Maintaining Sobriety Through Service

Lending a helping handWhen Dr. Maria Pagano began thinking about the relationship between addiction and social involvement in 2002, she was surprised to find that few researchers had so far shared her interest. She had only recently joined Brown University's faculty, as well as its Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, but quickly decided to explore the uncertain area of how helping others helps in the recovery process.

Examining data from what was, at the time, one of the largest studies of addiction in America, Dr. Pagano made a few shocking discoveries. She divided the roughly 1,700 participants into two groups -- helpers and non-helpers -- and learned that, within 12 months of completing Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), 40 percent of helpers managed to remain fully sober, while only 22 percent of non-helpers could say the same.

Though hardly conclusive in and of itself, the numbers were significant. One study led to another, and Dr. Pagano has since helmed a federally-funded non-profit investigation called Helping Others Live Sober at Case Western University. The study that has made Dr. Pagano and her current team renowned across psychiatric circles was called the "Helping Others" research study, wherein her team investigated high-risk adolescents in residential treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. The results indicated that helping others actually can reduce one's craving for drugs and alcohol; Dr. Pagano can cite several specific individuals who've found it easier to stay sober and, by no coincidence, decided to start helping out with AA tasks like making coffee or helping to carry someone else's bags.

Dr. Pagano and her team created the Service to Others in Sobriety survey, given to AA members to fill out on a scale from 1-5. Members rank how often they do basic gestures like putting away chairs at the end of meetings or saying hello to newcomers. Sure enough, those who rank highly on the survey, once they've completed their time at AA, tend to stave off addiction for longer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who rank more "selfish" tend to relapse quicker into addiction.

Dr. Pagano first thought of the idea after learning about a similar realization by Dr. Stephen Post in the late 1990s. Dr. Post wrote a book, The Hidden Gifts of Helping, in which he detailed how altruism can tangibly affect one's brain by releasing more dopamine, a chemical that fills us with feelings like satisfaction and what Dr. Post described as "helper's high." What Dr. Post described is what Dr. Pagano has made into a significant psychological treatment: That helping others makes us feel better about ourselves, and essentially distracts us from feelings like depression or substance craving.

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