What Is Positive Sobriety?

The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd edition, defines “sobriety” as “seriousness or gravity; solemnity” as well as “absence of alcoholic intoxication.” This definition makes “positive sobriety” seem like an oxymoron. No doubt, abstinence in addiction requires serious effort. Certainly, the initiation of a program of abstinence is typically a solemn affair. However, the first promise of Alcoholics Anonymous, “We came to know a new freedom and new happiness” speaks to better things to come. The concept of positive sobriety is dedicated to the idea that recovery from addiction is a combination of solemn effort and pursuit of happiness.

What is so fascinating about the current research on happiness is that it contends that people often deceive themselves about what really will make them happy. This, of course, is cultivated by our culture, especially through the media, that the next thing consumed will give one a sense of sustained well being. Just looking at all the happy faces on commercials for beer, fast food restaurants, hair products, and the like demonstrates how the pursuit of happiness is cultivated in the current culture. This often-shared illusion keeps people in a state of chronic frustration and deprivation, as the media tactics only offer empty promises. Any relative gains in feelings of happiness that come from consumption quickly abate.

Many addicts, prior to exposure to addicting agents, can be seen as running “two quarts low in feel-good chemistry.” An exaggerated reward response occurs when predisposed addicts finds their drug(s) or behavior of choice. These feel-good chemicals are produced rapidly and in overabundance. A unique exaggerated reward response, or “high,” is the outcome of this deficit and sensitivity to mood-altering agents. This overabundance is only temporary. In fact, the addict’s brain soon adapts to the rewards and eventually produces less feel-good chemical than before the whole cycle started, creating “hedonic adaptation” and ever higher pleasure set-point. The brain basically fatigues in the face of this onslaught of good feeling.

So the addict simply stops using at this point, right? Wrong. Once this addiction train is out of the station, stopping it is no small feat. The part of the brain that can put the brakes on (the prefrontal cortex) is increasingly cut out of the process; the addict keeps seeking the high with increasingly less success hence creating a “hedonic treadmill.”

The addict is constitutionally prone to hedonic adaptation and the hedonic treadmill and needs to work hard reverse this tendency. In order to effectively accomplish this, the addict must accept the disease, increase self-awareness, work a program of recovery and be cognizant of the personality functions, strengths, and weaknesses, a pattern that is unique for every individual. This personality pattern interacts with triggers and recovery strategies that together create a fluid system that naturally shifts with the moment-to-moment fluctuations of daily life. Within a strong recovery program, a healthy balance within the dynamics of this system allows for the possibility of continued growth and a positive sobriety.