If you go to AA or NA meetings then you are bound to hear advice about cultivating gratitude at some point.
People will tell you to practice gratitude every day. They will tell you to “just be grateful for what you have, and for the fact that you are still alive and free.”
Or your sponsor will tell you to make a gratitude list and write out 50 things that you are grateful for. Then he might even tell you to write down 5 new things you are grateful for each and every day.
So the question becomes this: Does forcing this gratitude on yourself actually make you grateful?
This is a little bit like wondering if affirmations work or not. So here is my take on the issue, and you may or may not choose to take my own advice on the matter.
There are really 2 issues here when it comes to gratitude, at least for me. First there is the concept that a person can be grateful in nearly any circumstances, no matter what is happening to them or around them at the time, simply by choosing to be grateful.
Second of all is the concept of personal growth and self improvement as a means to improve your life and find happiness, joy, and peace in your own world.
I think of these two concepts in the same way that I think about relapse prevention when it comes to addiction and alcoholism. One, you should be able to resist temptation and overcome any craving for your drug of choice by reaching out to others and using the tools of a recovery program. But on the other hand, you should also rearrange your life in such a way that you will no longer be walking into temptations and cravings every day that you need to resist. It is a two part effort–yes, you learn how to deal with cravings. But also, you do the work that is necessary to reduce or even eliminate temptation. Why make it hard on yourself? In other words, why sober up and then hang out at the corner bar where you used to drink? That doesn’t make sense. Recovery should be practical.
I think of gratitude the same way. Sure, anyone can be grateful in any circumstances if they are “spiritual enough.” There are people in prison today who probably have more gratitude in their attitude than lots of people who are wandering free. The circumstances are not the driver of gratitude. Or rather, they do not have to be. We can be grateful in spite of our circumstances.
On the other hand, I cannot help but notice in my own life when it is most difficult to be grateful versus when it is easy to be grateful.
So there are times when the chips are down and nothing is going my way and it is very, very difficult to feel gratitude. And in those moments, I know that if I maintain gratitude that eventually things will turn around for me and my life will get better and then I will get back to the place in which it is easy and natural to feel grateful.
And so that is the other side of the coin, when everything is going well and I feel naturally grateful. It is not forced. And if I look at those times in my life, they usually involved some hustle and some hard work. In other words, I had to put in a serious effort in order to get to the point that everything was good and I felt naturally grateful.
And so this is really how gratitude works for me–it is either natural and it feels easy and right, or it is forced and I am struggling to get back to the place where it feels normal.
A lack of gratitude is a warning sign for me. What is the opposite of being grateful? Do you know what it is?
I am fairly sure it is selfishness.
If you are ungrateful then you are saying “the world is being unfair to me somehow, and I am not pleased by it.”
When you lack gratitude you are blaming the universe, you are blaming other people, you are blaming bad luck, you are blaming something. Something outside of yourself has ruined things for you, and you are not happy about it. This is a selfish stance and it is a warning sign for addicts and alcoholics.
The moment of relapse has to involve justification. The alcoholic doesn’t just accidentally drink alcohol one day and then calls it a relapse.
Instead, the alcoholic makes a decision in order to justify the relapse first. Before they lift that alcoholic beverage up to their lips they have decided that they deserve this drink that they are about to take.
And why do they deserve it? They deserve it because they are being selfish in the moment–somehow they world has done them wrong, and now they deserve to be selfish. That is the only way that an addict or an alcoholic can justify a relapse. They have to make it okay in their mind before they actually pick up.
So the idea is that if you can program that person to resort back to gratitude in that moment of desperation, then they would not be selfish and they would not be able to justify a relapse.
While that is a nice idea, I think that getting to that point means that it is already too late.
Therefore, your “gratitude barometer” is really a warning sign that you can use to see if there is work to be done.
If you are forcing gratitude rather than feeling it naturally then it means you have some footwork to do in your life.
My best suggestion would be to ask for help from your sponsor in AA, from your therapist, or from your peers in recovery. Ask for help and direction and insight as to what work you need to be doing. Sure, you can make gratitude lists and work on saying prayers of thanks and things like that–but there is also the real work of recovery, the work that can set you free.
Have you worked through the steps of AA and identified your defects and your resentments and done the work to eliminate those? If not, then that is a great starting point.
Have you talked with a therapist and figured out your specific issues in life and how you tend to sabotage yourself? Because that is the kind of work that you should be doing in your recovery journey.
If you do this hard work and you tackle the real issues in your life then it will eventually lead to the place in which you have a lot of natural gratitude, and you will not be forcing it all the time.
If you avoid doing that fourth and fifth step, if you avoid going to therapy and getting honest and digging into your real issues, then you will never know the kind of peace and freedom in recovery that will cause you to be naturally grateful for more of the time.
Sure, everyone has down days. Sure, we can all benefit from practicing gratitude. But we should not use this approach of “forced gratitude” in order to avoid the real work of recovery that can one day set us free.
If you really want to be grateful, then go build an amazing life for yourself in recovery. Good luck!