‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom

A close friend of mine went into rehab recently, for a second time in 10 years and reminded me of this quote. It comes from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by the English poet and artist William Blake between 1790 and 1793.

The book describes the poet’s visit to Hell, but Blake’s conception of Hell is not a place of punishment, but as a source of unrepressed, somewhat Dionysian energy, opposed to the authoritarian and regulated perception of Heaven.

But that chaos and wild energy of Hell ultimately destroys us. For those of us drawn into that world, the “outside world” does seem boring and repressed. We fool ourselves we are different, better, wilder, more independent. Not “part of the machine”.

But it destroys us and it robs us of our perceptions. We become deluded into thinking our view of the world is the correct one.

To recover, we must learn to appreciate the energy that was invested in that “Hell” could be of so much more positive value in “Heaven”. The “Heaven” is not one ruled over and regulated. It needs to be an informed awakening to a new way of life.

So in these hard days for my friend, I will be thinking of him. For him, the physical detox is done and the hardest part starts. To reframe that wild destructive life we lived as a “Hell”, and to see a new life as full of opportunities we cannot imagine yet.

“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion”

…for JC

One comment can still hurt…

And it came out of the blue from someone who knew me well when I was drinking.

I had spent the day working hard and then as it was sunny I went for a 9 mile run, and then went to the gym…and I was feeling good about myself. I was looking forward to the weekend. I had a quick Skype and then I got this…

None of my business, but I got the impression you were a bit drunk earlier… I thought it was great for you to give up drinking, so I hope you can keep it up for your own sake.

That was last night, it hurt. And it still hurts. Why?

I don’t really know why but it upset me a lot. And I still can’t shake the comment. I suppose it is my confidence or pride? I don’t know.

I have struggled so hard to stay sober and to have someone close from my past comment that I seemed drunk triggered an emotional upset I still can’t explain.

Is it like… “I don’t trust you are not drinking”? I know I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself, but I want others who have been affected by my drinking to also feel that I am a different person now. To be accused of seeming a bit drunk undermines that sense that I have shown people I have moved on.

The only good thing is that it has not triggered a “fuck you” feeling that if I seem drunk, then why not get drunk. I am pleased about that, although it did cross my mind.

No, I am just hurt that what has been a long struggle, and just when I thought I was in a good place where drinking was no longer in my life at all…one comment can destabilise that confidence and positive feeling of being a better person.

I will move on…I am just reflecting that it hurt a lot…

Take a shower, wash off the day. Drink a glass of water. Make the room dark. Lie down and close your eyes. Notice the silence. Notice your heart. Still beating. Still fighting. You made it, after all. You made it, another day. And you can make it one more. You’re doing just fine. – Charlotte Eriksson

The monkey is still in the room, but it is off my back

Today marks the three-year anniversary since I stopped drinking.

Three years ago I was struggling to come to terms with the loss of my wife and son, the physical and emotional damage from living in a derelict house that was literally falling down around me, and a dead-end job. I had lost most of my friends and the ones I still had, I felt alienated from, because I no longer drank and they “didn’t get it”.

Today I am writing this in a different country where I now live as part of my new job. I will be returning ‘home’ tonight to my new home in a new country where I still don’t have many friends, yet, but I don’t have a past I have to hide from. People generally never ask me why I don’t drink. I can go for a run up into the mountains and regularly run over 10 miles at the weekend through the woods and fields, and now the weather has warmed it won’t be long before I am able to walk from my apartment to the lake for a swim.

I have seen my son more in the last 3 months than I did in the of the last 6 months of 2016. He has his own room in my flat and has been to stay with me this month and more trips are planned this year. My ex has remarried and has a new husband, and a new baby; yet I will be going to their house for a meal to celebrate my sons first day at school.

I have money in the bank, my health is good for my age, and any damage to my body done by the drinking should now be repaired, or at worst, stabilized.

I have deep scars, physical and mental, but the past; whilst not forgotten; is reconciled and in perspective.

So this is a good day, a day to celebrate, a day to reflect on how far I have come and to be proud of having been able to turn things around from the dark place I was in before.

The monkey is still in the room, but it is off my back.

Finding your inner resolve

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength – ― Marcus Aurelius.

I had a wobble a few days ago, just like anyone else can; be they 2 hours, 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 years into their sobriety.

To get through these times the trick is to know how to find your inner resolve. To some this may be asking for support from a Higher Power. For others it could be talking to someone. For me at least, it is a process of looking inwards.


This raises a big question in my mind. Where does our strength to persevere through the tough times come from.

A behaviorist may say it is evolutionary. It is part of the survival instinct.

A “believer” might say it come from God, any God or Higher Power, a deity outside ourselves.

Me? Not that it matters….I think it is a combination. My first reaction isn’t to pray for help but to find a way to get through using my own resolve. This may just be repeating over and over my own “mantra”. I recommend everyone gets one. Mine varies from “it will get easier” to “Accept it, accept it, accept it“.

The latter is useful because these days my desire to drink is usually triggered by an external situation…generally an emotional or frustrating situation outside of my control. If I accept it, the pressure reduces, as does my desire to drink.

If you don’t have a mantra I strongly recommend getting one. I could write a whole article on making one up but the truth is that would just be clickbait.

Just find a simple idea, a few words, yours or someone elses and repeat them when you need to. The mantra should be simple, no more than 5 or 10 words maximum, it also should be easy to remember even under duress.

And it is yours. Don’t Google it!!! Make it up yourself, it will be internalised better and be yours.

Either way, find your own source of inner strength for those times you just need to get through. I made it through a tough patch and it wasn’t because of anything more than identifying the trigger, white knucking through with the help of my mantra, and trsuting that the craving would pass. It does….

I want a drink, I have done since 10am…

It may be coming up to 3 years since I last had a drink but this just shows you can never truly relax your guard. I have gone weeks at a time not even thinking about drinking but since early today I have been really struggling, craving an escape, not wanting a drink, but to be drunk I suppose.

And there is the message to myself. There is no running away anymore.

Today was always a trigger day for me, a day charged of emotion but out of my control. I am in a situation I just have to accept, and even after all this time I don’t want to accept, I don’t want to feel. My mind has wandered onto whether it would be ok to indulge in other ways.

I have done the whole sugar thing, for the last two days I have troughed my way through chocolates and biscuits, I have skipped going to the gym, I have skipped  going for a run, I have skipped meals, I have skipped everything and been left stuck with my emotions with a dose of guilt and self pity.

I know I can ride it out. Some days all the sane and sober advice in the world counts for shit. Logically I know I should talk to someone even though a meeting is logistically impossible, but there is no one. I know I should engage in something healthy and energetic, but I am paralyzed with apathy for life.

The one lesson, the one message I keep telling myself is just get through today, one day at a time. It is such a cliché…but it is true. It will get better, hopefully tomorrow…if not then the day after, or the day after that. It is not worth drinking.

Never assume you have cracked it. Demons lurk in the shadows ready to pounce.

Am I in “Recovery”?

This is a question I have been struggling with for a few months now, and it’s one reason I haven’t posted for so long. Does immersing yourself in the “recovery world” promote a sense of “unwellness”?


If “not drinking” is now part of my everyday life, and if I am not constantly having cravings, or struggling to stay abstinent then am I in recovery?

I am certainly not thinking I am cured. No, I have had enough experiences to know that there is no going back. No “controlled drinking” for me. No “just one drink”.

But I also do not agree with the statement often cited in AA that “I have an illness”. It is not something caught or inherited. Drinking, for me at least, was a coping mechanism for life. I couldn’t see any other way to cope with life without a drink, and the harder life became, the more I needed to drink. And the more I drank, the less effective the drink became…and so the vicious circle started. But I began my journey to break that cycle back in April 2014.

For me, being an alcoholic isn’t a chronic disease.  It was just acute for a very long time… And to say “I am in recovery” could be seen as tantamount to a well-earned “badge of honor”. I am not turning my back on all those that helped me, I am not being complacent to think I am cured. I am just struggling with the concept of whether defining oneself as being in recovery somehow links one to a past I want to move on from.

I have been convinced for the last few months that by dwelling on recovery, by following recovery blogs and by immersing myself in the whole addiction and recovery world that I am somehow prolonging a sense of “unwellness”. I have really come to believe now that for me, after 2 years of not drinking; that to say “My name is xyz and I’m an alcoholic” really doesn’t help. It puts me in the negative place of being a victim, a sufferer.

But I am not suffering. I am not a victim. I am not an alcoholic, I am sober, I don’t drink, but am I in recovery?

I don’t know.

Emotional sobriety…sober without the ‘happy, joyous and free’

What is emotional sobriety? Some might think that it means being “happy, joyous, and free,” a common saying in 12-Step meetings (which has always driven me nuts), taken from AA literature. Of course, people like this definition. It means that if they work hard on being a good “AA’er”, they will achieve physical sobriety (abstinence) and become happy in the process.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but this definition puts a lot of recovering people in a tough spot.

Emotional Sobriety

For example, what does it say about a person’s emotional sobriety if they are having a hard time? What if they are afraid, anxious, sad, angry, confused … the list can go on and on. Does this mean that they aren’t emotionally sober?

I believe that emotional sobriety is less about the quality of the feeling (“good” or “bad”) and more about the general ability to feel one’s feelings. Being restored to sanity isn’t about getting the brass ring—or cash and prizes—or being “happy, joyous, and free” all the time, but it is about being in the present moment, whatever it happens to look like. What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you?

Sometimes emotional sobriety is about tolerating what you are feeling. It is about staying sober no matter what you are feeling.


I’m An Alcoholic: My Name Is…

This show has moved me more than any programme I have watched in a very long time. So much so I have to speak up, and speak out.

What is written below are some small snippets that struck me deeply, quotes but not verbatim.

I was lonely and desperately unhappy. Alcohol made me feel as if everything was alright

When I’m asked about ‘rock bottoms’…it was years of my life. I was robbed of a life by alcohol that was pretending to be my best and only friend.

“Do you know who I am”?  Yes, you’re an alcoholic

I picked up again because I thought I could manage it…. clearly I couldn’t

I get asked a lot “but you’ll be able to have a drink eventually right”?
 – I can’t, I will die if I do
 – The hardest part is admitting to yourself you may never be able to drink again, ever. That’s it
 – It’s much more bearable in your mind to say to yourself I can maybe drink again in moderation, that is less scary than I can never ever have a drink again

Sobriety has been a journey of feeling difficult stuff and not using anything on it

Six months in I thought I might actually end up normal, one day. There’s hope

I felt very strongly that I needed to regain power. I needed to empower myself and I found that running, particularly, has helped me do that

To me it’s not about triggers, that’s too easy; like “my trigger is ‘this’ so I’ll avoid my trigger”. My trigger is being alive

I have a life, and I don’t drink; but the feelings that made me drink are still there so I’ve had to become quite practised at coping with those


My name is Sam. I choose not to drink and I have been in recovery since April 2014

RunnerSamAnd I’m on Garmin Connect.


Accepting Hardship



…when everything feels like it is too much, when the full density of the world is slipping loose from tired fingers and there is just so much that you do not know, let yourself breathe, breathe into the realisation that:

  • I do not understand;
  • I do not need to understand; and
  • that is o.k.

Don’t think too hard about it.  Just allow the world to happen as it will, with you as one if its infinite parts.  If you can do this, a level of acceptance (healing & peaceful) that you probably did not expect or even believe was possible will wash over you.  Acceptance is the nourishment that feeds our stamina and resolve and allows us to keep palms open for whatever small alms the future may bring.


And what if the hardship is one of those persistent nags that continues to pick and torment? Expect that this feeling of acceptance will pass, and that you will fluctuate between the good and bad moments.  But once recognised, no hardship will ever take away the solace in knowing that a deeper acceptance is possible.  Just as you are only one small piece of a vast, infinite and unexplainable universe, so too is it a part of you.

Just hold on…the hardship will pass.

Fatboy Slim: “Being the sober one at the centre of the party seemed daunting, but life’s been much more manageable since”


“Going into rehab was a short, sharp shock”

I left no stone unturned during my 30 years of drinking – I’d developed a dependency. Being the sober one at the centre of the party seemed daunting, but life’s been much more manageable since. It was beginning to hurt and it wasn’t fun any more.

Gary Oldman Says Stopping Drinking Was His Hardest Thing Ever

G Oldman

Actor Gary Oldman is happy for the first time in years. He has a 7-month-old son, a devoted wife (his third) and — at last — sobriety.

That’s the biggest, hardest thing to do,” he shakes his head, tapping his finger on the table top, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done — more than anything.

No one came to his rescue, he says. “It’s you and God, basically.”

Oldman says, “Some bottoms are high, some are low. Sometimes people have to go to the gutter, lose everything before they can turn around and say, `I have a problem.’

“Others don’t have to go that far. I found one of the things that was sort of a curse was that I could do this job drunk, on a good day, a lot better than other people do it sober.”

That’s true. People who’ve worked with Oldman say he’s simply a genius. But genius isn’t enough when you’ve lost your passion for the work and life.

Oldman always managed his job, even when he was blotto. “You ask any director who’s ever worked with me and I’d bet a lot of money he’d say he’d work with me again. I turn up, I’m always on time, I know the lines.”

Still, he admits he had a tough time on “Scarlet Letter.” “I’ve never been shy of coming forward about that. But for someone who was falling down (drunk). . . . I don’t remember MAKING `Scarlet Letter,’ to be honest with you. I know I did it ’cause I’m in it. But I was living every day in Nova Scotia, up there in the middle of nowhere. You had a bad time for 90 minutes,” he laughs.

One of the things that helped revive his spirits was the autobiographical movie he wrote and directed, “Nil by Mouth.”

And though he was able to face that raw look at his own life through directing, acting is another thing.

Step 4 My Way…

It’s been a while since I have written, and that ‘gap’ coincides almost directly with my decision to become more involved in AA. I began to wonder if this blog was an extension of my ‘ego’.

How many hits did I get today? How many comments? Who is visiting from which countries? That’s all a bit ‘me, me , me’ and not the reason I started this blog.

Visitor Stats Where

And so with that in mind over the last month or so I’ve walked away from this blog and AA, to think about my future and my recovery plan.

Talking of which, then does recovery end? Some say never. I guess it’s the same discussion as once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. I used to believe that yes, I was an alcoholic and it’s just “a condition” I have to live with, to manage through abstinence. And that meant that I would forever be ‘in recovery’. Now I am no longer convinced.

I have arrived at a new crossroad in my life and I’m about to start in a new job, move to a new country and basically begin a new life. Do I arrive in this new life as a recovering alcoholic; or do I arrive as someone who just doesn’t drink.


Before I decide whether to close this chapter or continue it, I will hopefully be contributing to an article for AfterPartyMagazine via a questionnaire. It’s surprisingly hard to write answers to questions like:

  1.   What do you hate about being an alcoholic?
  2.   What do you love about being an alcoholic?

But if it helps one person then I see it as worth the heartache and soul-searching and reliving the past, to write down and share My Road to Abstinence.

How heavy is this glass of water?

A psychologist walked around a room. As he raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on his face, he inquired: ”How heavy is this glass of water?”
Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz. He replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it.
Heavy Water
If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem.
If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm.
If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed.
In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
He continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt.
And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralysed – incapable of doing anything.”
It’s important to remember to let go of your stresses. As early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don’t carry them around all day into the night. Let the weight go. Remember to put the glass down!

Moving on from medication


, ,

So today I went to the doctors and picked up my repeat prescription for Acamprosate (Campral). And, whilst walking to the chemist to get it fulfilled I decided not to.

Time to stop.

So I have a prescription available and I was going to make it my last and then wean myself off gradually, to make sure I don’t get any side effects coming off; and to make sure the cravings don’t come back. Because that scares me. It’s hard enough as it is and so even if the pills work as a placebo I don’t care…they have worked for me.


But I changed my mind, and to make it final, I kicked away the crutches and tore up the prescription.

A quick search around the Internet revealed nothing about what to expect when coming off them so I have no idea what to expect. The only information I found was the standard “check with your Doctor first”, sounds advice of course. Which I am ignoring.

So I don’t know what will happen but I’ll post here, in part for myself, but mostly because I was surprised I didn’t find anything out there telling me what to expect. So maybe it will help someone else. I actually expect nothing to change physically but then again I have been on 4-a-day for over 1 year now, so who knows.

So in 6 days time I run out… I will no longer be taking any medication at all to deal with, well anything. If not sooner; by this time next week I will not be on any medication at all and it will be time to stand alone in my recovery without any real or imagined support from the medical world.

Counselling ended months ago, and now it’s time to move on from medication.

“There will be no more pills.  There will be no more bad food.  No more destroyers of my body.  From now on it will be total organization.  Every muscle must be tight.”  –Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Accepting Change



The winds of change blow through our life, sometimes gently, sometimes like a tropical storm. Yes, we have resting places – time to adjust to another level of living, time to get our balance, time to enjoy the rewards. We have time to catch our breath.

But change is inevitable, and desirable.

Change Process

Sometimes, when the winds of change begin to rustle, we’re not certain the change is for the better. We may call it stress or a temporary condition, certain we’ll be restored to normal. Sometimes, we resist. We tuck our head down and buck the wind, hoping that things will quickly calm down, get back to the way things were. Is it possible we’re being prepared for a new “normal”?

Change will sweep through our life, as needed, to take us where we’re going. We can trust that process, even when we don’t know where the changes are leading.

We can trust that the change-taking place is good. The wind will take us where we need to go.

Today, help me be open to the process. Help me believe that the place I’ll be dropped off will be better than the place where I was picked up. Help me trust, and accept, even if I don’t understand.

What Research Says Happiness Really Is

There’s a lot of philosophical debate over what it actually means to “be happy,” but if you’re looking for concrete answers, it can leave you wanting. Here’s what scientific research says happiness is, and—perhaps more importantly—what it isn’t.

We all know what it feels like to be happy, but the actual source of our happiness has always been hard to pinpoint. Can we become happier? If so, how? As Darrin M. McMahon, Ph.D., a Professor of History at Florida State University, explains, ancient people actually viewed happiness more as a sign of luck:

It is a striking fact that in every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck… What does this linguistic pattern suggest? For a good many ancient peoples—and for many others long after that—happiness was not something you could control.

This kind of thinking is actually still pretty common today. A lot of people assume that being happy means that you’re fortunate, your life was blessed, or that you’re just one lucky son of a gun. We know that it’s possible to create some luck, but positive psychology, in combination with other scientific fields like neurology, has made a lot of headway in finding out what causes happiness, and that we do have some control over it.

How We Measure and Study Happiness

As abstract a concept as happiness may seem, it’s studied the same way as any other scientific concept: with a wide variety of experiments. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., and Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, explains in his online course The Science of Happiness (free to enroll in right now) that there are four major types of happiness studies:

  • Observation & experience sampling: Capturing people in a moment of their daily lives. “How happy are you feeling when you’re doing the dishes, when at work, etc.”
  • Cross-sectional/correlation studies: Survey studies where people answer a bunch of questions about how they feel at one moment in time.
  • Longitudinal studies: When people’s lives are studied over time to find the trajectory of a happy life.
  • Experimental studies: Experiments that allow the pinpointing of causal relationships between happiness and outside sources.

That’s fine and dandy, but how does one actually measure happiness? The answer is remarkably simple (and imperfect): self-reporting. Usually these studies will ask questions like “How satisfied are you with your life?” and “On a daily basis, what kind of positive and negative emotions are you feeling?” There are no energy outputs to measure, or happiness midichlorians to count in your bloodstream. They simply use surveys to ask study participants if they’re happy at a specific moment in time.

It may sound wishy-washy, but it’s the best we have. The only person that can say whether you’re feeling happy or not is you. That means you’re the most reliable tool for measuring your own levels of happiness (at least for now). These self-reports can be made as a one-time survey, during experience sampling (pinging participants on their phones randomly with “what are you doing?” and “how happy are you feeling right now?”), or sometimes reported by others through behavioral indicators (particularly beneficial for studying infants and children).

Self-reporting is far from perfect, though. After all, feeling “happy” can mean a few different things. That’s why Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., developed the “four levels of feeling analysis.” When it comes to happiness, it can be broken down into four conceptual domains to clarify what kind of happiness is being examined. For example:

  1. Well-being: “Overall my life is going well.”
  2. Traits: “I am an enthusiastic and positive person.”
  3. Emotions: “I feel gratitude and appreciation.”
  4. Sensations: “It feels good to sit in this hot tub.”

All four of those things are somewhat synonymous with happiness, and it allows study participants to more thoroughly identify what kind of happiness they’re experiencing (or lacking). Someone’s overall life satisfaction and well-being is usually what researchers use these methods to study the most, but to get a good picture of someone’s happiness, all conceptual domains need to be considered. For example, knowing that someone with a high level of life satisfaction also regularly feels gratitude and spends time in a hot tub could be helpful in determining correlations and, perhaps somewhere down the road, causation.

To make happiness somewhat easier for researchers to measure, Edward F. Diener, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, developed an index called subjective well-being. It allows psychologists to more accurately define your happiness as a combination of life satisfaction and the relative frequency of positive and negative emotions with various methods of self-reporting. There are two parts:

The combination of the two is what makes up your subjective well-being. Your “happiness level” at any given time is equal to your Satisfaction with Life score plus your PANAS score. Of course, your happiness fluctuates, so your score only measures how happy you’re feeling at that point in time. You can take the questionnaires multiple times to see a more average score over days or months. With the knowledge of how science explores happiness, you can begin to paint the picture of how psychological science actually defines it (and how you can use that to help yourself become happier).

As we discuss this, however, know that there has been some controversy in the psychological studies field as of late. A recent, massive study known as the Reproducibility Project, and published in full in the journal Science, found very few psychological studies could be reproduced with similar results. Of course, The New York Times notes that the main focuses of this study were on studies conducted on learning, memory, and cognition, not happiness studies or other branches of positive psychology. It’s always good to bear in mind that no matter what studies might suggest, the results aren’t ever set in stone.

What Research Says Happiness Is Not

Perhaps the best way for science to attempt to define happiness, or anything else for that matter, is with the process of elimination. If you learn what happiness isn’t, you’ll at least able to narrow down what happiness is. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., the Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley, explains there are some basic rules that studies have determined over the years. The bottom line? Happiness is not:

  • Having all your personal needs met
  • Always feeling satisfied with life
  • Feeling pleasure all the time
  • Never feeling negative emotions

Surprised? If so, your definition of happiness might be a little skewed in the wrong direction. What the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has found with their research is true happiness is more about overall peace of mind and focusing on the, well, greater good. Happiness isn’t about wanting more, always feeling “good,” or even being satisfied with every aspect of your life. Hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence, has proven to bring temporary bouts of happiness, but as Kahneman’s research explains, it is not effective at maintaining your overall happiness over time.

An especially important part of the happiness equation is the negative feelings you may be feeling right now. As nice as it might seem, happiness is not the absence of negative feelings. As Dr. Vanessa Buote, a postdoctoral fellow in social psychology, explains, real happiness is about taking the good with the bad:

One of the misconceptions about happiness is that happiness is being cheerful, joyous, and content all the time; always having a smile on your face. It’s not—being happy and leading rich lives is about taking the good with the bad, and learning how to reframe the bad.

You can experience negative feelings and overall happiness with your life at the exact same time. In fact, learning how to do that is essential to being a happier person.

The Limitations of Pursuing Happiness

So we know how science defines happiness, but that’s only the first half of the equation. The more important question is: Can you become happier? The short answer is yes, but save for prescription medications designed to adjust chemical imbalances, there’s no “magic pill” for it. It takes some conscious effort, and even then, there are some limitations.

First, you probably have a genetically determined set range for happiness. That means, as Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., at University of California, Riverside, explains, that your inherited genes may be what keeps you at your current, or “chronic,” state of happiness. If you come from a long line of melancholic people, you might just be kind of a melancholic person. Your genes might also set a maximum limit for how happy you can ever be. Essentially, your happiness is part of your personality, part of who you are. According to Lyubomirsky, longitudinal studies have shown people’s happiness remain quite stable over the course of their lives, so nothing is going to shoot you from being miserable to the happiest person alive.

Second, you can set unnecessary limitations for yourself by trying too hard to be happy. Lahnna I. Catalino, Ph.D., at the University of California at San Francisco, suggests that overly pursuing happiness can actually backfire on you. Catalino cautions that you should avoid relating to your happiness in extreme ways. Don’t set unrealistic goals for yourself, and don’t try to only feel positive emotions all of the time. You’re guaranteed to fail, which will—ironically—lead to unhappiness. Michael Bennett, psychiatrist and co-author of the book F*ck Feelings, notes the importance of staying grounded in your pursuit of happiness:

The important thing is not what therapy you follow but that you stay grounded in common sense, and whatever therapy or therapies you’re pursuing, you ask yourself repeatedly, have I reached my limit? Has this taken me as far as I’m going to go? So that you don’t get stuck in the “if I did it better” or “if I did it longer” or “if I found a better therapist.” And it’s more, “Has this taken me as far as I’m going to go, and what am I going to do now?”

Remember, you have a limit that you can’t control. Don’t beat yourself up about it, you’re just being yourself. Instead of trying to force yourself to be happy, Catalino advises you simply reflect on the moments and activities that give you joy. So stop trying so hard.

The Common Factors of the Happiest People

The truth is, real happiness and contentment isn’t a single thing. It’s a culmination of genetics, feelings, personality, emotions, and other life variables and circumstances. The dirty little secret about happiness is that researchers are still debating about it, and we don’t know exactly what it is. But research does give us a pretty good idea of what happiness looks like, at least. Even though everyone has their own limitations, there are things you can do to strive for your personal maximum level of happiness.

Specifically, getting plenty of exercise (especially with a set goal in mind), getting plenty of sleep, developing emotional intelligence, and buying experiences over material goods are good places to start. If you’re still not sure what you should be striving for, remember “PERMA.” Created by Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, and published in his book Flourish, PERMA stands for the five key elements that comprise well-being:

  • Positive Emotion: Peace, gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, hope, curiosity, and love fall into this category.
  • Engagement: Losing ourselves to a task or project that provides us with a sense of “disappeared time” because we are so highly engaged.
  • Relationships: People who have meaningful, positive relationships with others are happier than those who do not.
  • Meaning: Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves. Whether a religion or a cause that helps humanity in some way, we all need meaning in our lives.
  • Accomplishment/Achievement: To feel significant life satisfaction, we must strive to better ourselves in some way.

There’s still a lot for us to learn when it comes to the science of happiness, but research has so far proven that there’s more to it than luck. Yes, you can be dealt a worse hand than others, but how you play it really is up to you. In fact, many researchers would argue that it’s not even about how you play the cards, but about finding a way to enjoy the playing of the game no matter what.