When we refer to alcoholism and addiction as a “disease,” some people misinterpret this as an excuse for our behaviors. They believe the implication to be that we had no choice in our actions, that we simply went about like mindless zombies. And at times, this wasn’t so far from the truth. Nonetheless, we still had a choice. In fact, many of us knew long before we quit drinking or abusing drugs that we needed to stop. We simply didn’t know how. Rather than seek help, we chose to continue using. The opportunity cost for this decision was often gigantic.
You may not be familiar with that term—opportunity cost. Its meaning is actually pretty intuitive, but it’s okay if you don’t get it just yet. By the time you’ve finished reading this article, you should have a fair understanding regarding its meaning and the ways in which it applies to recovery. And this is important, because opportunity cost directly relates to our choices and the impact they have on our lives. Once we know what it means and how it works, we can begin making better decisions and reducing the harm we do to ourselves and others through selfishness and reckless thinking.
This subject will appeal to those who like to intellectualize their recovery, but we should caution such individuals before we get started. Recovery is a spiritual experience. While opportunity cost may be a somewhat academic concept, our usage of it here is actually meant to get you out of your own head. This doesn’t mean that you can’t think at all—that would be unwise. But if this article resonates with you, then you should soon find yourself thinking much more spiritually. Because in the end, that’s what recovery is all about.
What Is Opportunity Cost?
Opportunity cost actually originates from economics. This may sound somewhat ironic, given that many of us were somewhat reckless with our money when we were using drugs and alcohol. In fact, we were reckless with a lot of things. This is why opportunity cost is so important for us to understand. Basically, opportunity cost is the sacrifice we make when choosing one thing over another. When two options are presented with us, each with their own benefits, then the opportunity cost will be the benefit of the option we do not choose.
Recovery blogger Mark Goodson provides the following example:
“Free trials are a good example of opportunity cost at work. Music streamers like Pandora, Spotify, or Apple Music give you week-long trials so you know what you lose if you don’t pay for a subscription. Is it worth a few cents a day to listen to your favorite music without commercial interruption? Spotify thinks you’ll say ‘yes’ after a week. We determine what commercial-free music is worth to us when we make the decision to subscribe.”
Not surprisingly, opportunity cost is often the source of buyer’s remorse. Think of the example above. Somebody who elects to spend the money might decide that they didn’t mind the commercials so much after all. This might cause them to cancel their subscription, after which they might miss the benefit of listening to music with no commercials. In this way, someone who originally didn’t feel strongly about the issue one way or the other suddenly finds themselves with strong feelings pulling them in opposite directions. And this often happens before we even make our decision, depending upon whether or not we’re able to assess the opportunity cost of a decision prior to actually making it.
This can be more difficult than it sounds. It’s easy when the opportunity cost comes in the form of a quantifiable object, such as dollars or cents. But our lives require us to make decisions about far more than material objects or consumer luxuries. The harder decisions might present us with opportunity cost that affects us mentally, emotionally or spiritually. When this is the case, our decisions warrant much more careful consideration. Because while choosing an online music service might put us out a few dollars or a few measly sense, our decisions in addiction and recovery can cost us much, much more.
How It Applies to Recovery
Toward the end of our addiction, we often find ourselves wishing that we knew a way out. But we don’t want to go to an AA or NA meeting and declare ourselves addicted. We also perceive addiction treatment to carry some sort of stigma. In an effort to avoid these sorts of things, we decide to keep using instead. But if we look at opportunity cost, we see the folly in this decision. Even if there were a stigma, it would be a small price to pay for improving our health and our relationships.
On the other hand, think about the opportunity cost if we choose to stay addicted. Think of how many things have already gone wrong in our lives because of our substance abuse. If we don’t seek help, these things only stand to get worse. This makes the opportunity cost of treatment appear much lower than that of continuing our substance abuse. In other words, opportunity cost can often be little more than a reflection of our own inner thoughts. We must question which opportunities are important to us—and which we are willing to lose. Because if we don’t choose carefully, we might find ourselves looking back in remorse.
This happens in recovery as well. Do we choose the opportunity cost of admitting our vulnerability and letting someone know the real us, or do we choose the cost of relapse? You might be surprised how many choose relapse. The thing is, however, that they may not realize they are making this choice. To such people it simply feels as if they are choosing not to engage in a program that might not work for them. And this is okay. But if this decision turns out to be wrong for us, we must be prepared to face the consequences. The moment we choose to let our defenses down and stop working a program of relapse prevention, we set ourselves up for a lot of pain.
These are the kinds of things that we must consider when accounting for opportunity cost in our recovery life. Sobriety is no laughing matter, and opportunity cost presents us with no easy decision. We never know when one little decision might push us over the edge. One second, we find ourselves thinking that we don’t need to go to a meeting or call our sponsors. The next second, we’re drunk or stoned and wondering how things got so bad again. If we pay attention to opportunity cost, we can avoid this type of scenario. The matter is up to us and whether or not we truly wish to become sober. And whether we do or not, we should be careful, because opportunity cost continues to affect our daily lives as well.
Applications in Everyday Life
We face issues of opportunity cost every day, even in matters that seem unrelated to recovery. For instance, Mark Goodson notes that he faced such an issue when he had to stay home from work to take care of his daughter. Here’s what he had to say about that:
“Work is a chore. Spending time with my daughter is a reward. My ego sees the two choices: stay at work or be home with my daughter. It tells me the opportunity cost—what I lose from taking time off work—is immense. My self-importance craves to make work seem more important, more valuable. But it’s not. There is nothing in this world more valuable than spending time with her.”
To some of us, this line of thinking seems extraordinary. We don’t always hear a lot of people talk about spending time with family as a reward. So many of us become obsessed with work and money. We hide behind these things in the same way that we used to hide behind drugs and alcohol. It’s not good for our health, our sanity, or ultimately our sobriety.
This is why we must take opportunity cost into account during everyday life. Perhaps certain issues don’t seem to affect our sobriety, but they might have a greater impact than we initially realize. Do we go sit down for a nice, healthy meal? Or do we go through the drive-through and suck down a cheeseburger so that we can get back to work more quickly? This decision seems inconsequential on its own, but it affects our health if we make the same choice multiple times. Staying up late to work or watch our favorite show, bottling up our emotions instead of talking about them, shirking our responsibilities—all of these choices will inevitably have an impact on our lives. What we must consider is whether or not we’re okay with that impact.
At the end of the day, we must always play the tape forward. It’s simply too reckless to make decisions without considering the outcome first. But if we look closely at the decision we’re prepared to make, the opportunity cost should be easy to determine. All that’s left is to decide whether or not we’re okay with the sacrifice we’re making. Sometimes, as Goodson discovered with his daughter, the sacrifice pales in comparison to the reward. But there are also times, such as when we choose to drink or abuse drugs, at which the sacrifice will be too great to take the risk. Only we can decide where we draw the line. We must always choose carefully, or else pay the price for our decisions.