By Stephanie Thomas

You made the decision to walk away from your addiction. That’s a really big deal! Consider this a virtual high five and — yeah, let’s just go for it — an enthusiastic happy dance. After all, just because recovery is serious business doesn’t mean your life has to be.

But I Don’t Feel Joyful…

BalloonsIf you’re having trouble feeling happy in recovery you might think it’s all in your head. And you’re right. But not for the reason you think.

Dopamine tells your brain, “That thing I just did? It made me feel good.” Your brain gets the message when you indulge in a hobby, hang out with friends or even smell a yummy candle. The problem? Mood-altering substances release way more dopamine than regular happiness boosters.1

So if you’re hoping to feel as joyful in your new routine as you did when you were using, you’re trying to trick science. And that’s tough stuff. That’s why some folks in recovery begin to feel deprived and even look back on their struggle with substance abuse as the good ol’ days.2

Of course, logic tells us that addiction equals bondage and true happiness comes to those who are free. Joy is a tall order. But it’s also a worthy pursuit.

Where Is Joy When I Need It Most?

Sometimes finding what you need is as simple as knowing where to look. And when it comes to acquiring joy, awareness goes a long way.

1. Find Joy in Vulnerability.

Researcher Brené Brown calls joy “the most terrifying, difficult emotion we experience as humans.”3 As she explains, whenever we find ourselves face-to-face with joy — think watching your child take his first step, reciting vows at your wedding or reaching a milestone in sobriety — our joy gets paired with a twinge of pain. This moment is good, we think, but life won’t always be good.

Our fear of the future makes us feel intensely vulnerable. Instead of embracing joy, we resist, put up a wall, throw the cold shoulder. Or, as Brown puts it: “We beat vulnerability to the punch.”3

Thankfully, there’s another way: gratitude.3 (More about that later ….)

2. Find Joy in Everyday Moments.

We often think of happiness and joy as intangible aspects of our circumstances — they are the wind, and we catch the breeze as it blows. Thought leader Chade-Meng Ten disagrees.

His mindfulness approach gives each of us the power to choose joy. He says, “Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere … and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.”4

And so, following Chade-Meng’s theory, as you go throughout your day, good things are present. These things may seem insignificant, like the rising of the sun, but they are present just the same. Joy comes when you notice them. Joy is your reward for noticing.4

3. Find Joy in Practice.

Beth, now in long-term recovery from alcoholism, says:

“I think a lot of people in early recovery feel like once they stop doing whatever self-destructive stuff they were doing that they’re going to become so joyous. The thing about early recovery is that it’s hard. You don’t feel particularly great a lot of the time. Recovery is really about going on faith in the beginning” (emphasis added).

Being joyful takes practice, and that’s okay.

How Can I Cultivate Joy?

Once you begin to see little sprouts of joy pop up, set down some roots by being proactive in the following ways:

1. Be Actively Grateful.

Brown offers this strategy for accepting vulnerability and embracing joy. And she’s not the only one. David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic monk, also believes gratefulness is the key to joy.

He says, “We can be people who live gratefully … by becoming aware that every moment is a gift. … This moment with all the opportunity that it contains. This moment is a gift. … And opportunity is the gift within every gift.”5

Powerful words for recovery. As you encounter moments of peace, laughter, understanding and growth — and all the possibilities those moments hold — pause to simply be grateful.

2. Do Something Fun.

Studies show that people who truly shake addiction do so by filling their time with activities they love.1

Not sure what you love to do these days? Try one of these on for size:

  • Be creative. Creativity boosts happiness and can even contribute to a sense of “strength and resilience.”6
  • Go outside. Fresh air clears your mind and ups endurance, while sunlight keeps you calm.7,8
  • Play. Yes, play! Besides the obvious, play actually has the ability to heal emotional wounds.9 Any questions?

3. Keep a List of Healthy Treats Handy.

Happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin found that treats play an essential role in establishing good habits and in keeping the good feelings flowing.

She says: “When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for and contented, which boosts our self-command — and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits.”10

This matters in recovery. The best kind of joy is simply life’s fulfillment of hope. And your big hope right now is that you’ll change your habits for good. So make a list of healthy treats — and think outside the box! While treats can be something to eat or cost money, they certainly don’t have to!

Consider this encouragement from Beth, one of our Heroes in Recovery: “It’s okay if you feel crappy in the beginning. There’s a lot to be said for getting through a day feeling crappy and not self-destructing. … If you put enough of those days together, you are going to feel better.”


1 Sullivan, Meg. “Kicking An Addiction? Replace it with Joy, UCLA Expert Advises in New Book.” UCLA Newsroom, November 12, 2015.

2 Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.”Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 3, 2015.

3 Brené Brown on Joy: It’s Terrifying.” YouTube, uploaded by Oprah Winfrey Network, March 17, 2013.

4 MacLellan, Lila. “Google’s Former Happiness Guru Developed a Three-Second Brain Exercise for Finding Joy.” Quartz Media, October 27, 2016.

5 Steindl-Rast, David. “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful.” TED, June 2013.

6 Jacobs, Tom. “Not-So-Tortured Artists: Creativity Breeds Happiness.” Pacific Standard, February 18, 2014.

7 Seepter, Urmet. “6 Health Benefits of Fresh Air.”Good Relaxation, January 3, 2012.

8 Miller, Christa. “The Effects of Sunlight and Fresh Air on the Body.”, August 14, 2017.

9 Robinson, L., et al. “The Benefits of Play for Adults: How Play Benefits Your Relationships, Bonding and Mood.” org, April 2017.

10 Rubin, Gretchen. “What Healthy Treats Do You Give Yourself? (Note the “Healthy.”).”, March 17, 2017.