Perhaps the best resolution that I can make in the new year is to focus on gratitude.
I have accumulated so many benefits in recovery from taking positive action for the last 12 years (today happens to mark my sobriety date of 1-1-01).
Perhaps it is time to say to myself “Yes, I have accumulated enough benefits of recovery, and I do not necessarily have to fuel all of my future growth with more and more positive action and success. Perhaps now that I am a bit more “normal” by society’s standards I can just BE and accept myself for a while and be happy with who I have become. Perhaps it is time to embrace gratitude rather than to always be upset with the status quo.
Really your recovery is a balancing act between these two ideas. You can either practice acceptance for the moment or you can change. But you pretty much have to choose one or the other at any given second of the day. You can’t both accept the moment and also decide to make a change. The two are not compatible. In order to push yourself to make a change in your life you have to first be upset with what you are experiencing, and thus desire to experience something different.
If you decide to pursue change then that is great, this is what recovery is all about. Find a suitable goal and take positive action. Find one of your points of misery and then work like crazy to eliminate it. You will be happier and your will grow and your recovery will be stronger for it. Recovery is all about change.
If, on the other hand, you decide to pause for a moment and reflect on the changes you have made, then that is another part of recovery. And in fact I may be learning that this is an even more important part of recovery than what I originally thought. My initial experience in recovery has always led me to the push for change and personal growth. But there are also the “in between” times when you are not pushing yourself and you are resting. You are regrouping. You are analyzing the changes you have made and deciding on how they have helped you.
When you are in this “pause and reflect mode” you can basically have one of two attitudes. You can either be grateful for what you have experienced in your recovery journey or you can be negative about it. The choice is really entirely up to you and the quality of your life in recovery will depend greatly on what attitude you take towards this.
You may have met people in recovery who have an amazing story about their recovery where they have gone through all sorts of pain and misery but they say that they are grateful for all of it, and they see today how their trials can help others. These sort of people have the right attitude. They are grateful for everything, the good and the bad, because it all led them to where they are today and it has given them experience with which they can teach others. If you want to be negative then you can easily be in the same position but simply be ungrateful for all of it, thereby increasing your misery and not really helping anyone, least of all yourself. It’s not in what you have experienced necessarily, it’s all in how you interpret it and deal with it. It’s all in your attitude.
Question: “Can you choose to be grateful?”
Answer: YES you can. It is a choice.
Let this year be the first that you start doing that deliberately, each and every day.
Is this present moment a miracle for you? Have you lost all perspective?
If you are reading these words now off of a computer screen then I already know that you are experiencing the same miracle that I am.
No, not about technology…..you are simply alive and conscious today. This is miracle enough if you have the right perspective. Just ask anyone who’s life was suddenly whisked away this last year if this present moment really is a miracle. Their lack of response should speak volumes.
Here you are, on this rock called planet earth, hurtling through deep space. Life is a random mish-mash of molecules all flying around and you just happen to be lucky enough to have all of yours intact. You are stable enough to be conscious and to contemplate ideas. The idea that you can even decide if you want to use drugs or alcohol or not is a huge gift. You are conscious and making choices today.
This is the perspective I want you to try to explore for a moment. The cosmic perspective. The universe is huge and cold and uncaring, it is a big conglomeration of galaxies and molecules and black holes, and here you are in the middle of it…..doing OK. Your life could have easily been squished out by now or cut short by a nearby exploding star. Or a random lunatic. Or a traffic accident. And so on.
But it hasn’t. And you are still here. And life itself is a precious miracle.
If you look at the universe from a cosmic perspective you should be amazed. Just look at what a lucky set of molecules you are, to be arranged so neatly in this present space and time, and able to have conscious thoughts.
Your existence should be awe-inspiring, regardless of any explanation you may have for it. You can credit your higher power if you like or you can credit the random fates of the universe, but either way you are a miracle of existence.
So how can we remember this, and appreciate it?
We need a way to create gratitude, to practice it.
We need techniques that can help us to expand our gratitude. You know what it feels like to be grateful….we just need to feel that way more often. More frequently.
We need to be more mindful.
An awareness of the change that you want to make
In order to increase your amount of gratitude that you experience you will need to increase your awareness. There is no other way really. You must become mindful.
In our normal routine in life we tend to just let gratitude happen on its own. When things go really well for us we may find ourselves nearly glowing in a moment of appreciation. When things are going poorly we may struggle to have a decent attitude at that time. Our situation and our experiences sway our attitude, unfortunately.
Increasing our gratitude means that we have to remain grateful at times when we normally (in the past) may have let our attitude sour a bit. We need to practice gratitude when things are going poorly for us. When everything is coming up roses, gratitude is easy. Anyone can do it when the chips are falling in your favor. The real test is to do it when things are not going so well.
You may read this article and think to yourself “oh well, that is nice. It would be nice if I was grateful more often. Maybe I will get lucky and just having read this article it will happen for me.” If this is the case then you will probably forget about the concept tomorrow or the next day and the opportunity to shift your attitude and your thinking will be lost.
Instead, if you want to make this a permanent change in your personality, you have to work at it. And that means that you have to think about gratitude more often. There is no other way to make this change than to first increase your awareness of it. Without that shift in awareness you cannot even realize that there is a problem (a lack of gratitude).
It is just like with overcoming an addiction. In order to make progress in this area you must first acknowledge the problem exists. Without that increase in awareness you cannot hope to make any progress with the problem.
So if you want to shift your attitude and be more grateful in the future, you need to make a mental commitment that you are going to pay attention to your level of gratitude. You need to think about it more frequently throughout each day.
You can do this with a mental commitment or you can do it by setting reminders. You might put up some post it notes where you will see them each day reminding you to practice gratitude. As soon as you find yourself ignoring your reminder notes you should change their location. The idea is to raise your awareness about gratitude so that you can start actively changing your perspective. If you never think about it then you have no opportunity to change it.
Therefore the first step in creating more gratitude in your life is to think about gratitude!
Beyond that, I have 2 specific techniques that I want to share with you that can help you to be more grateful. Those techniques are:
1) Comparing yourself to those less fortunate.
2) Resetting your hedonic adaptation.
Let’s take a look at how each of these work.
Comparing yourself to the less fortunate
Both of these techniques are borrowed from the ancient stoic philosophy. The first is very simple: simply compare yourself to the less fortunate, or to a less fortunate situation.
The mental structuring of this is probably familiar to you. It goes like this:
“Well, it could be worse. I could be (insert horrible situation here)…..”
Now most people who do this scold themselves for doing so. They have been taught by modern society and the “church of positive thinking” that picturing themselves in a negative situation must surely be a bad thing. New age philosophies may even suggest that by mentioning this more negative possibility that the person is feeding that scenario power and will possibly be helping to create it for themselves.
But I want to suggest to you that this technique is actually a good thing. You should not scold yourself for picturing yourself in a negative scenario. In fact, the ancient stoics experimented with this as a way to increase their gratitude and appreciation. Here is what they found:
They found that in using “negative visualization” (as it is termed) they did not make themselves more miserable by having negative thoughts all of the time. Instead, they found that they were happier and more grateful by constantly imagining how things could be much worse. The modern day “positive thinking crowd” may have you in disbelief of this idea, but I would urge you to test it out for yourself.
When you catch yourself thinking of gratitude throughout the day (or if you happen to see one of your gratitude reminders) just think about how your situation could be so much worse. Actually picture yourself for a moment in a less favorable situation. Think about how it would make you feel in detail.
You may be worrying that this will cause you to become negative. Not true. Test it out for yourself, and you will see that doing this negative visualization exercise actually makes you happier and more grateful in the present moment. This is because when you engage in negative visualization, your mind cannot help but compare this to your present reality, thus creating appreciation for what you have right now.
So gratitude technique number on is “negative visualization.” It is a bit counter-intuitive but it can actually make you happier and more appreciative.
The 5 dollar latte and hedonic adaptation
The ancient stoics noticed something else about gratitude.
They found that they adapted to new luxury in their life and soon took it for granted.
For example, you may have started drinking coffee a long time ago and when you did you may have been perfectly happy by buying a big can of cheap coffee and making a pot each morning. Your cup of coffee probably cost you around 5 cents or so.
But somewhere along the way you may have found yourself trying a fancy latte or mocha drink from a coffee shop. And maybe you liked it so much that you started drinking them more and more frequently. After a while you were drinking them every single day, paying 5 bucks for each one, not thinking much of it.
And so you may one day get to a point and you will look at your situation and realize that you do not really appreciate the 5 dollar latte like you used to. In fact you realize that you only appreciate this fancy cup of coffee about as much as you used to appreciate your 5 cent cup of regular coffee when you had first started enjoying coffee in the first place.
This is hedonic adaptation. You have adapted to a new level of something, and have thus lost appreciation for it.
If you realize that this has happened to you in your life, don’t feel bad about it. People actually study this stuff and they have found that it happens to everyone and is pretty much inevitable. If you treat yourself every day to a piece of cake, eventually it will no longer feel like a treat. You will adapt to it and lose appreciation for it.
Obviously this can happen with other things in your life as well, not just 5 dollar coffee drinks.
So how do you fight against this adaptation and restore your sense of gratitude?
The stoics had a radical idea that most will find difficult to follow today (I am paraphrasing a bit here):
“Dress in rags for a few days while eating the scantest of fare, all the while asking yourself: Is this the condition that I so feared?”
But in order to benefit from this sort of experiment you have to actually do it. You have to actually stop drinking the 5 dollar latte for a while. You have to actually change your behavior and deprive yourself of luxury in order to be able to appreciate it again one day.
You can start to learn a lot by simply spotting hedonic adaptation in your own life. Then you can decide if you want to take action in order to “reset it.” Doing so generally means going without luxuries for a while. It is only then that you can regain appreciation.
Being grateful for what you have in life
Both of these techniques (negative visualization and hedonic adaptation) are really just ways to help you to become grateful for what you already have in life.
Remember that this is about changing our attitude rather than changing our situation. Obviously in recovery you try to do both: create positive changes in order to improve your situation and your life, but also to shift your perspective so that you appreciate what you have now.
I am starting to believe that we should never be in a motionless state. You either need to be pushing yourself to create positive change in your life, or you need to be actively pursuing an attitude of appreciation and cultivating gratitude.
Think about it for a moment: You should either be upset with your current situation and working hard to change it, or you should be content with your current situation and practicing gratitude.
Now some people will tell you that you should be grateful all of the time, no matter what the situation, and that you should remain grateful even through adversity and challenges. But I would argue that it is not necessary to force it, and that there are two sides to this coin that we are examining.
One side of the coin is basically “get upset with the present situation enough that you are going to work hard to create positive change.” The other side of that coin is to appreciate your current situation and everything that comes along with it. You can do one or the other and some people believe you can do them both at the same time, but what I am cautioning you about is doing neither. Don’t do neither. Either push yourself to make positive changes in your life or concentrate on appreciating what you have. You are free to switch back and forth as often as you like. But don’t do neither. If you do neither for too long then you relapse.
Why your attitude is nearly the only thing that matters
Make a decision right now that this is going to be the year that you start to deeply appreciate life. Your very existence is a miracle and so you can either appreciate what you have or fight like crazy to improve things. Doing nothing should not be an option. Increase your awareness so that you are always pushing yourself to improve in some way. You can improve your life situation and create positive changes (external) or you can work on appreciation and gratitude for what you already have (internal). Both are important to your recovery but most of us have fallen victim to hedonic adaptation and forgotten that we are truly miracles today. Just our existence alone is a tremendous gift.