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New Study: Defining Recovery — As People in Recovery See It

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Brandie Campbell

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US study asks almost 10,000 people in recovery from substance use how they define recovery and identifies shared elements that may help support an addiction-free life

Emeryville, CA – A new study, Understanding the Shared Meaning of Recovery from Substance Use Disorders: New Findings from the What is Recovery? Study, found that when asking people in recovery from a substance use disorder (SUD) how they define recovery, over 90% agreed that recovery is comprised of four key elements:

  • A process of growth and development;
  • Being honest with myself;
  • Taking responsibility for the things I can change; and
  • Reacting to life’s ups and downs in a more balanced way than I used to.

Further, when researchers broke the sample into 30 different subgroups, they found that large majorities within each subgroup endorsed these four elements as definitely belonging in their recovery definitions regardless of demographic background, substance use history, and help-seeking experience.

Led by researchers at the Alcohol Research Group (ARG), a program of the Public Health Institute, the study which published today in Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment offers unique insights about what sustains a healthy life free from addiction.

While the study’s results reflect some elements of recovery already captured in other research and by formal recovery definitions, this study is the first to identify new themes, such as “being honest with oneself” and “taking responsibility for one’s actions” that are fundamental to recovery from the perspectives of people in recovery.

Four other elements were supported by over 85% of respondents in all but three to four of the 30 subgroups examined, and included:

  • Being able to enjoy life without drinking or using drugs like I used to;
  • Handling negative feelings without using drugs or drinking like I used to;
  • Some abstinence and/or nonproblematic alcohol or drug use;
  • Living a life that contributes to society, to my family, or to my betterment.

“Our analysis of this diverse, national sample of people in self-defined recovery suggests that recovery definitions are not totally relative: Rather, people who are in recovery generally agree on what recovery means, even when they’re coming from very, very different places. We were able to identify multiple, shared components of recovery regardless of a person’s sociocultural identity, addiction history, and use of treatment services,” said lead author Sarah Zemore, Senior Scientist at the Alcohol Research Group.

While most respondents included some substance use goal in their definition of recovery, the researchers found that, overall, abstinence was not highly endorsed.

“From the point of view of people in recovery, recovery is not the same as abstinence or symptom reduction—it’s an ongoing journey of growth and development.  Recovery does generally involve some substance use goal, but it also involves personal integrity, emotional balance, being able to enjoy life without alcohol or drugs, and being helpful, making a contribution in life,” Zemore added.

The research team suggests that results can also help inform future substance use research and recovery services.

Sarah Zemore
These findings are important and rather new in speaking to the perspectives of people in recovery regarding what recovery is. People who are in recovery have important insights into what a fulfilling, addiction-free life can look like, but there’s been little research on their perspectives. We hope that results from this study will inform better definitions of recovery in the alcohol and drug fields, better measurement of recovery, and new interventions that address core aspects of recovery as recovering people see it. Sarah E. Zemore, PhD

Lead Author and Senior Scientist, Alcohol Research Group, Public Health Institute

The study used data from the What is Recovery? Study, a national, online survey of people who identified as being in recovery, recovered, in medication-assisted recovery, or having once had a problem with alcohol and drugs that they overcame.

Read the full study: Zemore, S.E., Ziemer, K.L., Gilbert, P.A., Karno, M.P., & Kaskutas, L. A. (2023). Understanding the Shared Meaning of Recovery from Substance Use Disorders: New Findings from the What is Recovery? Study


About the Alcohol Research Group
For over 60 years, the Alcohol Research Group (ARG) has been actively engaged in critically needed alcohol and other drug-related public health research. We study drinking and other drug use and how these and other factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, sexual identity, socioeconomic disparities, and environmental differences affect health. ARG is also home to the NIAAA-funded National Alcohol Research Center and training program. Please visit

ARG is a program of the Public Health Institute, an independent nonprofit organization, dedicated to promoting health, well-being, and quality of life for people throughout California, across the nation and around the world. Please visit


Originally published by Alcohol Research Group

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