The Grace of Gratitude
Cultivating gratitude is a radical practice of carving light in a world that’s filled with ever-increasing uncertainty and fear. The doom-and-gloom pandemic narratives propagated by the media and news make it especially important for me to gather perspective around what is going right--whether it’s in my life and recovery or surroundings. Gratitude, or the quality of being thankful and appreciative, is a common word in the recovery world and with good reason. It comes from the Latin word for “grace,” as John Roesch mentions in this helpful, pithy video on the topic. Expressing gratitude doesn’t mean that my life is perfect and that there’s no reason to change or improve. When I have perspective on the blessings I do have and what’s going right, I’m more likely to refrain from needing some external person, thing, or state of being to feel like I am OK, which is essential for long-term recovery.
Gratitude in Sobriety
In early recovery gratitude, like serenity, felt like a distant concept I could only intellectualize but not embrace or truly feel for a sustained amount of time. While there was the immediate relief of not blacking out or feeling chained to my marijuana pipe in those early days, there was fear around what an actual sober life could look like. When someone would bring gratitude up in a recovery meeting, I would roll my eyes and the cynic in me would think they were fooling themselves on their pink cloud. Yet an attitude of gratitude has been an essential ingredient in maintaining sobriety from alcohol and drugs as well as trying to refrain from other addictive behaviors and obsessions.
The Neuroscience of Gratitude
Many studies have shown that gratitude actually changes the molecular structures of the brain, sparking all kinds of fascinating brain activity. The neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine increase, which helps us feel happier and more optimistic. Even thinking about what one could be grateful for strengthens parts of the brain responsible for sleep, mood regulation, and metabolism. Not to mention gratitude is also linked to greater psychological well-being, like lower levels of depression, envy, and resentment, to name a few uncomfortable emotions.
Being grateful and acknowledging one’s current struggles do not have to be mutually exclusive practices. However, when practicing gratitude is suggested by someone as a method to minimize, bypass, or distract from negative emotions, it can be harmful if those emotions aren’t dealt with either. When I’m feeling despair, a critical inner voice could say, “Just be grateful, others have it worse,” which keeps me from witnessing my own pain or asking others to help hold that pain for me. A balanced perspective of gratitude, as well as acceptance of what is challenging, is necessary for a sense of homeostasis within myself.
Gratitude in Practice
One of my favorite solo gratitude rituals is to begin the day by listening to Louise Hay’s “Morning Meditation,” which stresses the importance of building gratitude for our immediate surroundings from the moment we open our eyes. We are asked to thank the miraculous minutiae around us -- from a comfortable bed and kitchen appliances to involuntary bodily functions like the circulation of oxygenated cells that keep us alive. This meditation is an incredible journey into rescripting how you might typically begin your morning, asking you to come into your body and acknowledge the abundance and blessings that already exist.
The other morning I woke up to no running water in the apartment as I had to get ready for work. The unannounced work that was being done in the building incredibly frustrated me for that hour that the water was off, but it slowed me down in a way that brought perspective. I thought of those for whom no running water was an everyday reality, which reminded me of the privilege of having not only running water, but clean running water with which to shower, make coffee and breakfast, do the dishes, and all kinds of tasks I take for granted.
In early sobriety, my AA sponsor added me to a gratitude email thread in which recovering women regularly sent around a list of what they were grateful for. Seeing what others were thankful for helped me with some of my gratitude blind spots. While exciting at first, the thread became a little overwhelming with so many responses, so I left (this was nearly seven years ago).
I haven’t had a regular gratitude practice in the years since until this past weekend when a recovery friend suggested we start our mornings exchanging a gratitude list on WhatsApp (this suggestion came after I shared how I had been struggling recently with unhelpful habits). His theory was that this practice would deepen the gratitude groove in my brain, which reminded me of Hebb’s Law that states: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The idea of this exchange being between one other person seemed less daunting and like less pressure. Just three days into this morning exchange, I am already thinking of the next day’s list and what I could include on it.
A kind act of service, whether directed towards a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, is another way of communicating gratitude. These acts don’t need to be relegated to a birthday or a national holiday that commercializes gratitude. Small acts of gratitude, like writing a thank you note to a sponsor or paying for a friend’s coffee, also build up self-esteem.
Whether receiving or giving it, gratitude can be a beautifully grounding experience. A shift in focus or perspective when struggling is essential to maintaining a life of humility. So much of my addictiveness can be fueled by a sense of lack, such as not feeling smart, worthy, interesting, attractive, or funny enough (to name a few). Renewing a sense of thankfulness of who and what I am and what I do have, is a step towards growing more comfortably into my recovering self. I am eternally grateful for all the support I’ve received in and out of sobriety, as well as all the substance-fueled episodes and institutions that propelled me to this place.