a glass cup of mint tea with a sprig of mint beside it to symbolize well-being

Why looking after your wellbeing helps you to stay sober and how to do it

(The italics in this article are quotes from the UK’s New Economics Foundation).

If you’ve had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it’s likely you’ve not been looking after your health and wellbeing brilliantly. A simple definition of wellbeing is “feeling good and functioning well” (as described by the Centre for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation). Here's a more detailed definition:

Feelings of happiness, contentment, enjoyment, curiosity and engagement are characteristic of someone who has a positive experience of their life. Equally important for our wellbeing is our functioning in the world. Experiencing positive relationships, having some control over one’s life and having a sense of purpose are all important attributes of wellbeing.

I sometimes think of it as the difference between just surviving life and thriving – making the most of the opportunities and experiences that come your way.

Why is this important?

When you look after your wellbeing, you end up with higher self-esteem, self-confidence and self-belief. You end up liking what you see in the mirror. You end up living your best life. The research also shows us that you end up living a longer, happier and fuller life with less physical ill health.

When you’re thriving in this way, you reduce, if not eliminate, the need to reach for alcohol to fill a hole or run away from yourself.

Your life is already full so you don’t need an addictive substance to help you fill it.

How to do it

The Centre for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation was commissioned by the UK Government to produce a document detailing how to improve everyone’s mental wellbeing through life.

This document, called Five Ways to Wellbeing was published in 2008 and suggests five evidence-based actions that individuals can take to improve their wellbeing:

  1. Connect

With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.

What the research and surveys have demonstrated is that social relationships and participation reduce mental ill health. Happy people have more social relationships and activity than less happy people.

The report also suggests that there should be a balance of both:

  • a wide and more superficial network of social relationships for the individual to feel connectedness, familiarity and self-worth
  • and a narrower and deeper set of relationships that bring meaning, support and encouragement.

In other words, having a few close friends and deeper relationships is as important as having a place in a wider network of more superficial relationships. Both types of connection are important for wellbeing.

  1. Be Active

Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercise makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy; one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

More research is being done into the link between physical activity and better mental health and wellbeing and the results are strikingly positive. Physical activity benefits us in a variety of different ways:

  • Better sleep because our bodies are tired and need rest
  • Better moods because exercise releases “feel-good” chemicals in our brains (like dopamine) which give us more energy
  • Better management of anxiety and stress because exercise releases cortisol, a hormone that helps to control stress levels. It also reduces stress by providing a distraction from negative emotions and thoughts, giving your mind something else to focus on
  • Better self-esteem because, as you meet your goals and improve your performance, you experience the fulfilment and satisfaction of success and start to feel better about yourself
  • Reduced risk of depression because all of the above help to reduce the likelihood of experiencing periods of depression
  • Better social connections because when you’re doing a regular physical activity, you’re more likely to meet new people and make new friends

Physical activity doesn’t have to be hard-core, like training for a marathon or furiously pumping iron every day. It can be something as simple as walking a dog or knocking a football around the park with family or friends. The important thing about physical activity is that you do it regularly and it suits your level of physical capability. It should get your heart-rate up and feel like an achievement afterwards.

Setting yourself challenging but achievable goals is important to get that feeling of achievement. I work out most mornings and I choose high-intensity, hard-core workouts that I dread because they’re so challenging but they make me feel great afterwards. My body is fit, strong and healthy and can cope with this level of stress. But, for some people, walking to the local shops could be a challenge that, once completed, gives them a similar feeling of satisfaction. You need to get involved in activities that fit in with your ability, strength and mobility levels.

Choose activities that you can fit into your routine and that you’ll enjoy enough that you’ll be motivated to stick with them. The more they involve fresh air and contact with other people, the healthier they are for you. I realise as I’m writing this, that I could do with joining in with some kind of team activity and something that involves being outdoors. Although I’m physically active and healthy, it’s all taking place indoors on my own and I’m not getting as much contact with the elements, the outdoors and other people as I’d like.

  1. Take Notice

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are on a train, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

This can sometimes be referred to as “mindfulness”. It’s the art of being attentive to and aware of what’s taking place in the present moment. It’s about becoming self-aware, reflective and noticing sensations, thoughts and feelings internally and also about appreciating the external events and world around you. It’s about being present in the moment rather than getting tied up in worrying about the past or feeling anxious about the future.

When we do more of this, we develop a healthier relationship with ourselves and the world around us. When we have a healthier relationship with ourselves, we reduce the need to reach for alcohol to make us feel better or to run away from the parts of us we don’t like.

Studies have shown that being aware of what is taking place in the present directly enhances wellbeing. There are stacks of anectodal stories, claims and less-than scientific “evidence” of how mindfulness improves health and wellbeing but these are now starting to be backed up by scientific research. There is more to come but the research so far is looking promising and I can personally testify to how much developing a mindfulness habit helped me to develop a healthier relationship with myself and how that, in turn, has helped me to live my life happily without alcohol.

  1. Keep Learning

Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun to do.

When you’re learning something new, it usually involves setting and aiming for some kind of goal. Whether it’s learning a scale on a musical instrument before you move on to the next one or learning a basic dance step before you can learn something a bit more complicated, goal-setting is an important part of the learning process.

This goal-setting behaviour has been shown to increase levels of wellbeing:

The practice of setting goals, which is related to adult learning in particular, has been strongly associated with higher levels of wellbeing. Both observational and experimental research suggests that the promotion of wellbeing is associated with goal-directed behaviour when the goals are self-generated, approach goals and congruent with personal values.

An “approach goal” is the opposite of an “avoidance goal”. It’s one that we want to reach as opposed to one that is something we want to avoid or eliminate. A good example of an approach goal would be wanting to experience the satisfaction of waking up with a clear head, memory intact and full of energy after a restful and refreshing night’s sleep. An avoidance goal would be wanting to avoid a hangover, shame, guilt and anxiety or fear about what you might have done the night before.

When we use approach goals, like we do when we’re learning something new, particularly when what we’re learning is in line with our values and intrinsic motivations, this enhances our mental wellbeing.

And, of course, we get the bonus of self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement each time we make progress and achieve each goal along the way. This then boosts our self-esteem and confidence and makes us feel good about ourselves.

  1. Give

Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, as linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and will create connections with the people around you.

When we participate in social and community life, giving, sharing and contributing, we feel a greater sense of self-worth and positivity.

There is an intrinsic feel-good reward in helping others. Studies show that, for retired people, volunteering in their local communities greatly enhances their wellbeing and feelings of happiness. In fact, people who rate themselves as “happy” are more likely to also have a greater interest in helping others. Research into how best to promote happiness has shown that doing one act of kindness once a week over a six week period resulted in a significant increase in wellbeing.

You might have come across tales of individuals who have devoted a whole year to doing one act of kindness a day and report that this has changed their lives and brought them much happiness and fulfilment.

Simple, conscious and proactive acts of kindness don’t just make the person on the receiving end feel good, they make you feel good too!


When you stop drinking, it’s important to look after your health and wellbeing. When you’re thriving and making the most out of your health and your life, it’s much easier to stay sober because you’re already fulfilled and satisfied. You don’t need alcohol to make you feel that way.

What actions can you plan that will help you to improve your wellbeing in each of these five areas?

  1. Score yourself on a scale of 1 – 6, 6 is you’re completely satisfied you’re doing as much as you can in this area and 1 is you’re completely unsatisfied with what you’re doing in this area.
  2. Then, fill in some actions you can take to improve your score.
  3. Make it happen by setting a date you’ll do this by




Action Plan

By when

1.      Connect





2.     Be Active





3.    Take Notice





4.  Keep    Learning




5.       Give






Get started

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