They say that gratitude is not conditional.
In other words, we often put conditions on what we need in order to be happy or content in our lives. We might say to ourselves: “If I could just get that person to go out with me, then I would finally be happy.” And so we have this condition on our happiness and when we are not getting what we want we might feel selfish about it. We say “Why does the universe hate me? Other people get what they want, why don’t I get what I want?”
And so we feel discontent. Instead of feeling gratitude we feel selfishness. And sometimes we even get mad at ourselves for feeling this way. We know that we shouldn’t feel selfish and ungrateful, but that is just what we are feeling. We can’t control it. So we might even get angry about the fact that we are not feeling more gratitude.
Conventional wisdom in recovery says that this is a matter of perspective, and if we are to shift our perspective then we can create gratitude out of nothing.
Is this really true? Can we cultivate our own gratitude right here and now, without any change in circumstances? Can we really use our own mind to control how selfish or how grateful we feel?
The ancient stoic philosophers had a technique in which they basically did “negative visualization.” So what they did is to purposefully create a vision in their mind of what is basically the worst case scenario.
So imagine yourself having a bad day, then crank it up a notch and make that day even worse in your mind. You get hit by a bus and land in a hospital bed, unable to even move. Really get into this visualization and imagine, specifically, how you would feel once you were in that horrible situation. It is important that you imagine what your feelings would be.
What is the point of this negative visualization? Because after you snap back to reality, your brain then does a comparison: It looks at what your horrible feelings were when you were in that negative scenario, and then it cannot help but realize that the present reality is significantly better than that. So the brain sort of breathes a sigh of relief at this and feels happy and grateful for a moment.
The stoics apparently did this negative visualization on a regular basis. They found it to be helpful in maintaining a balance emotionally.
Our modern day equivalent of this, from what I have observed, is the written gratitude list.
Now a gratitude list is not exactly the same thing as negative visualization, but it is also a thought experiment. So the newcomer in AA is told to sit down and write out a list of all the things that they are currently grateful for. They might be told to make it a fairly long list, like 50 or 100 things that they are grateful for. And a really ambitious sponsor will tell the newcomer to write this list out every single day, then to tear it up and make a new list tomorrow as well.
Why would someone do this? Because if you train your brain to be able to crank out reasons that you are grateful, then when you are staring down the possibility of relapse and there is nothing between your drug of choice expect for you, your higher power, and your own brain, you might need to use that brain in order to give yourself a reason not to take drugs or booze. And so the person who is able to come up with reasons to be grateful is going to be much better at saving themselves than the person who has no real “gratitude training.”
My suggestion would be this:
There are two things that you can do to work on the gratitude in your life. One, you can use techniques such as negative visualization and writing out gratitude lists, and that can certainly be helpful. But also, you can arrange your life in such a way that you are always delighted to find new things to be grateful for.
In other words, if you sit at home on your couch and just sort of veg out every day, are you going to have an easy gratitude list to make? Probably not. You might struggle to find reasons to be grateful if you have a boring and uninspired life.
So I am going to go against conventional wisdom here a bit and say this:
Yes, you can create gratitude out of thin air. Yes, you can choose happiness right now, with no change in circumstances. Yes, you can use negative visualization or write out gratitude lists and thus create your own gratitude from simple thought experiments.
However, you can also do more in my experience. You can push yourself to do the footwork of recovery, the hard work, the step work, and the work that is rebuilding your life into something positive.
In other words, let’s not just say “we all have everything that we need right now to be perfectly content, and therefore we should all be overflowing with gratitude.” That might be true in the purely mystical sense, but I think from a practical standpoint we can do better.
In other words, let’s also create a plan of recovery that involves building ourselves up and rebuilding our lives in a positive way.
I am grateful today that I got into shape in my recovery and I work out on a regular basis. I am grateful today that I went back to college and finished up that degree. I am grateful today that I started a side business and found some success with it. I am grateful today that I work in a treatment center and have seen several promotions.
In other words, if you really want to feel gratitude, I believe that you should put in some hard work. Achievement should be a part of your quest for gratitude.
Not in a selfish kind of way, but in an empowering sort of way. In other words, I am grateful that I get to work in a treatment center today and have the opportunity to give back to others and share my experience in recovery. I get to do that. I am lucky enough to be able to do that. And part of it was the hard work that I put in to get into that position.
So I do realize that the conventional wisdom tells us that we can all be grateful, right now, with no changes required.
But I also feel like we should push ourselves to achieve more, to make something more of our situation, to find a way to tap into our strengths so that we can help others. And when you create those connections and find a way to succeed in your recovery, it is like a huge gratitude multiplier. And I think that is worth striving for.