[Guest blog by Rick Kuplinski, SMART Recovery facilitator]
“How are you?” Usually this is less a question than it is just something people say to greet each other. (Think about how many times you are asked this vs. how many times the person asking is truly interested in your answer.)
Sometimes, we recognize this as not really a question and keep our response simple: “Okay. “Fine.” “Doing well.” But often we feel we must reach for a superlative: “Awesome.” “Terrific.” “Outstanding.” Some of us even have our own favorite ways to really impress people with the greatness of our condition: “On top of the world!” Doing better than a human should!” “Kicking ass and taking names.”
Imagine, however, when our answer is simply, “I am content.” How do people react to that? My impression is that some people think we must be under the influence of something. They think that “contentment” must mean that we have settled for some lower standard of happiness, you know, the cheaper bargain brand vs. the good stuff on the top shelf.
I, too, have mistaken contentment for lesser happiness. I now understand the effect it had on my addictive behavior (with alcohol). And here it is: It led to my forming unrealistic beliefs about happiness that were irrational, and unhelpful . . . and then drinking to cope with the distress caused by these beliefs. Sometimes this was through thrill-seeking behavior; using alcohol to try to take things to an elusive next level in my search of greater happiness. (Getting drunk before a rock concert is an example that immediately comes to mind.) At other times it was through numbing or escape behavior when there didn’t seem hope of finding the heightened or constant state of happiness I conditioned myself to expect. (I immediately think of long lonely, bored nights of drinking in hotels while traveling for work.)
Through participation in SMART Recovery, I am learning to embrace contentment as a more rational and realistic standard of happiness. How? That’s for each of us to figure out in our own addiction recovery journeys, but it starts with the willingness to challenge and dispute the very beliefs about happiness that are causing us not to be so happy. It is not as easy as demanding “Serenity now!” like Frank Costanza in Seinfeld. But it is possible by applying the principles of SMART Recovery and the tools featured in our handbook and discussed at our meetings. Here are some examples:
Unconditional Acceptance to remind ourselves that we as humans are not perfect, that things are what they are, and that happiness is a relative and temporal condition Why? To have (dare I say) the serenity to appreciate happiness in all its forms and our various degrees of feeling it.
Disputing Irrational Beliefs to understand and challenge when our thoughts are based on cognitive distortions like demand thinking, rating and comparing, awfulizing, low frustration tolerance, etc. Why? Developing this skill helps use minimize our biases and misconceptions and to replace them with more effective new beliefs about happiness that do not result in repetition of unhelpful or harmful behaviors.
Hierarchy of Values to clarify a reasonable number of things in life (five?) that are truly important to us; things by which we hope to live our lives. Why? With better understanding of what brings us happiness the more likely we are to base our thoughts and our actions on the pursuit of those things (vs. happiness defined by others). Also see Vital Absorbing Creative Interests, which is another SMART Recovery Tool to promote similar effect.
The ABC Tool. Why? To have at the ready a practical method for better understanding and regulating our beliefs about the things that we think are responsible for making us less happy when it is what we believe that actually does that.
Finally, I recommend this quote from author Kurt Vonnegut, which I use as a reminder to appreciate happiness in all forms, especially that good, plain vanilla, everyday contentment: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
EPILOGUE: During the time this essay was being written, my 91-year-old father took ill and was admitted to the hospital. My brothers and I would ask him, “Are you okay? Are you getting everything you need? Can we bring you anything?” And each time, our father’s response was: “I am content.” A few weeks later, he passed away. There is so much for us to be grateful about his life, and we took comfort that he found the peace of contentment in his final days. He was aware of his circumstances, but not tormented by thoughts of things that he could not or did not care to control. He just decided to be as happy as he could be. That’s not a bad way to leave this world. Or to live life in it while we still can.
SMART Recovery is a science- and evidence-based program that provides educational and peer support to those who want to abstain and gain independence from all addictive behaviors, whether or not they involve alcohol or drugs. The program emphasizes building motivation and self-empowerment skills, employing strategies to control urges, managing thoughts at the root of addictive behaviors and living a healthy, balanced life. Go to the “Meetings” tab at www.smartrecovery.org to find an in-person or online meeting to attend.