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Optimism, Wellness, and Recovery, Part II

Optimism, Wellness, and Recovery, Part II

This is the second installment in a two-column series focusing on the impact of optimism on wellness and recovery. The initial column dealt with the impact of optimism on our overall physical and mental-emotional health. This final installment provides a more detailed treatment concerning the role of optimism in recovery from addiction.


Working Your Program


The majority of people who are successful in maintaining and strengthening their sobriety embrace the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and other Twelve Step programs.  


At first glance the Twelve Steps can be intimidating to many newcomers. Indeed, I reacted very negatively when I was initially introduced to the Steps several decades ago. I was particularly turned off by what I perceived as admonitions to admit that I was powerless and turn my life over to God; to take an exhaustive moral inventory of all my faults and confess my misdeeds to everyone I had wronged; and to bare my soul to the world proclaiming all future wrong doings. Being at that time a pessimistic and very self-critical person by nature, I was sick and tired of beating myself up and wanted no part of this.


Thankfully, once we reach the point where we are ready to roll up our sleeves, give the program an earnest try, and begin to really make a connection, we find that we are able to draw tremendous hope and strength from embracing the core teachings. Principles that I find to be particularly helpful include:


  • Inviting a beneficent higher power into my life and making a conscious decision to turn my life over to the care and guidance of that higher power as I understand him (or her).  It is truly liberating to avail ourselves to the divine grace and guidance of a power greater than ourselves, and to realize that we do not need to go it alone.
  • Being able to turn to my higher power for help in facing up to my own shortcomings and striving to replace these defects with more wholesome thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. I truly believe in the grace of a forgiving God and celebrate the ability to release my self-imposed burden of clinging to past wrongdoings and wallowing in guilt and despair.  


I firmly believe that anyone in recovery will discover a virtually unlimited wellspring of hope and strength through working their chosen program, provided that they go to the right meetings (those that lift you up rather than bring you down), work with a sponsor whom they trust and admire, and remember to “stick with the winners.”
Applying Cautious Optimism in Our Recovery


This section draws heavily on the wisdom of Patrick, the anonymous author of an online post titled “Using Optimism to Overcome Alcoholism and Addiction,” and Dr. Alan Loy McGinnis, a leading proponent of positive psychology. I strongly recommend that you read the entire text of Patrick’s article. And Patrick, if by any chance you are reading this column, I strongly encourage you to publish your own book on the role of cautious optimism in recovery—you’re The Man, brother!


At the outset, Patrick wisely counsels readers, particularly those in early recovery, to cultivate the quality of cautious optimism as an integral component of their recovery journey.  


Sadly, most people entering recovery overestimate their ability to overcome addiction, while underestimating the power of the disease. Such an unrealistically optimistic attitude constitutes the worst form of denial and provides a sure-fire path to relapse. This posture can—and all too often does—lead to dangerous rationalizations such as, “Hey, I’ve got it under control, surely just one drink won’t hurt me” or “I really don’t need these meetings; I’ve got my act together compared to those losers.”  


Cautious optimism, according to Patrick, starts with the sobering observation that the odds are heavily stacked against you. In truth, only a slim percentage of those who attempt to quit drinking or drugging will still be clean and sober a year later. Additionally, of those who manage to make it through the first year, only a small percentage will eventually attain ten years of continuous sobriety.  


The point is not to be intimidated by these statistics; rather the message is to embrace your recovery with a persistently cautious optimistic attitude that is firmly grounded in reality. In Patrick’s words, it takes more than a decision to get sober; it takes a decision followed by persistent enthusiasm, concerted action, and staunch determination.  


In a way, applying cautious optimism in recovery is analogous to the Buddha’s Holy Middle Path (Kornfield, 1993). While recognizing that overconfidence is a sure pathway to relapse, we must also maintain a persistent attitude of hope and determination, particularly when the going gets rough. Without maintaining a strong attitude of tough minded optimism and a strong reservoir of courage to draw upon when our life seems totally out of whack, it becomes all too easy to play “poor me” and use our setbacks as excuses for relapse.   


Other applications of cautious optimism in recovery include planning positive actions without becoming attached to the outcome, and embracing gratitude as in integral component of life in recovery. While it is great to have ambitious plans, we must guard against becoming addicted to a particular outcome. Otherwise we risk setting ourselves up for an emotional crash when we fail to achieve our desired goal. If that becomes an ingrained pattern, we may find ourselves sliding down the slippery slope to relapse.


Quoting from Patrick regarding the importance of gratitude, “Gratitude is perhaps one of your biggest tools when it comes to having a healthy optimism in recovery. If you are truly grateful, then it is almost impossible that you would relapse at that moment and your attitude will be one of serenity and contentment” (“Using Optimism,” n.d.).   


I would add that finding and embracing our own unique sense of purpose provides a powerful manifestation of an optimistic orientation to life in recovery. When we are imbued with the heartfelt realization that we are following our true calling, our lives become filled with an awesome sense of mission, joy, and vitality (Newport, 2004).


I hope this column will be of help in assisting your clients to anchor their recovery with a grounded sense of optimism. As always, feel free to share this column with your clients and others who may benefit from the message. 


Until next time—to your health!




Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart: A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
McGinnis, A. L. (1990). The power of optimism. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Newport, J. (2004). The wellness-recovery connection: Charting your pathway to optimal health while recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
“Using Optimism to Overcome Alcoholism and Addiction.” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.spiritualriver.com/using-optimism-to-overcome-Alcoholism-and-Addiction./