these six virtues were valued as much by ancient tribes as they are by modern culture.

2. Character Strengths

Positive traits that individuals display  to one another. Practicing these character strengths bring about good feelings and gratification. In other words, character strengths are virtues in practice.

3. Situational Themes

Specific habits that allow people to exhibit character strengths in given situations. It is our ability to be aware of our surroundings that determine when we call forth our character strengths. For example, having dinner with friends may be a great opportunity to practice humour, whereas displaying leadership in the same situation may not be necessary (unless you are the one preparing the meal).

Character Strengths Vary from Person to Person

Recognizing that all human beings are unique, character strengths vary just like physical attributes such as height and weight. Likewise, all people are born with certain character strengths (“signature” strengths) while other character strengths do not come naturally and require regular use in order to develop them.

In grade school, we all remember classmates to whom all other kids would gravitate to (“leaders”), or those who always had their noses buried in books (“curious”, “love of learning”) while still others were constantly getting in trouble (again “curious” but also “brave” and sometimes “humourous” for the pranksters). But what about those kids that always seemed happy? What character strengths were they fortunate enough to have?

The Top Five Character Strengths That Correlate with Happiness

Research has identified 5 strengths which tend to be most highly correlated with high levels of positive emotion and life satisfaction:

  1. Curiousity
  2. Gratitude
  3. Enthusiasm
  4. Optimism
  5. Capacity to love and be loved

Again, study participants had one or some of these natural or “signature” character strengths. But like muscles, we don’t have to be born with these strengths, we can develop them through practice and regular use. Developing these character strengths can help individuals feel inspired and invigorated rather than depleted and drained.

Identifying Your Own Character Strengths

Many of us have adapted to life using our character strengths without even knowing it. On the other hand, some of us are not utilizing our character strengths at all. Why? There are many factors that cause us to avoid our character strengths (e.g. parent influence). For example, you may have chosen a job that you thought would win the approval of others or would make a lot of money. Yet, you may feel utterly bored and dissatisfied at work.

What you say about yourself can also bury your character strengths. For example, you may privately say to yourself, “people don’t like me.” These negative messages we send ourselves have a habit of being self-fulfilling.

Often, we lose sight of our “signature” strengths at our own peril. We may even pick up drugs or alcohol to fill the void left by living a life that is not consistent with who we really are.

Identifying and Nurturing “Sobriety” Strengths and Signature Strengths in Addiction Treatment

We recognize that clients in our drug rehab and alcohol treatment programs all have one thing in common: addictions. So we recommend that all of our clients develop strengths beneficial to them in recovery: gratitude, humility, forgiveness, and tolerance.

At the same time, we also recognize that clients are unique individuals. Therefore, our counsellors also work with clients to help  to develop their own unique signature strengths that will help them in recovery. Since these signature strengths vary from individual to individual, our programs allow for a certain amount of flexibility.


Unfortunately, many programs are still stuck in the old model and focus primarily on getting rid of the “disease” of addiction, rather than focusing on positive change and personal transformation. While we recognize that addiction does have certain disease-like characteristics, spending too much time with clients dwelling on this is not helpful. It may even be detrimental if the client ends up leaving treatment fearful of relapse* rather than looking forward to applying their new skills in recovery. We, on the other hand, are committed to having clients experience a new lease on life that goes far beyond mere abstinence.

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