Using Positive Psychology to Help People Overcome Addictions

If you work with individuals who are experiencing substance use disorders, you probably get frustrated sometimes. Why do they seem to struggle so much? You really want to help. You want to motivate and inspire people to transform their lives and become successful!

One way to do this is to teach the fundamentals of a successful life. The concepts can lead to happy, meaningful and fulfilled lives. By connecting these fundamentals to long-term recovery, you have a powerful tool for change.

I work in a long-term therapeutic community for people in recovery called FIRST at Blue Ridge. The program is in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina. I facilitate groups for the residents and always begin by asking:

“What is your motivation for recovery?”

I have taken notes with regard to people’s motivations for a long time, so there is quite a bit of data from which to draw conclusions.

As I reviewed the data, some very pronounced patterns emerged. Clearly, individuals’ motivations can be described by several themes. These themes typically include:

  • To be there for their families
  • To live up to their potential
  • To have a healthy and positive lifestyle
  • To be happy and have stability
  • Good relationships
  • A nice place to live and a good job

These themes fit well with the principles of positive psychology. The principles include positive emotions, engagement, meaning, relationships, accomplishment, optimism, hope and gratitude.

By using the clients’ own stated motivation for recovery, you have a great starting point to further engage and inspire them for change.

The principles of positive psychology can be used as a framework to help clients discuss and understand their own intrinsic motivations.

If the goal of working with people is to assist them in developing long-term recovery and help them stay motivated for continued success, then I propose using the principles of positive psychology to influence our clinical work, which will help both clinician and client reach their goals.

Once an individual has successfully learned coping skills to overcome the acute aspects of addiction and withdrawal, positive psychology focuses on helping him or her move past the “baseline” to create a happy, meaningful and fulfilled life.

So, what is the connection between positive psychology and addiction recovery?

Traditionally, addiction treatment has been effective in offering short-term acute care to individuals, such as detox and 28-day programs. We can take individuals who are suffering from the many negative affects of addiction and provide care, nourishment and stability. We have also been effective at teaching coping skills to assist clients in navigating early recovery and avoiding relapse.

However, the field of addiction treatment has recently experienced a new focus on long-term recovery. Therefore, it is helpful to have a solid understanding of how individuals transform their lives and flourish over time.

Most people who have succeeded in getting through the acute phase of recovery are struggling with new challenges in life.

Some of these challenges include rebuilding their lives, finding meaningful work, creating healthy relationships and developing a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Over the last several decades recovery from addiction has become a social movement. Some expressions of this movement include the movie The Anonymous People and organizations like Faces and Voices of Recovery. These organizations are working to promote the fact that over 23 million Americans are in recovery from addiction to alcohol & other drugs.

The principles of positive psychology can be used to conceptualize and develop “recovery capital.” The term recovery capital refers to all the things in a person’s life that helps support and encourage long-term recovery.

Teaching positive psychology to individuals who are experiencing great challenges in life will help them really think through their motivations and goals.

There are several ways that I use positive psychology with the individuals with whom I work. One way is in a group process using the format outlined in Motivation For Recovery: A Positive Psychology Group Curriculum for Addiction Recovery.

Another way is using recovery-specific affirmation-based guided meditations, like the ones found in Meditations For Recovery.

I really believe that if you add positive psychology as a complement to your current approaches to addiction treatment, you will have considerable success motivating people for change.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at

Keep doing great work!
John W Sanders, LCSW, LCAS