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Thank you for your interest in our project, “What Is Recovery?”

The “What Is Recovery?” project has been underway since August 2010. After 4 years of work, we are now able to report on the results of the project!

Why did we undertake this project?

There is currently no agreement about the definition of ‘recovery’ from alcohol and drug problems. For example, some believe it requires total abstinence from drugs and alcohol, while others do not. Most of what we know about the definition of recovery has come from scientists and expert panels, not from people in recovery! The goal of the “What Is Recovery?” project was to develop a way of defining recovery based on how it is experienced by those who actually live it.

Many people choose to keep quiet about their recovery, so the general public has little understanding of what ‘recovery’ really means … they just know about the problems that people get into before recovery! But now, we have a very specific definition of recovery, and it is one that clearly demonstrates the many positive “ways of being” that define recovery.

How was the project conducted?

Here are the steps we took to discover the elements that define recovery:

  • To start out, we interviewed dozens of people in recovery from different pathways about how they define recovery. By “pathways” we mean 12-step groups, other support groups, treatment, medication-assisted recovery, moderation, and doing it on your own. We also looked at websites and books about recovery.
  • We ended-up with 167 potential items that define recovery, and asked 238 people in recovery from different pathways to tell us whether these definitions belonged in their definition. This involved web surveys and telephone interviews.
    • Based on their answers, the list was reduced to 47 items.
  • Then, almost 10,000 people in recovery from different pathways told us whether these 47 items belonged in a definition of recovery or not. This involved another web survey, and required a lot of outreach from study partners to get the word out about the project.
    • We did more analysis. We made sure that different views were included in the final recovery definition. This left us with 39 items to represent the elements of recovery.

What did we find?

Here are a few examples of the elements of recovery. For the full list, go to the Recovery Definition page.

  • Recovery is being honest with myself.
  • Recovery is being able to enjoy life without drinking or using drugs like I used to.
  • Recovery is living a life that contributes to society, to your family or to your betterment.
  • Recovery is being the kind of person that people can count on.
  • Recovery is about giving back.
  • Recovery is striving to be consistent with my beliefs & values in activities that take up the major part of my time & energy.

To learn about the general profile of all the people who took the survey, please see the Survey Respondents page.

To learn more about the final 39 elements that make up the recovery definition, please see the Recovery Definition page.

Another piece of news from the project is our follow-on study. In spring 2014 we successfully reached 1,236 respondents who were interested in staying involved in future studies on recovery. We hope to stay in touch with them even longer to track their recovery progress over time.


“What is Recovery?” is a project of the Alcohol Research Group. The Alcohol Research Group conducts and disseminates research in epidemiology of alcohol consumption and problems, alcohol health services research, and alcohol policy while also training future generations of alcohol researchers.

The project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is directed by Dr. Lee Ann Kaskutas, a Senior Scientist at the Alcohol Research Group, which is part of the Public Health Institute (PHI). The project has been approved by the PHI committee for the protection of human research subjects.

The information provided here was originally published in the journal article listed below.

Kaskutas, L. A., Borkman, T. J., Laudet, A., Ritter, L. A., Witbrodt, J., Subbaraman, M., Stunz, A., & Bond, J. (November 2014). Elements that define recovery: The experiential perspective. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75(6), 999-1010.

Reprinted with permission from Alcohol Research Documentation, Inc., publisher of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (