How to Cultivate Gratitude and Reap the Rewards in Your Recovery

Why gratitude in addiction recovery makes a difference
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With gratitude, we already have what we need.

What is gratitude, and why is it important? It's an attitude of appreciation where we internally acknowledge the blessings that our life already contains, and we shift our focus away from what we lack.

We counterbalance our goals, dreams and desires with ‘haves,' and we understand that whatever material object we lack will not remarkably change our lives—with gratitude, we already have what we need.

So how can we cultivate gratitude? And how can we use gratitude to ward against relapse and distance ourselves from resentment, hopelessness and other trademarks of addiction? Read on to find out.

Gratitude Is a New Way of Thinking, a New Way of Being

In active addiction, we struggled with the concept of having enough. Moments of quiet contentment were few and far between because our brain was often demanding alcohol or other drugs, and our addiction gave us little choice in the matter.

It feels impossible to stop and appreciate life's most important details when addiction reduces everything down to a single question: "Will it satisfy my cravings?"

In recovery, we are given the space to be grateful, but it still takes time to practice and train the mind to notice and cherish the beauty in life. We should be patient with our feelings while our minds recalibrate to those details that most deserve our appreciation and respect.

Gratitude Is a Muscle: It Takes Time and Practice to Master

Gratitude is a muscle that develops with training and practice, and when we make a habit of appreciating the better qualities in life, we strengthen that muscle in our mind. When that muscle grows strong enough, we will reflexively notice the good, and we will see something's benefits before its real or imaginary drawbacks and limitations.

How Can We Strengthen That Gratitude Muscle?

By intentionally noticing and appreciating whatever strikes us. We can keep a list of things that are going well in life, bask in the beauty of nature, express to our partners or children our favorite qualities about them or acknowledge within ourselves the progress we've made in recovery. There's so much to be grateful for in life.

Just pause, breathe and acknowledge: "I appreciate you, and you make life better."

Gratitude Is a Magnet: Our Positive Outlook Draws Out the Best in People

During active addiction, we may have taken friends and family for granted or overlooked the simple pleasures in life. And when we looked for the worst qualities in every situation, we created a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity.

But now that we deliberately manifest gratitude, we see the best qualities in any given moment, person and situation, and it creates a positive feedback loop where we draw out the best in others.

When we honor and appreciate other people's assets, we create a safe environment where they, too, can feel happy and grateful, and they benefit from our presence.

Gratitude Keeps Resentment in Check and Measures Our Spiritual Welfare

Self-described addicts and alcoholics* often struggle with feelings of resentment, which is a classic trademark of addiction and a potential warning sign of relapse. In many ways, resentment is the opposite of gratitude: it's often directed at another person when they haven't given us what we need—or so we think.

Maybe a person has performed an injustice, and we are correct to reconsider our relationship with them. Just as often, though, our expectations have become unrealistic, and we need to manage them.

We can observe our expectations and attitudes while working Step 10, which we should perform on a daily basis. During Step 10 work, we will hopefully notice when our spiritual affairs have become disordered or we are concerned more with what we are missing—or what people are failing to give us—rather than what we already have.

During these Step 10 personal inventories, we can note these tendencies and commit to changing them. Then when we feel gratitude slipping away, we can re-engage with whichever practices help us to feel connected with our Higher Power and other people.

Something to Feel Grateful For

When we worry about relapse or feel resentment or other negative feelings creep in, it's a great opportunity to cultivate gratitude.

Having trouble focusing your gratitude onto a specific person, place or thing? Here are a few things to express gratitude toward.

  • Something that I have in recovery for which I'm grateful
  • Someone in my life for whom I'm grateful
  • Something about my body for which I give thanks
  • Something about my mind or spirit I appreciate
  • Something valuable I have learned or inherited from my family
  • One challenge I face that I could be thankful for
  • Something people would be surprised I am thankful for
  • A lesson I most appreciate from my treatment experience or earliest days in addiction recovery

This Isn't the End: Keep On the Road to Happiness

The transition from addiction to recovery isn't overnight, and the benefits don't come all at once.

If you recently left treatment or you're new to recovery, be patient with yourself. It will take a little time to develop your gratitude muscle. You've already taken the first steps on the road to happiness, and over time, your gratitude, mental health and general outlook on life will all improve.

Keep going to AA, NA or other support meetings; keep reading the Big Book or other sources of perennial wisdom and keep on the road to happiness. You will be grateful you did.

* Editor's note: We much prefer the person-first language that emphasizes a person's identity before their disease. However, in keeping with the history of AA and NA, their founding principles and the language that still exists within the fellowships, we have decided to keep the words addict and alcoholic to describe people with substance use disorders.

Our hope is merely to capture the spirit of the fellowships, and to approach people with the language they commonly use to describe the disease of addiction.

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