The other day, the idea of happiness inundated my thoughts and I couldn't stop thinking about what happiness means. I was not so concerned with the denotation of the word, but more about the connotation and how it correlates differently with different people and why. From there, I could not help but think about my definition of happiness and how it has changed since I quit drinking. What seems so obvious to me now, I know is quite foreign to anyone who has not yet experienced the difference between happiness while in active addiction and happiness in the absence of addiction. How do I articulate to someone still using, their perceived happiness may in fact, not actually be a reliable measure of the truth? This got me thinking about other aspects of our realities while using that may also be only a fraction of the truth. How we define fun, for example, is much different for the person living without alcohol than the person still using. Another example, and this one stings a bit, is how we define our friendships. How much of our reality while in active addiction is actually false? How do we know? And, more importantly, what do we do about it once we know the difference?
What is happiness? Can you define it? We all think we know what it means, but do we really know what it means to us? Do we actively seek out happiness, or do we expect or hope for it to emerge for us? My favorite comedian, Bo Burnham's last stand-up special was called Make Happy. He talked a lot about the illusion of happiness and how we try to convince ourselves we are happy when we may, in fact, be quite miserable. He talked about how social media is destroying any hope we have of actually finding the happiness we so desperately seek. There is a strong and undeniable difference between intrinsic and extrinsic happiness. One is given to us, the other is created by us. Like anything else in the world, the things that hold the most meaning are often the things we have to work to obtain.
When I was in active addiction, I pretty much lived for what my therapist taught me was extrinsic motivators. I truly believed nothing was worth doing unless I received something tangible in return. I needed to see a result or reward for my work. In my mind, it made no sense to work hard for no reason. Why would someone do that? I remember even trying to use this way of thinking in therapy. If I do this, then I get this? My therapist did not entertain my need for extrinsic motivation. She simply kept pushing me toward what I really needed but never before experienced, intrinsic motivators. The idea of working hard for a feeling was absolutely ridiculous in my mind. So what, I work my ass off and then get to feel good about it? That's stupid. How do I show someone my feelings? How do I brag about what I have accomplished if I have nothing to show for it? You don't, idiot.
In my defense, I didn't know the difference. I believed my worth was defined by what I could prove or show off to others. I thought I had to literally put my accomplishments on a pedestal for all to see in order for others to acknowledge me as a successful person. My happiness was derived from other people and other things. My happiness was wholly extrinsic. When I quit drinking and using nicotine I, for the first time, received an intrinsic reward and finally understood what my therapist had been trying to show me for over a year. I felt accomplished. I felt strong. I felt successful. I felt happy. What did I have to show for it? Nothing but a feeling and that feeling is worth more today than any material thing I have ever received. What is even better is when the feeling becomes an expectation. It is no longer something we strive for, it is something we deserve and because of that, we are more open to seeing from where happiness actually originates. It comes from within and only we can create our own happiness and joy. Nobody can give it to us and nobody can define it for us. Happiness is not a thing, it is a state of being that cannot be seen or shown off. Only we know what happiness means for us and only we know how to achieve it. Here is a good place to start. Stop looking for it and start learning how to feel it.
This is an interesting one because it is the first thing most people think of when they think about giving up alcohol. Life is going to be so boring. I will be so boring. What kind of fun can I have sober? These thoughts are valid, kind of. They are valid only because for the better part of our lives we defined fun in conjunction with alcohol. The two have been almost exclusively present in a simultaneous union of experience. Anything we did we did with alcohol. If I go to a party I drink. The party was fun, so alcohol is fun. If I go to a ball game, I drink. The ball game was fun, so alcohol is fun. If I go camping I drink. Camping was fun, so alcohol is fun. If I go out dancing I drink. Dancing was fun, so alcohol is fun. If I go... you get the idea. If everything I do alcohol is present, then my experience of all those things is because of the alcohol. Of course, this could not be further from the truth.
Why can we not see, when we are in active addiction, that all of the above things were fun not because of the alcohol but because of the activity itself and with whom we shared the activity. If alcohol is not present, parties are still fun. If alcohol is not present, ball games are still fun. If alcohol is not present, camping is still fun. If alcohol is not present... well, life is fun. I am pretty certain I can speak for a lot of people when I say it can be argued that life and all of our activities are actually more fun without the presence of alcohol. Why? Because alcohol numbs our senses and fun is something we experience through our senses including our emotions. If we are numb it is physically impossible to fully experience the joys associated with an activity. We experience only a fraction of the potential available to us in regard to fun. So, with all of our senses and faculties in place and open to receiving the full enjoyment of an activity, the activity will, in fact, be even more fun. Let's not forget the complete and utter lack of fun experienced after the fact if we have been drinking too. That is definitely no fun.
As I stated in the introduction, this one stings a little. In fact, when I was talking my way through the idea for this blog, I said the phrase false friendships, and my partner cringed. It is not fun to think of our past friendships as false on any level. At the time, we see any given friendship as a real and viable relationship we can rely on to help us negotiate the variables present in everyday life. Unfortunately, when we are in active addiction, we tend to surround ourselves with people in the same predicament as us. I say predicament because addiction is certainly a state of mind and condition of the body. From an emotional state, we need others to support our habits in order for us to avoid having to beat ourselves up over our poor decisions. If we are constantly reminded of our problems by those with whom we surround ourselves, we do not feel good around those people. So, we surround ourselves with people who do not remind us of our problems and with whom we can indulge even further without judgment. I am not saying these friends cannot be good friends too, but often they are enablers and we actively sought them out for that reason.
What happens to the way we see people and our time with people when we do not have to worry about the judgment of our behaviors? We become more discerning with whom we spend our time. We become less patient with people whom we perceive as wasting our time. We take stock in the activities in which we choose and with whom we choose to participate. This occurs because, without our addictions, we now experience our time differently and more wholly. We are not worried about fulfilling our desires to enact our addiction, we are more concerned with experiencing whatever experience is available with whom we share our time. We now know time can be lost and we are no longer willing to accept lost time as an option. We have thrown away too many experiences and people to continue living in such a shallow way.
With this in mind, we open ourselves up to people who also desire to share quality time over inconsequential and wasted time. We develop friendships with whom we are able to experience the full potential of what life has to offer. We find friends who see us for who we truly are rather than what we can do for them. We create lasting friendships because they are formed from a foundation of truth and reality rather than from a foundation of selfish intention. The friendships we are able to form when fully in touch with our senses and faculties are like few other friendships we experience as adults. The only other friendships we form as real as this are the ones we formed as children. This is, unfortunately, due in part to our altered states of mind when in active addiction. When we let go of our addictions, we open up the possibility for real authentic and unadulterated relationships and friendships, much like the ones we experienced as children.
If this hits a little too close to home for you, then you are almost there. If not, then you may still be struggling with the falsities prevalent in a life defined by alcohol. I know it's hard to see at first, but I promise you, once you see it you cannot unsee it and your life will forever change for the better. This will occur because you will finally begin to define what happiness means to you, what fun really feels like, and who your people truly are. Good luck, have fun, and enjoy the process. There is nothing quite like letting go of our false realities.