The Attitude of Gratitude

Most people in recovery have heard the phrase “Attitude of Gratitude.”

People in recovery who go to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous (AA or NA) meetings have definitely heard the phrase, because it’s not only a common theme at AA/NA meetings, but it’s also a foundation of the AA/NA approach to recovery.

Those community support programs urge participants to be grateful for and appreciate their recovery, their recovery communities, and their lives in recovery. Combined with a dedication to service, the focus on gratitude helps people in recovery grow past the cycles of addiction – which often include behaviors that are neither service-oriented nor characterized by the spirit of gratefulness or appreciation. That’s not judgment speaking, that’s experience: we know because in our work in addiction treatment, we see people emerge from the isolation of addiction to participation in a recovery community every day – and they do this through cultivating a dedication to service and learning the value of gratitude.

What many people in recovery may not know is that every year, there’s an entire month dedicated to gratitude.

That’s right: November is National Gratitude Month.

The Science of Gratitude

What is gratitude, according to scientists?

Gratitude experts like researcher Robert Emmons, PhD at the University of California – Davis (UC Davis) says experiencing gratitude is a two-step process. First, you need to recognize that you’ve experienced something positive, and second, you need to recognize that the positive thing you’ve experienced comes from outside yourself. That’s when gratitude happens: when you know something good in life comes from an external source, and you recognize and appreciate that fact.

Emmons and his team of researchers began studying gratitude in 2003, and over the past 17 years, they’ve published scores of papers on the benefits of gratitude. They found that people who practice gratitude, in comparison to people who do practice gratitude, experience at least three different types of benefits.

Social benefits of gratitude include:

  • Feeling connected
  • Participating in more social activity
  • Feeling more forgiving
  • Experiencing more generosity and compassion

Physical benefits of gratitude include:

  • Better exercise habits
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better sleep
  • Stronger immune systems
  • Fewer aches and pains

Psychological benefits of gratitude include:

  • More joy in life
  • More optimism
  • Increased alertness
  • More positivity

When you see all the benefits of gratitude listed like that, it makes you wonder: is this all true? Can simply appreciating the positive things in your life that come from external sources increase joy, decrease loneliness, improve our immune systems, and lower our blood pressure?

The answer is yes. However, the research is correlative, which is why we used the phrase compared to above. People who experience and practice gratitude regularly report increased levels of everything we list. It doesn’t mean gratitude is the sole causal factor, but it does mean that compared to people who don’t practice or experience gratitude regularly, people who do experience those benefits.

Gratitude in Recovery

How can people in recovery recognize and celebrate National Gratitude Month?

The first thing people in recovery can be grateful for is recovery itself.

That may seem obvious and too on the nose, as it were, but it’s important to keep perspective. For most people, entering recovery is one of the most important – and most difficult – decisions they make in their lives. That’s not true for everyone, though: for some people, the moment they realize recovery is an option they’re relieved. For them, it’s an easy decision – but it’s just as important for them to cultivate an attitude of gratitude as it is for people who wrestled with the decision.

For people in recovery, remembering the importance of recovery – and begin grateful for it – is a way to stay focused and stay on track. It helps them approach each day with a positive attitude, and encourages them to support others on the road to recovery.

Now, aside from that fundamental idea, what else can people do to celebrate National Gratitude Month?

We recommend these three simple steps:

1. Start the day with gratitude

You can do this in your mind, your emotions, or write it out on paper in a gratitude journal. However you do it, we encourage you to do it before anything else, with the possible exception of making coffee. Here’s what to do: think of or write down three things for which you’re grateful. Think and feel about each of them for a couple of minutes – and that’s it. Pay attention to how this practice changes your mood, and then go on with your day.

2. Look for the good things all day.

As you go through your daily routine, identify and appreciate the things in your life that are good. For instance: family, employment, health, or simply the sun shining through the trees. Or the way the fog rolls in on a gloomy day: you can be grateful for that, too. You don’t have to write these things down. Notice and appreciate: that’s all.

3. End the day with gratitude.

You can do this in your mind or in a gratitude journal, as you did in the morning. Think of three things that happened that day for which you are grateful, and allow yourself to experience the emotion related to those memories. This is the practice of gratitude. Then, you can ground into gratitude by returning to the things you identified in your morning gratitude practice. This brings the day full circle, and prepares you for a restful, restorative sleep, physically and emotionally.

Those three steps take very little time, and will gradually enhance your understanding and experience of gratitude in a cumulative, step-wise manner. If you do this every day, before long you’ll wonder why you haven’t been doing this your whole life. As we mentioned above – and as researchers at UC Davis point out – this basic daily practice can improve your overall physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

When your recovery peers at community support meetings talk about the attitude of gratitude, you’ll know exactly what they mean – because you walk the walk every day.