Rick Hanson PhD
Nov 27, 2013
By “sobriety,” I mean healthy self-control, a centered enjoyment of life, and an inner freedom from drivenness. We typically apply this sense of balance and self-care to things like food, drugs and alcohol, sexuality, money, and risky behaviors. And if you like, you could bring sobriety to other things as well, such as to righteousness, contentiousness, over-working, or controlling others.
At bottom, sobriety is the opposite of craving, broadly defined: you’re not going to war with what’s unpleasant, chasing after what’s pleasant, or clinging to what’s heartfelt.
Personally, I think of sobriety in terms of the big picture, and in the context of a life well-lived. Pigging out over a luscious meal with friends once a month is one thing, but over-eating daily is another. Bottom-line, if you can’t do something within appropriate bounds, you can’t do it at all. Most of us – me included – know where we tend to go too far and need to establish a more wholesome balance. And obviously, any behavior that harms others should go to zero.
You might think of sobriety as a kind of loss, but it’s actually fueled by a sense of gain. Sure, there’s a place for using your will. But studies show that willpower gets depleted fairly quickly in most people. Instead of willing yourself to avoid the bad, enjoying the good – the benefits of your sobriety – will naturally draw you in a higher direction.
Set yourself up to succeed. Do what you can to take care of your deeper needs so you feel less driven to distract yourself, numb out, or get high. Reduce temptations; if you’re trying to stop drinking, don’t have alcohol in your home. Get support, from an honest conversation with your partner to a 12-step program (or secular alternatives) and/or counseling. Don’t underestimate the power of craving: if you’ve tried to change in the past and not succeeded, recognize that you’ll need to increase your inner and outer resources for sobriety to have a different result this time around.
As they say in Tibet: If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. Take it a minute at a time, a day at a time. When you have a chance to enjoy your sobriety, really help the experience sink in, which will gradually incline your mind and brain toward the high road instead of the low one. Sober traits are grown in your brain by actually installing sober states. If you don’t register your positive states – if you don’t take the dozen seconds or so to help them sink in – they make little or no difference to your brain: then there’s no learning, no improvement in neural structure or function, and thus no lasting benefit. (For more on this, see Hardwiring Happiness.)
So, to support and maintain your sobriety, enjoy and really take in its benefits. At the start of a day, an evening, or even a minute, commit to and enjoy the anticipated positive results of sobriety. While you are being sober in some way, enjoy the results. After being sober, looking back, take in the sense of its benefits.
Enjoy the bliss of blamelessness. The feeling that there is nothing to be ashamed of, that you are taking an honorable path. The knowledge that you are putting distance every day between yourself and problematic past behaviors. Enjoy the sense of worth, of self-respect.
Enjoy the pleasures of a clear mind and a healthy body. Be glad about not putting toxins – the source of the word, intoxication – into your body and mind. Feel good about the gift you are giving your future self.
Enjoy the results in your relationships. Enjoy not feeling embarrassed the day after, or hung-over, or tired because you stayed up too late. Savor the respect of others. Be glad you avoided needless quarrels. Feel good about not harming others. Be glad you’ve cleared the field so you can focus on getting your wants met in the relationship.
Enjoy learning how to manage stress and have fun in more wholesome, psychologically mature ways.
Enjoy the freedom in not being compelled to drink, etc. The pleasure in feeling in charge of your own actions, mind, and life.
Enjoy the opportunity to learn about desire by not fulfilling it. Be more realistic about the actual rewards of indulging desires; enjoy waking up from the spells cast – “Drink this! Smoke that! Eat these!” – by addictive hungers. Enjoy how sobriety supports your practices in the upper reaches of human potential, including in spiritual life.
Most deeply, enjoy relating to the world and to your life not gripped at the throat by desire. Enjoy the inner peace that comes from not being compelled to do things that may feel good in the moment but have big lingering costs for you and others.