Aim for Meaningful Living Instead of Happiness in Addiction Recovery

A big topic among meaning psychology researchers (we call them meaning experts!) is the difference between “happiness” and “meaning.” As you know from looking at the self-help section of bookstores, finding “happiness” is very big today. But many “meaning experts” do not have much faith that this will lead to a better life. The problem of making the goal of life to “be happy”? Human beings suffer. And some suffer terribly.

If your goal is to be happy, then what happens when you’re having a bad day? What happens if your teenage son acts out or crashes the car? What happens if work is causing you grief? If your goal is to be happy, you’re going to fail a great deal of the time.

But if your goal is to find meaning, then you don’t expect to be “happy” all the time. Meaning experts point out is that to be human is to suffer. It is as natural to life as a heart beat.

All of our clients at SCHC have suffered because of addiction. But those with good recovery actually tell us that they are “thankful” for their addictions. They are thankful for suffering because it helped them discover a more satisfying way of living. That’s a fact of human nature. We grow by overcoming our problems. Without problems, how would we grow? On the other hand, if your goal is to be happy, you certainly wouldn’t be thankful for suffering. You’d see that as a total failure.

Another problem with trying to be “happy” is that it is self-centered. If your goal is happiness, then you have to walk about the universe asking yourself, “Am I happy?” Think about that. If your concern is your own happiness, how much attention will you pay to others? And if you don’t pay attention to others you’ll be lonely and isolated.

Here are 4 Meaning Experts with research relevant to addiction and recovery who highlight the importance of meaningful living over “happiness”.

Todd Kashdan (Addiction & Making Sense of Emotions)

Dr. Todd Kashdan is a remarkable research psychologist. He’s only in his 30’s and has already published 100 articles and book chapters, all about meaning and purpose. And he’s written a book, “Curious.” At one of the INPM conferences we attended, he talked about one study he did with alcoholics, which should be of great help to understanding addiction and recovery.

The research project asked drinkers to carry around a beeper. When the beeper went off, they wrote down what they were feeling. And there were also specific times that he asked the drinkers to write down their feelings, such as just before they were going to drink.

The results were fascinating. It turns out that all the participants had intense feelings. Some were happy, some sad, some mad. But there was no link between the intensity of the feeling and the amount of alcohol they drank. This seems to contradict many beliefs about why people drink. Even our own clients often claim they get loaded because of an angry outburst with their partner, bad feelings at work, or because they felt good and wanted to feel even better.

According to Dr. Kashdan’s study, however, the real link with drinking was whether the person could describe his or her feelings. For example, if the participant wrote, “I feel bad,” then he would likely drink a lot. “Feeling bad” is not very descriptive. No detail. The person really couldn’t make sense of what he or she was feeling. But those who wrote, ‘I was feeling guilty because I raised my voice to a friend, and that’s not who I am’ would not drink that much. In other words, if the person could articulate and make sense of his emotions, he would drink significantly less.

So the link between emotions and drinking is not the intensity of the emotion so much, but whether he or she could name and detail what they were feeling. In other words, the key was whether the person could find meaning in the emotions. This ability is a big part of finding meaning and purpose in life.

Alex Pattakos

Dr. Alex Pattakos is known as Dr. Meaning. Pattakos basically takes Viktor Frankl’s theories and boils them down to make them understandable for everyone.

In past blogs, I have mentioned Frankl’s belief that each of us is free to choose the attitude we take toward something or someone. An example here is addiction. Most of our clients are angry at their addiction. It has caused them lots of suffering. Later, in recovery, many people change their attitude toward the addiction. Some people even say that they are “thankful” for it. The key to a good attitude is if it works for you. If being angry at your addiction is helpful, then it’s a good idea to stay angry at it. But if your attitude toward your addiction is a result of you really missing alcohol and drugs because you love to get high, then this likely won’t work out well for your recovery. But the point is that you have the freedom to change your attitude.

Pattakos talks about Frankl’s idea of de-reflection. Basically, de-reflection means changing your focus. He uses the example of “complaining”. Complaining is a common pastime for those with addiction problems. But the problem with complaining is that it does not solve anything. In fact, it usually reinforces a belief of being a victim. Pattakos relates the story of where he used to work. The staff complained so much about conditions that they went on strike. Pattakos’ boss said, “Good for them! However, the show must go on, so let’s see what we can do without them.” His boss used de-reflection, switching the focus from dwelling on all the problems due to the strike to dwelling on solutions.

Frankl also stressed the need for action. Pattakos provides exercises at the end of each chapter for the reader to consider. Although the topics are different, the key question is “What did you actually do about the problem?” It’s not enough in life to simply think about things you don’t like or wish for something better for yourself. You actually have to do something to change your life. This is a common problem for those in recovery. Clients often have a good intellectual knowledge of what they have to do and still suffer. The key is to act, not merely think about it.

Another example in Pattakos’ book is that people often work against themselves. This is very true for those in recovery. They may know that they have to make new friends, yet they keep in touch only with their using buddies. They may be trying to recover but refuse to give up going to the bar for their social life (they try to get away with drinking soda water). They may want a better relationship with their spouse, but they are always ready for an argument. In each of these cases, the person is working against himself.

Paul Wong

Dr. Paul Wong, whose ideas form the basis for our programming, regularly talks about meaning-centered therapy.

At Sunshine Coast Health Centre, we see the client as a unique human being, who happens to have an addiction. We see the human being first, rather than some patient that needs to be diagnosed and fixed.

Dr. Wong talked about “basic human needs”. These needs, according to his research, are: meaning (vs emptiness), virtue (vs destructive way of life), resilience (vs giving up), relationships (vs loneliness and alienation), hope (vs despair and depression), faith (vs fear), and well-being (vs boredom and brokenness).

If a therapist sees a client as a human being, then the therapist is interested in these basic needs. The problem is that each client has to find his own way of satisfying these needs; if he doesn’t, he will suffer unnecessarily. This is why our therapists never tell clients what to do, how to live their lives, or what they should think. No therapist can provide the answer to a client’s basic needs. That’s the client’s job. It’s not possible for a therapist to give a client well-being if they are bored and it’s not possible for a therapist to give a client a relationship if they are lonely. No therapist can fix a client.

Alexander Batthyany

Dr. Alexander Batthyany is head of the science and research department at the Viktor Frankl Institute in Vienna. He is also a professor of psychology at the University of Vienna.

Needless to say, he’s one of the world’s leading experts on Frankl. He often speaks about how Viktor Frankl interpreted what it means to live a good life. Our clients are told the story of Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi death camps. From these experiences, Batthyany developed the idea that human beings can choose how to live their lives. Even though the prison guards controlled their bodies, Frankl said that prisoners could still choose to control their minds.

Dr. Batthyany said that if someone punches you and you are angry about it, you still get to choose how you will react. If, out of anger, you punch back, then you choose to be aggressive. On the other hand, you can choose not to punch him back and find another way of dealing with it. So you have choices, or, as Dr. Batthyany put it, “there are lots of potential selves” you can choose from; which you choose dictates who you are. This is also what Frankl called “freedom.” You are free to choose your life.

In other words, it is not the circumstances that dictate your life, but how you react to the circumstances.

Dr. Batthyany also said it was a waste of time to pursue happiness, and anyone whose goal is “to be happy” will soon discover that this is not a good approach. Batthyany said that people whose goal is happiness have to ask themselves two questions: “Did I get what I want?” and “Am I feeling good?” Since it’s impossible always to get what you want and it’s impossible always to feel good, these people are doomed.

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