Positive Psychology and Addiction Recovery

Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology, especially as it relates to addiction recovery. It started in the late ‘90s by pioneers like Martin Seligman. Unlike most psychology, which deals largely with the treatment of mental illness, positive psychology aims to answer the question “What makes people happy?” By studying mental wellness as opposed to mental illness, positive psychology has made great strides in quantifying activities and behaviors that encourage success and contentment.

At the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, I’m conducting research that looks at the potential of positive psychology in alcohol and chemical addiction treatment programs – and seeing compelling results.

Positive Psychology and Recovery

I started in this field with an internship at a Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City that treated chemical addiction and mental illness in formerly homeless men. It was profoundly meaningful to me; seeing the degree to which a well-organized program could help these men turn their lives around was inspiring.

Later in my career, as my interest in the potential of positive psychology grew, I began to look for research that examined the application of positive psychology to addiction. To my surprise, there was very little.

I decided it needed to be done, so we conducted two preliminary studies. I interviewed substance abuse counselors and asked them if they thought positive psychology interventions would be helpful to their work or if they used anything resembling positive psychology in their programs. We also reviewed the existing literature on the subject to see if anything pointed us toward an effective approach.

I began to focus on gratitude, the aspect of positive psychology that to me held the most potential in recovery programs. It’s a naturally occurring emotion among individuals in recovery. For example, it is a common theme in Alcoholics Anonymous. The importance of expressing gratitude is also deeply embedded in most chemical treatment and 12-step programs, making it a perfect fit for our pilot study.

Positive Psychology, Addiction and “Three Good Things”

To test the effectiveness of gratitude practices in recovery patients, we organized a study based on daily online surveys. Participants were divided into test and control groups. We told them they were taking part in a 14-day study on the daily lives of people in alcohol treatment programs. Patients in the test group were asked to fill out text boxes with three things they were grateful for that day – a way of having them do Martin Seligman’s well-known “Three Good Things” positive psychology exercise. Members of the control group were asked an identical number of questions, but these were related to sleep patterns, caffeine intake, and use of electronic devices. Therefore, the individuals in the control group’s experiences were identical to the test group’s, except for the gratitude component.

While this is a small pilot study, our preliminary results are encouraging. When we analyzed the data, we found that the people in the gratitude group experienced lower levels of negative mood and greater levels of feeling calm and serene. The control group had no change.

After the study was complete, we invited the people in both groups to talk about the experience. The people in the gratitude group also said that, in addition to having an impact on their mood, the positive psychology practice changed their thought processes. It made their thinking more positive and pulled them away from habitual negative thinking. It also had the unanticipated effect of reinforcing their recovery, because when they were asked, “Why did that good thing happen?” they would say, “Because I’m in recovery now and not drinking.”

We hope that future studies can help highlight the potential of positive psychology practice in chemical dependency treatment. It has the potential to brighten the mood of individuals in treatment which could improve the experience of life in recovery and hedge against relapse.

A Positive Approach To Supporting A Loved One In Recovery

Having someone you love in the grips of addiction is one of the most stressful things that can happen to a person. It’s a source of constant worry for the entire family, and people often don’t know where to turn. Here are some important tactics and resources you can rely on to make the situation better.

Explore Al-Anon or other support groups for families of addiction. The most accessible group dedicated to families of the chemically dependent is Al-Anon (a sister organization to Alcoholics Anonymous), but there are others. Find one in your community and see what they have to offer, or surf their web page for helpful information – too often families wait until they are facing a crisis before seeking help.

Consider reading “It Takes a Family” by Debra Jay and “Love First” by Jeff and Debra Jay. These books come highly recommended by Jim Balmer, the president of Dawn Farm addiction treatment center. They provide families a blueprint for working together with loved ones through the challenges of treatment and recovery, from the early stages of treatment to long-term sobriety.

Allow consequences to happen. The best practices for dealing with someone who is addicted are often contrary to what logically make sense. For example, if a husband stays up all night drinking, it seems to make sense for the wife to call the job and explain that he’s going to be late. The reality is that it’s likely to help them avoid the consequences of their actions and enabling their addiction.

Encourage positive, healthy family activities. People can stop using drugs and alcohol, but they still need to move on and build a good life for themselves. A good sober life, one that is rich and pleasurable, can be positively reinforcing. Reinforce recovery for your loved one by taking part in social, fun and pleasurable activities with them that have nothing to do with drinking or addiction.

Care for yourself first. People who are caring for a loved one who’s struggling with addiction are often under more stress than they realize. The consistently high levels of stress and worry can quickly become the new “baseline.” Though you want to do the best for your family member, what is best for them often times is taking good care of your own health and well-being.

Amy Krentzman

About the Author

Amy Krentzman, Ph.D.

  • Ph.D., Master of Social Work
  • Assistant Professor, School of Social Work
  • College of Education and Human Development

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