How Twelve Step Programs Can Make You a Happier Person

Keep your “soles” in the room

March 20th has been designated International Day of Happiness by 193 member states of the United Nations, who have adopted a resolution calling for happiness to be given greater attention and priority.

There is a philosophical shift in attitudes in which people all over the world are recognizing that ‘progress’ should be be measured not only by economic growth, but an increase in human happiness and wellbeing.

Today many researchers use the word happiness to cover a collection of qualities including “the experience of joy, contentment and positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California Riverside.

Pursuing goals of becoming rich and famous and going after high achievement are what media of all forms tout as pathways to happiness, but are they? Let’s start by looking at what studies are finding about what happiness isn’t. According to Emiliana Simon-Thomas PhD of Greter Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, happiness is not:

· Having all your personal needs met

· Always feeling satisfied with life

· Feeling pleasure all the time

· Never feeling negative emotions

It’s relationships, according to the longest running study from Harvard that began in 1938 (when Harvard was still all men), that are the most significant predictor of happiness.

Robert Waldinger one of the leads of the 75 year study said this about participants in his revealing and interesting TED Talk.(

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team in 1968 and led the study from 1972 until 2004 further reflects that. “when the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”

While the findings demonstrated that this effect is the strongest for those who are married, it also shows that social connection of all kinds can provide the kind of community that leads to health and happiness.

So how does that relate to twelve step programs?

It is no secret in our profession that withdrawl and social isolation often go hand in hand with depression and relational trauma.Twelve step programs offer a solution. I have found over the years that those clients who attend them, often have an easier time changing their lives for the better and sustaining that change over time. Deep change doesn’t hinge on thinking the right thought or finally figuring out just what happened to you in your family or origin. Deep change comes from just what this research reveals, a sense of belonging and connection. People who enter recovery have deep yearning for new and more positive attachment figures and a more nourishing relationship with themselves. What twelve step programs provide is a container that is available on a daily basis that gives people a place to go to feel real, to drop down into their own human-ness. A room to go to into in which they can let their hair down, share what’s going on with them and then move on with their day. Those in recovery have immediate and pressing needs that therapy once or even twice a week cannot fully address. Therapy brings up powerful feelings and twelve step programs give those feelings a place to be shared as they continue to percolate throughout the week. And this sense of connection and belonging is re-patterning, we learn that connection can feel good, that we can open up with our fears and pain and not be put down or blamed for trying to be honest. We rebuild trust in life’s ability to repair and renew itself and we learn how to tolerate our own strong feelings in a room where other people are doing the same.

I always feel sad when people are not able to avail themselves of these programs for reasons such as “I don’t like the God emphasis” or “I just don’t believe in them”, because I have long been aware that the social connection that programs provide are part of what is most healing. While “working the program” is deeply beneficial, it has been my experience that simply “getting you soles into the room” adds greatly to a sense of personal well being and integrity. Opening up and sharing who we are and having that witnessed and accepted reduces shame and enhances a feeling of being connected rather than alone. The sense of relationship that those in recovery find brings a deep sense of joy and belonging that research is now finding are core to good physical and emotional health and a greater sense of well being.

Recovery puts great emphasis on the kinds of qualities that, it turns out, are building blocks of happiness. Emphasis on honesty, courage, integrity, emotional insight, discipline, faith and willingness, can and often do produce the kinds of states like well being and contentment that lead to a happier life. And twelve step programs teach us that good orderly direction and a sense of connection are good things that add meaning and purpose to our lives.

Reference: World of Psychology,5 Reliable Findings from Happiness Research, By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

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