The key to living a happy and fulfilled life is forming meaningful relationships with other human beings. This is not speculation – scientists have found this to be fact time and time again, through years of tirelessly conducted research and extensive, global studies. In an Australian study conducted in 2012, it was found that the quality of relationships a child has with his friends and family members will have a greater effect on his happiness as an adult than his academic success, wealth, or intelligence. Findings from the Gallup-Healthways Happiness-Stress Index show that individuals who spent roughly one quarter of their daily hours with friends and family are 12 times more likely to feel joyful, rather than anxious or stressed out. The National Child Development Study, conducted by British researchers, concluded that individuals who regularly meet up with 10 or more friends are generally have far better mental health than those with 5 or less friends.
Mental Health and Social Connections
The close link between social connections and mental health has been studied and proven for decades. Thus, it comes as no surprise that men and women who struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism tend to be socially isolated. While we understand that active addiction frequently leads to the deterioration of interpersonal relationships, it turns out that the reverse is also true: addiction may be a cause of social isolation, not merely an effect. A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in 2012 found that teenagers who drink are likely to begin drinking because they feel like social outcasts. It makes sense, then, that fellowship is a major tenet of comprehensive and long-term recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous was largely founded on the significance of brotherly love and altruism, and focuses on restoring close ties with friends and family members. Of course, many meaningful (and once healthy) relationships will be irreparably damaged by years of drinking and drug use – therefore, it is imperative that new relationships are formed.
Most recovering addicts and alcoholics are faced with the daunting task of forming an entirely new social circle; building a solid network from the ground up. Stepping out of isolation and into the uncharted territory of open, honest, and vulnerable relationships with other human beings may seem unfathomable – at the very least, extremely unappealing. We become used to living a life of self-sufficient misery and utter, unbearable loneliness. We learn to loathe ourselves so much that attempting to form a friendship seems futile. “Who would want to get to know me,” we think to ourselves. “I’m the worst.”
Happiness in Interpersonal Relationships
Well, listen to this, because this is science: If we want to be happy, we simply have to beat isolation. Isolation will work to keep us trapped within our own racing minds; the company we keep determines our character, after all. We want to be happy, and of course we do. We committed to sobriety because we tired of being so very miserable and feeling so very alone. But what do we do? How do we break free of this deeply engrained, isolative pattern? First of all, we must stop over-complicating things. Beating isolation is really just as simple as getting out and living life; becoming open to new experiences, and making ourselves socially available.
Need instructions? Okay, here you go:
- Grieve the loss of your old best friend.
The relationship that you had with drugs or alcohol was undeniably one-sided, but that is not to say it didn’t serve you for quite some time. Allow yourself the opportunity to grieve – feel the emotions as they come, rather than trying to stifle them or drown them out in other unhealthy behaviors. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad, angry, and confused in very early recovery. Embrace your emotional state, feel your sadness, and let it pass.
- Become a part of something.
As recovering addicts and alcoholics, we like to convince ourselves that our struggles are unique; that no one understands our pain, and that we are completely alone in the world. Spending time with others who have lived through the same experiences and grappled with the same emotions is imperative to our ability to relate, and our ability to relate is imperative to our sense of social acceptance. If you do not feel adequately supported in one particular group, go find another. Reach out to individuals who seem similar to you, and look to a trusted sponsor or therapist for additional guidance and support.
- Say goodbye to relationships that no longer serve you.
Not all social connections are beneficial. Maintaining close contact with friends who are still using drugs and who are not supportive of your recovery is not wise, for example. Dating around may seem like a good way to form deeper and more intimate social connections, but dating in general is best avoided during the first year of recovery. Why? Because romantic relationships are distracting, and they can prove to be extremely volatile – and more often than not, they lead to relapse. Take an honest appraisal of your current relationships, and cut ties with those who are adding unnecessary grief and drama to your life.
- Mix it up.
Consider taking a class, joining a club, or getting involved in some extracurricular activity that interests you. Feeling lonely may be an indication that you need a change of pace. Being proactive will be uncomfortable at first, because we are so used to sitting amidst a heaping pile of self-pity and immobility. Get out there and try new things!
Making Amends is a Process of Continuous Growth
- Make amends wherever possible.
It is common for our closest loved ones to begin cutting ties with us while we are active in our addictions. They are often hurt by our behaviors, and confused by our seeming lack of remorse. We may have lied to our closest friends, or stolen from our family members. While you will have an opportunity to sit down with your loved ones and make amends during the process of working your steps, you can begin by committing to a change in behavior – living honestly, staying sober, and concentrating on self-betterment. Some relationships may be damaged beyond repair. That is okay. Focus on accepting the things you cannot change, and focusing your attention on changing the things that you can.
- Learn to love yourself.
Building a new social circle will require the development of some serious social skills and self-esteem, neither of which will appear overnight. Learning to listen, set healthy boundaries, and open up will take a lot of practice – so why not start now? Build self-esteem by doing things that you are proud of, and learn to love yourself by practicing self-care on a daily basis. Eventually, when you are alone, you will not feel lonely… you will come to enjoy your own company! Imagine that!
- Strive for balance.
The happiest people are the people who learn to balance their lives accordingly. We are recovering addicts – extremes are easy for us. We know how to be super, super high and devastatingly, hopelessly low. Finding balance is the tricky part – and it is a process of trial and error. Make a list of the things that bring you fulfillment: working a job, spending time with family members, hanging out with friends, yoga, painting… now consider how much time you devote to each activity. Do you work 8 hours a day, go home, and watch Netflix until you have to wake up and do it all again? Strive for balance! A full life is a happy life (but remember to relax from time-to-time, too).
- Get uncomfortable.
You can sit inside all day, expecting new friends to wander into your bedroom and drag you outdoors. You have to take action and get uncomfortable – make some phone calls, organize a dinner party, or invite a potential new friend to the beach or the movies. Discomfort is normal and healthy, and it is often a good indication that personal growth is occurring.
Loneliness is a time-tested relapse trigger, though you truly do possess the power to ensure that you lead a fulfilled and happy life, full of meaningful human connection. All you have to do is reach out – pick up the phone, hop online, or hit a meeting.
You are never, ever alone.