Science Says These 3 Mental Tricks Boost Happiness for Recovering Addicts

Bonus: They only take 15 minutes.

With the opioid epidemic raging on, substance abuse and mental health have shot to the forefront of our national consciousness. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2014. Eighty percent of those struggled with alcohol. And, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety—which is now officially the world's biggest mental health problem.

In spite of how prevalent substance abuse and mental health issues are, most people are not getting the treatment they need. It makes sense: it's hard to admit you have a problem, and, even if you do, many traditional treatment options are either overly expensive or unappealing in their methods.

But a new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment presents a novel approach to recovery, one that reflects the increasing trend of viewing alcohol, drugs, or nicotine not as something that you need to remove but as something that you need to replace.

"Addiction scientists are increasingly moving beyond the traditional focus on reducing or eliminating substance use by advocating treatment protocols that encompass quality of life. Yet orchestrated positive experiences are rarely incorporated into treatment for those with substance use disorders," said Bettina B. Hoeppner, senior research scientist at the Recovery Research Institute.

Traditionally, substance abuse treatment consists of figuring out the "root" of the problem and continuously working through it. While this is no doubt important to do, one of the side effects it that it can force people to constantly relive the painful or shameful experiences that led them to substances in the first place. So, instead, Hoeppner asked 500 recovering substance abusers to complete five short exercises that have previously been shown to boost happiness levels and see whether or not they were effective.

In the first exercise, "Reliving Happy Moments," they were asked to select a photo from their lives in which they felt happy and described what was happening in the picture.

In the "Savoring Exercise," they listed two positive experiences that they noticed and appreciated the preceding day.

In ""Rose, Thorn, Bud," they listed the highlight of the preceding day (Rose), something that went wrong (Thorn), and something they were looking forward to (Bud).

The "Three Good Things" exercise asked them to list three good things that happened on the preceding day.

Finally, "3 Hard Things" required them to list three challenges they faced on the preceding day.

Of the five, the "Three Good Things" exercise had poor results, and the "3 Hard Things" exercise actually led to a decrease in happiness. However, the other three exercises led to major gains in happiness levels. These results indicate that a crucial component of substance abuse recovery should be to encourage people to think happy thoughts.

"These findings underscore the importance of offsetting the challenges of recovery with positive experiences," Hoeppner said. "Recovery is hard, and for the effort to be sustainable, positive experiences need to be attainable along the way."

According to recent research, 50 percent of your happiness is, unfortunately, genetic. But only 10 percent of it is based on life circumstances, which means there's still a whopping 40 percent that's in your control.

What this new study indicates, yet again, is that happiness boils down to focusing on and appreciating the good in your life instead of the bad. It's easier said than done, but remember: the brain is a muscle, and completing certain exercises can help you rewire your ways of thinking. For more on this, check out everything I learned from taking Yale's Happiness Course.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more