How to reward yourself and celebrate your journey to sobriety

A list of ideas to reward yourself instead of raising a glass

How do you celebrate and reward yourself without drinking or drugs?

Embarking on the journey of sobriety is an incredible feat—one that deserves celebration, acknowledgment, and rewards. But when we’re used to marking achievements with alcohol or drugs, it can feel daunting to reimagine celebrations without them. The truth is, there’s an abundance of fulfilling, joyful, and special ways to celebrate milestones and achievements without substances. We’ve got a list of ten ideas for you to celebrate your acheivements that don’t involve raising a glass.

Let’s explore some of these, but first look at the science behind setting goals and rewards for our brain and how they help us in our recovery.

Our brains love to celebrate

Setting goals and rewarding ourselves is more than just a pat on the back—it’s a powerful tool that taps into our brain’s reward system. When we achieve something, our brain releases dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. 

Drugs and alcohol hijack this system, flooding our brains with dopamine. However, by setting goals and celebrating milestones in healthy ways, we can naturally stimulate the release of dopamine, fostering a sense of accomplishment and joy.

The cycle of addiction has three stages: binge/intoxification, withdrawal/negative effect, and preocupation/anticipation. You feel great when you drink or use drugs, you feel bad when you don’t, and you look forward to the next time. As we use more and more often, we develop a tolerance and need more to get that good feeling, the crashes get more severe, and instead of looking forward to it, we start obsessing and cravings become more intense. The cycle becomes a downward spiral. 

Addiction hijacks our brain's rewards system.

Addictions start in the binge/intoxification phase. Setting a goal jumps into the cycle in the anticipation phase, which is an incredibly powerful place. Research into behavior and habit formation shows that our brains are more active in anticipation of the reward than they are when they actually get the reward. You’re excited the closer you get and satisfied after you get there. It’s the thrill of the chase. 

When we set and achieve a goal and our brain releases dopamine, it reinforces the behavior that led to the reward. By consciously setting achievable goals and celebrating them in healthy ways, we’re training our brains to seek fulfillment and joy without relying on substances. This process reinforces positive behaviors, creating a cycle of setting goals, achieving them, and feeling rewarded.

This is one of the primary reasons why Affect’s treatment program works better than traditional methods. It uses a technique called contingency management to activate your brain’s reward system naturally. It’s a term treatment specialists use to describe how to manage your recovery with rewards that motivate you. Every time you complete a step in your recovery program, you get a reward for it. It’s like winning levels of a game that make you want to keep playing it. In this case, you’re winning your life back and gaining new healthy habits as you lose your old ones.

It works for everyone. Giving yourself a treat for doing something good is training your brain.

Breaking unhealthy habits by rethinking rewards

Rewards are things that are special and have value to them. They have meaning and are indulgences. We think of them as a treat or a bonus. You get that expensive bottle of wine as a thank you or recognition for doing a good job. Or, someone gives you a box of chocolates or a cake you wouldn’t normally buy or make for yourself.

Taking everyone on the team out for drinks after all the hard work paid off and the big deal came through is a typical celebration. But who hasn’t woken up hungover after celebrating too much? When we reward ourselves with a drink, we’re actually treating ourself to poison. Alcohol is a toxin and any amount of it does damage to your brain and body. Is punishing your body really a reward?

Sugar is another substance that gives that dopamine hit chemically. An example of a contingent reward is how we have desert at the end of the meal and say if we we eat all our vegetables and healthy food, we get to have that splurge.

It’s fine and not particularly harmful when done in moderation, but addiction is the opposite of moderation.

What happens is that substance we use to celebrate becomes the thing that soothes us when we’re not feeling good. We can’t make the dopamine on our own.

That’s when we find ourselves drinking alone in sadness, or binge eating ice cream out of the carton. It’s no longer an indulgence, it’s a toxic coping mechanism to escape from reality we don’t know how to deal with. We’re no longer rewarding ourselves, we’re punishing ourselves.

How to think about healthy rewards

When we’re looking to replace those rewards and rewire our brains, we’re seeking ways to celebrate that have no downsides at all. We’re not depriving ourselves of something and then letting ourselves have it, we’re working our way towards something we want. The best rewards are special and make you feel good about yourself.

It helps to have little rewards you get along the way as well as some bigger ones when you get somewhere. These keep you going and help you reach your goals. These are things and experiences you want to have and look forward to. You’re generating real dopamine.

As you create your own formula and system of rewards, one thing to keep in mind is that the most precious thing we have is time – there’s only so much of it. Giving yourself a piece of time to do something special can be a true indulgence. The way kids get a half hour of video game time for getting their homework done is a perfect example of a reward.

The old saying time is money applies here too. Affect’s system is based in financial rewards. Many people who quit substances keep track of the money they aren’t spending on drugs and alcohol. They spend the money they save on something special. You’re probably spending thousands of dollars every year on alcohol or drugs and not be paying attention to it.

What could you do with all of that money you save (and earn in your recovery program) and all that time you get back from not being drunk or high or hungover?

One of the most fulfilling ways to celebrate is by embracing experiences that nourish our souls. How about treating yourself to a day at the spa, indulging in a massage, or trying out a yoga class? Engaging in activities that promote relaxation, self-care, and mindfulness can be incredibly rewarding. You can also meet people in places like the yoga studio and start to develop a community around something healthy and healing. 

Exploring nature can be an enriching celebration. Take a hike in a scenic spot, plan a camping trip, or simply bask in the beauty of a sunset. Nature’s serenity has a way of grounding us and allowing us to appreciate life’s simple pleasures. Take a trip to the beach and skip the sea side bar, go to the beautiful park instead. 

For those inclined toward creativity, engaging in artistic pursuits can be an immensely satisfying way to celebrate. Whether it’s painting, writing, playing an instrument, or learning a new craft, expressing yourself creatively can be deeply fulfilling and therapeutic. Treat yourself to an art class. You can buy yourself art supplies as rewards. Sign up for music lessons. If you learn how to play guitar, you won’t have any money to buy drugs and alcohol because you’ll spend it all on guitars.

Investing in personal growth can be a powerful way to celebrate your achievements. Consider enrolling in a course, attending a workshop, or learning a new skill. The sense of progress and self-improvement can be incredibly rewarding.

And let’s not forget the joy of shared experiences. Celebrate with friends and loved ones by organizing a game night, hosting a movie marathon, or trying out a new restaurant. Meaningful connections and shared laughter are invaluable in marking moments of triumph. When you host it or choose the spot, you can control the environment so it’s drug and alcohol free. 

Traveling, even if it’s just a short getaway, can be a wonderful celebration. Exploring new places, immersing yourself in different cultures, and creating memories can be incredibly uplifting and fulfilling.

In essence, celebrating without alcohol or drugs isn’t about depriving yourself.  It’s about discovering new sources of joy and fulfillment. It’s about redefining what it means to reward ourselves, finding activities that bring genuine happiness, and nurturing our well-being.

So, as you walk the path of sobriety, remember that each step is worthy of celebration. Embrace experiences that bring you joy, invest in self-care, nurture your creativity, cherish connections, and seek growth. Celebrate your victories in ways that uplift and inspire you, filling your life with moments of genuine happiness and fulfillment.

Your journey toward sobriety is a testament to your strength and resilience. Celebrate it in ways that honor your progress and nourish your soul. You deserve every bit of joy that comes your way.

It’s up to you to figure out what motivates you and makes you feel rewarded, we’re all different. It can be hard to think of ideas, so we’ve got a list for you to consider. 

Ideas to celebrate and reward yourself

Here are ten suggestions for rewarding treats that make the celebration memorable:

Gourmet Dining Experience: Treat yourself to a fancy dinner at a renowned restaurant. Delight your taste buds with a carefully curated menu and savor each bite. Celebrate your achievements with exquisite flavors and ambiance.

Adventure or Wellness Retreat: Plan a weekend getaway to an adventure or wellness retreat. Engage in activities like hiking, yoga, meditation, or any experience that rejuvenates your mind and body.

Spa Day: Indulge in a luxurious spa day. Pamper yourself with massages, facials, and relaxation treatments. Let the stress melt away as you celebrate your triumphs in a tranquil environment.

Concert or Live Performance: Enjoy a live concert or theater performance. Immerse yourself in the magic of music or artistry, creating memories that are tied to the joy of achievement.

Personalized Experience: Consider a personalized experience such as a private cooking class, a pottery workshop, or a session with a personal trainer. Investing in your interests and passions can be deeply rewarding.

Nature Retreat: Plan a camping trip or a day at the beach. Revel in the beauty of nature, disconnect from daily stresses, and celebrate amidst serene surroundings.

Learning Experience: Invest in a course or workshop related to your interests or hobbies. The joy of learning and self-improvement can be an incredible reward in itself.

Charity or Volunteering: Celebrate by giving back to the community. Volunteer at a local charity or donate to a cause that resonates with you. The act of kindness and contribution can bring immense fulfillment.

Memory-Making Activity: Organize a special outing with friends or family—perhaps a picnic at a picturesque spot, a game night, or a fun-filled day of activities. Create cherished memories together.

Self-Care Subscription: Consider subscribing to a monthly self-care box that includes items like skincare products, books, teas, or wellness goodies. Each month, receive a curated package designed to uplift and inspire.

Celebrating yourself with gifts that nourish your soul and body is a key to a successful recovery journey. Not only do they motivate you and give your brain that positive feeling it craves, you break bad habits and replace them with ones that help you grow and feel better naturally. There’s no hangover, no regrets, no downside at all when you toast yourself with a cup of loving kindness instead of that glass of wine. You’re not escaping life, you’re living it fully in the moment.