Spirituality & Science…Together?

We all know that AA and other twelve-step fellowships work. Most women in long-term recovery are living, breathing, and awesome proof of it! What we don’t know, though, is why AA works.

science behind AA

Let me clarify, we don’t know scientifically why AA works. While it’s easy to say that the twelve-steps work because of God, that answer doesn’t satisfy most scientists, researchers, or academics.

The first question you may be asking yourself is who cares what scientists think? I know I certainly asked myself that more than once! My opinion, our opinion really, doesn’t matter in this case, though. After all, think of how many suffering addicts and alcoholics would flock to AA if it were better understood!

(I know, I know, recovery is for people who want it and do it, not for people who need it. That fact aside, we can all agree that a better understand of AA, NA, CA, etc. would benefit the public at large. Remember, our lives today are about how we can best help everyone!)

Well, a substance abuse and mental health counselor named Joe Nowinski set out to understand the how and why of Alcoholics Anonymous. Find out what he found out below!

A Surprising Introduction


In the 1980’s, Joe Nowinski worked in student health at the University of Connecticut. One day, he went to a training at Hazelden, one of the country’s oldest and most respected treatment centers.

Of his introduction to AA, Joe says,

“I looked up at a large poster on the wall. It was the 12 steps. My eye was immediately caught by the word God that appeared there a number of times, and my gut reaction was something like, “Oh no! I’m a cognitive-behavioral therapist! I don’t believe in God!” (The Fix).

Sounds like someone had a little contempt prior to investigation!

After spending a week at Hazelden, Joe soon changed his mind. He was able to experience firsthand the power of twelve-step recovery. He saw the change it brought over people. He saw the benefits of honesty, open mindedness, and willingness!

Research into 12-Step Recovery


Following his auspicious introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous, Joe participated in something called Project MATCH. This was a study that looked at the outcomes, or rates of abstinence, quality of life, etc., of various therapies. It was also, to date, the largest psychotherapy outcome study ever conducted.

The results were astounding to researchers and clinicians alike. It turns out that “Twelve-Step Facilitation Treatment,” aka becoming involved in a twelve-step fellowship, kept more people sober!

William R. Miller, a therapist involved in Project MATCH, wrote,

“On at least one time-honored outcome measure—the percentage of patients maintaining complete abstinence—those in the Twelve Step Facilitation treatment fared significantly better than did patients in the other two conditions—a substantial advantage of about 10 percentage points that endured across three years” (The Fix).

I’ll stick with something that gives me a 10% better shot at staying sober!

Various other studies have examined the effectiveness of twelve-step recovery. “Twelve-Step Facilitation Treatment” was compared to something called Motivational Enhancement Therapy. The results showed that those involved with “Twelve-Step Facilitation Treatment” (really, can we just call it working the steps!!) stayed sober for longer.

Another type of therapy that includes twelve-step principles is called MAAEZ (which stands for Making AA Easier). MAAEZ has been shown to lead to higher rates of abstinence than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, long considered the gold standard of addiction treatment.

12 steps and science

So, it’s abundantly clear that twelve-step based therapies work! It’s obvious, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that twelve-step principles work. What Joe Nowinski also found out is that all self-help groups help people.

Organizations like SMART Recovery and Women for Sobriety (not to be confused with us, Sobriety for Women!) also help boost rates of abstinence and improve quality of life.

What Joe didn’t find out was exactly why AA and other twelve-step fellowships work. While that’s unfortunate, all he had to do to get an answer, however unscientific it might be, was ask a member of twelve-step recovery!

The twelve-steps work because they take me outside of myself. They allow me, through a God of my own understanding, to become selfless, honest, and strong. They allow all of us to experience real freedom for the first time!

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