the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness.
As addicts and alcoholics, the concept of gratitude likely eluded us entirely for the majority of our lives. We lived in a constant state of selfishness and self-pity, endlessly wondering why we had been dealt such a crappy hand; focused on what we could do to get what it was we wanted (more, more, more). Upon entering into recovery, we were introduced to the concept of gratitude – of changing our perception of the glass of life from perpetually half empty to half full with the purest, most potable water in all the land. No small task for us naysayers and pessimists… but eventually, we got the hang of it. Early recovery was surely full of gratitude lists, giving thanks, and showing appreciation through acts of service and unreciprocated kindness. Perhaps some of these positive habits began slipping to the sidelines the further along we got in our recovery. They frequently do. It can be difficult to remember to live in gratitude every day – especially when our lives get full again.
The Importance of Gratitude
It has been repeatedly proven that those who practice gratitude on a regular basis experience an endless amount of benefits, ranging from improved physical health to better, deeper sleep and enhanced emotional regulation. Research conducted by UC Davis psychology professor and author Robert Emmons suggested that simply keeping a gratitude journal, and jotting down moments of gratitude on a daily basis, significantly increased well-being and overall contentedness. Of course, all of the scientific research in the world cannot keep an addict or alcoholic motivated for more than a week. Soon, writing in a gratitude journal every night before bed will lose an epic battle against the latest Netflix series, and we will begin regularly forgetting to express appreciation for all we have been blessed with. When we continuously forget to express gratitude, we unintentionally limit the wide-ranging benefits of recovery.
We have provided several tips to help keep your personal practice of gratitude fresh and fun, and to help you maintain a long-term practice in order to uninterruptedly reap all of the amazing gifts that living an authentically grateful life can bestow.
Keep Your Practice of Gratitude Fresh
- Get specific.
It is common to begin generalizing gratitude, especially when we take up the practice of keeping a journal or jotting down a daily list. We may write things like, “I’m grateful for my family,” or, “I’m grateful for my career.” Try getting a little more specific. Express what aspect of your family you are especially grateful for in the present moment. For example, “I am grateful to have had a long talk with my brother, seeing as a year ago, he refused to speak so much as one word to me.” Rather than simply write “my career”, try digging a little bit deeper. “I am so grateful for my health benefits, because without them, my trip to the doctor today would be difficult to afford.” Or, “I’m grateful that sobriety allows me to show up to work on time without a hangover.” Dig a little bit deeper.
- Mix it up.
Simply writing a list in a journal every night before bed may get a little bit tedious. Fortunately, there are innumerable ways to express gratitude. Try making a ‘Gratitude Box’, and filling it with all of the things you are grateful for. Every day, pull a slip of paper from the box, and whatever the paper says, focus on showing gratitude towards that specific thing. For example, if you pull out ‘my grandmother’, give her a call to catch up and remind her how much you love her. If you draw ‘my sobriety’, go to a meeting and share how grateful you are and how far you have come. Get creative – there are many, many ways to express gratitude. Like every other aspect of comprehensive recovery, you have the ability to make it your own.
- Make gratitude social.
Rather than limiting your practice to a personal expression, try making your gratitude a bit more social. It has been repeatedly proven that our relationships with others are the greatest determinant of our happiness levels. Focusing attention on the people and the relationships we are grateful for, rather than on material possessions or current circumstances, will help bolster our connections with others while enhancing our own ability to maintain healthy, mutually beneficial connections. Try writing a letter to a friend – new or old – and expressing the many ways in which you are grateful to have maintained a relationship with this friend. If you eat lunch or dinner in a communal setting, try going around the table and expressing thanks – this is a customary Thanksgiving tradition, but it is a wonderful practice to uphold all year long!
- Do for others.
There is truly no better way to express gratitude than to give back. And fortunately, there are endless ways to do so! You may want to volunteer at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter, or collect unwanted clothing, food, or blankets to give to the less fortunate. During the holiday season especially, there are innumerable drives and charitable events to get involved in. Simply do your research, and find a nearby charity that you can donate some time to. As members of Alcoholics Anonymous, doing for others is always an option – there will always be someone to help, someone with even slightly less time than you have (or just as much time, or more). Give someone without a car a ride to the grocery store, listen to someone complain about their day with an open, tolerant, and sympathetic ear, or take a newcomer through the 12-steps. The opportunities to give back are truly endless.
Focusing On What We Have
Rather than focus on what we want, we can derive great joy and happiness from focusing our attention on what we already have. As Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More and The Language of Letting Go once said, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
By holding ourselves accountable and actively practicing gratitude on a daily basis, we continuously work towards transforming our natural state of mind from one of selfish, self-centered desires to one of contentment, appreciation, and compassion for ourselves and our fellows.
“Gratitude is not a tool to manipulate the universe or God. It’s a way to acknowledge our faith that everything happens for a reason even if we don’t know what that reason is.”