One of the most powerful concepts in addiction recovery is that of celebrating and nurturing gratitude in your life.
This is one of those ideas that is easy to pay lip service to. Everyone in AA meetings talks about gratitude all of the time, but how many of us are really practicing it, really implementing it in our lives? Are we doing enough with it? Sometimes they dedicate an entire AA meeting to gratitude, they call them “gratitude meetings” and everyone talks about what they are grateful for. We all sort of acknowledge that gratitude is hugely important, but when it comes to our day to day lives, it can be a difficult concept to implement and even more difficult to master.
Have I mastered it? Certainly not. But I think about it a great deal, and I know today that it is one of the greatest tools in recovery.
Let’s find out why.
When you relapse you are not being grateful. Period.
When a recovering alcoholic says to themselves “Screw it” and they reach for a bottle of booze, they are not being grateful.
In fact, they are in a state of mind that is the exact opposite of gratitude. It is a state of selfishness.
Think about this for a moment. When the alcoholic relapses, they do so because they are not getting their way. They are frustrated, angry, or they feel like a victim. Things are not working out the way that they want so they are going to drink alcohol. Because they deserve it. Because the world has cheated them or done them wrong. Because they did not get what they thought they deserved.
This is the opposite of gratitude. The state of mind that precedes relapse is a state of selfishness.
If you are genuinely grateful then you will not, by definition, be selfish. You are the opposite of selfish. You are appreciative for everything that the universe has given you in that very moment, and there is no need to complain or be unhappy or try to medicate yourself with alcohol.
Gratitude is relapse prevention. To be specific, gratitude is the spiritual component of relapse prevention.
Sure, there are some other spiritual tools that might serve you well in terms of relapse prevention. For example, faith can prevent relapse if it is strong enough. And even mere hope can work for a while (though this is not sustainable in the long run without either faith or gratitude to supplement, in my opinion).
But gratitude alone is powerful enough to save the alcoholic from relapse.
Therefore we should take special effort to cultivate and nurture gratitude in our lives.
Gratitude is not something that you do once and then move on to other things.
Instead it is a daily practice. It is something that you do over and over.
Gratitude is a habit. One that you must cultivate.
Celebrating gratitude each and every day as part of your mindset or prayers
A famous saint or something once said “If the only prayer you ever said was ‘thanks,’ that would be enough.”
Wise words. Gratitude is all you really need.
In other words, look up to the creator, fall down on your knees and kiss the ground beneath your feet and count your blessings that you are alive, that you exist, that you are on earth. That is enough. What more could possibly be said or even be remotely important?
Just look for billions of miles in all directions away from planet earth. You can’t live in any of that empty space! Yet here you are, a lucky bunch of atoms, walking around existing and conscious and able to find joy and happiness in this life. Who are we not to be grateful for this opportunity? You are one lucky bunch of atoms. Or if you prefer, you are one lucky soul to be alive and conscious right now.
Why waste that on self medicating yourself into oblivion?
Some people in recovery are into prayer. Some people in recovery have a specific higher power that they talk to in prayers every single day.
Others are agnostic or even atheist. They have no specific higher power to give thanks to.
When it comes to gratitude, however, it really doesn’t matter. This is one spiritual principle that really can transcend all religions and belief systems. The very first human beings, before they even had language or words to express ideas, could still look up at the stars and have that sense of wonder and appreciation that they even get to exist right now.
Existence itself is amazing. Start appreciating it!
Even if you don’t believe in a specific higher power, you can still give thanks. You can still learn to practice gratitude. You can still appreciate existence.
There are at least two ways to practice gratitude every day, even if you don’t have a specific higher power that you give thanks to in prayer (though that can certainly work too).
Let’s consider those two ways.
It could be worse….
Have you ever heard someone say “well, it could be worse…..” and then they might even go on to give an example of just how much worse the current situation could have been.
This is a form of gratitude. Most people don’t believe this at first because they think that when they visualize something negative that it brings them down and makes them sad.
But it really does work. And it is counter-intuitive, so you won’t believe that it works unless you actually try to implement this technique.
The technique is known as “negative visualization.”
So what you do it, every day, maybe a few times throughout your day, you set a reminder of some sort when you do this little 30 second exercise of negative visualization.
Maybe you set your watch to beep or something. So when it beeps, you look at whatever you are doing and wherever you are at, and you simply take 30 seconds and you imagine the worst case scenario for yourself.
So perhaps you are at a busy intersection and your watch beeps and prompts you to do this exercise. So you look up and see a bus. You imagine that the bus hits you, perhaps injuring you or paralyzing you for life. Or maybe it kills you outright. You think about how you would feel, what that would be like, you try to imagine the details of it. You try to actually feel the negative emotions associated with it.
Sounds terrible, right? You would think that this would bring you down. Especially if you were doing it a few times every single day!
But as I said, it is counter-intuitive. Everyone believes that it will make them miserable to use negative visualization, but it actually helps you to become grateful.
Because what happens is that your mind starts to compare the current reality to that 30 second tragedy that you just imagined in your mind. And your brain figures out that the tragedy is not real, and so it is grateful in comparison.
But without the comparison, without the example of the tragedy and the mental exercise that produced that tragedy, there is nothing to compare it to.
The inverse of this exercise is true as well. Imagine that you believe that you want to be rich and live like a rock star in order to be happy. So you fantasize all day about living that glorious life and you read all the rock star magazines and you mentally wrap yourself up in that world. People who do this tend to be miserable, because they are comparing their current reality to this super star existence that they lack. Your brain can’t help but compare and then base its happiness on the comparison.
This is why many people who volunteer to help the the less fortunate also get gratitude out of the experience. They remember where the came from. They are grateful that they have it so good today. They know what they do not want to go back to in the event of a relapse.
Negative visualization is one of those things that will only help you if you actually try it and practice it. You can easily say “oh, that won’t work for me, it will just depress me.” Then you never do it and just go on with your life and miss out on this powerful tool. Most people, in fact, take that path. It is much more difficult to actually practice negative visualization and use it on a daily basis to cultivate real gratitude. So you might challenge yourself with that experiment. Even if you just do it once per day, or try doing it every time you eat a meal. Take 30 seconds and imagine how much worse things could be in your life. I promise if you use the technique consistently you will be surprised at the results and how much happier it makes you in the long run. Gratitude takes practice, it takes work. You have to try some new things if you want to increase your gratitude.
How to implement the infamous gratitude list concept in your life
OK next is the infamous gratitude list.
If you have been to AA or NA enough then you know that eventually someone will suggest that you make a gratitude list.
Some sponsors will tell you to make a list of 50 or even 100 things that you are grateful for. Then they might tell you to put the list up on your bathroom mirror and glance through it every time you are getting ready in the morning, or other suggestions similar to this.
All good stuff. I agree with all of those ideas.
But I want to also challenge you a bit to go beyond the basic idea of a gratitude list. I want you to start tearing up your gratitude lists and throwing them away.
What’s that? Throw the lists away? Why would anyone do that? What’s the point of making a list if you are just going to throw it out right away?
The point is, you push your brain to become a gratitude cultivating machine.
This is how you get to that next level. This is how you push yourself.
Here is a 30 day challenge for you:
Every day, for the next 30 days, take 5 minutes and write out a gratitude list. You might even use a clock or a timer to challenge yourself. Scratch paper and pen or pencil. Furiously write down as many things as you can that you are grateful for. Keep it simple and just do 5 minutes.
After the timer goes off, read through your list and then tear it up and throw it out. Rinse and repeat. Do it every day, 5 minutes per day.
The first day you might get like 14 things on your list.
The last day of the 30 day challenge you might get closer to 40 or 50 things. Some might get even more.
Some people would scoff at this idea and say “why the hurry? This is not a race! What’s the point of pushing yourself to go faster?”
The point is, you gotta practice gratitude. And I know you don’t have all day to practice, so do it fast and quick and dirty in 5 minute increments.
Do this every day for 30 days and by the end you will be an expert at whipping out gratitude lists.
And this is the point!
You don’t just want to make a list. That doesn’t really help you six months from now when you are facing a tough situation in life and you might relapse as a result.
No, you need to make dozens of lists. You need to practice making lists. You need to be able to pull gratitude out of a hat like a magician pulls rabbits out of hats. You need to get good at this. You need to be fast at this.
If someone tells you “quick! Make a list of 20 things you are grateful for!” and it takes you half and hour and you are complaining about having to do it, then you are not exactly well protected against relapse.
On the other hand, let’s say that you are practicing with these lists every day and you are doing your 5 minute challenges and you throw them away each time. Then someone points at you and says “quick, write down 20 things you are grateful for!” you could probably whip it out in like 3 minutes flat. Without even breaking a sweat. You would say “shoot, that’s easy. I can do 50 things while standing on my head if I have to!”
That’s where you want to be. You want to be well practiced in the art of being grateful. You want to be able to dig deep at a moment’s notice and come up with lots of reasons to be grateful.
This is a good skill to have. This is a skill that can save your life in addiction recovery. This is something that gets better with practice.
So practice it every day. Do a 30 day challenge and take 5 minutes each day and make a gratitude list.
They should get longer and longer as you do the challenge. Because you will get faster and faster at coming up with things you are grateful for. And you will get better and better at it.
And eventually you won’t just be practicing gratitude, you will actually BE grateful. And that is the spiritual equivalent of bullet-proof recovery. That is one of the big secrets to relapse prevention. People who are genuinely grateful do not relapse. They remain sober. Because they are so happy to simply exist, to have the rewards of sobriety, to be alive and conscious at all. You need to practice so that you can find that level of gratitude.
Nurturing gratitude in long term sobriety
Long term sobriety creates optimism if you do it right.
You learn to look for the silver lining in things. Because that is where the lessons are at.
When “bad” things happen in life, you have a choice. You can complain about them or you can learn from them.
If you complain about the bad stuff then you have chosen to ignore the concept of gratitude. You chose selfishness instead. That is what complaining is all about. “This bad thing happened, and it was not fair to me, and life is bad as a result. Poor me. I deserve a drink over this!”
Or you can choose gratitude. Something “bad” happens in life and you look for the silver lining. You say to yourself “this bad thing happened, but I know there is a lesson in all of this somewhere, it just hasn’t revealed itself to me yet. But I will learn something from it, mark my words.” And then you reflect on whatever happened and you might pray about it a bit or you might talk to others in recovery about it. And you might meditate over it. And eventually you will be able to look back, sometimes much later, and see where you benefited as a result of that “bad” thing that happened. And then you acknowledge that benefit. If you are making lists each day, you would write it down on a list. “Something bad happened but I learned this certain lesson as a result and my life is better today because of it in some small way.”
Gratitude is about celebrating the small victories. It doesn’t have to be a huge win. See, that was our problem in addiction. We demanded the big win, we wanted the big reward, we thought that we deserved so much in our lives. And then when we did not always get it, whatever we thought that we deserved, we were selfish about it. We lacked gratitude. We felt cheated out of life, just because the chips don’t always fall our way. And so anytime we were even the slightest bit of a victim we took it and ran with it. Any time we had bad luck we said “if you had my life, you would drink too!” Any time we could play the victim we actually reveled in it because it gave us “permission” to drink more.
With gratitude, you flip that attitude on its head. Instead, you do the opposite. You take the tiniest little victory in life and you celebrate it as if it were the greatest gift that your higher power has ever bestowed upon you.
I can remember being in early recovery and I would hear people with significant clean time talk like this. They would be so amazed and grateful that something trivial and perhaps even negative happened to them because they learned a small lesson from it. And I was confused by this because I did not understand why they would be so grateful about it? I would have been complaining!
But then I started to learn about the spiritual currency of recovery. Every lesson and every silver lining is another positive step towards peace and contentment. You see, in recovery, you don’t have to keep banging your head into the wall like you did in addiction. You can learn from a mistake and then never make that same mistake again! Sobriety affords us this chance.
So I can be grateful for my mistakes in recovery, I can be grateful when something “bad” happens in recovery and I learn even the tiniest thing from it, because now that is more peace and serenity that I have banked for the future. Perhaps I learned how to avoid a certain bit of pain or anger or chaos in the future due to a certain experience that I had today. That is something to be grateful for. “I know not to do that again!” This is worthy of gratitude, even if it does not seem like it at first.
What about you, have you been able to cultivate gratitude in your recovery journey? What has helped you to do so? Give us some tips and suggestions…..Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!