“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.”
— from Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne
For me, one of the most powerful tools of recovery is gratitude. Gratitude helped me stay sober 20 years ago when I first entered treatment and 12-step recovery, and it works just as well (perhaps better) today than it did way back when. In fact, each morning I start my day with a brief prayer and a 10-item gratitude list. The first item on my list every day is, “I’m grateful to be sober today,” because I need to continually remind myself how much better my life is in sobriety than it was in addiction.
If you’ve seen me via Zoom (webinars and drop-in discussion groups, low-cost workgroups for addicts new to recovery), you likely already know that gratitude is one of my favorite topics. Primarily because it works for me. In fact, I find that I am psychologically unable to be grateful for my life and triggered toward my addiction at the same time. Apparently, my thinking and emotions are not deep enough to hold more than one thought or emotion at a time.
Today, I find gratitude to be both easy and effective. At the beginning of my recovery, however, gratitude was a lot of work. In fact, I found my daily gratitude list to be a bit of a chore, and I only did it because both my therapist and my 12-step sponsor insisted I do so. So each day I found myself casting about looking for something—anything—to be grateful for.
If you’re new to recovery and in the same situation when it comes to gratitude, don’t beat yourself up about it. Newly recovering addicts almost always struggle, at least initially, with gratitude. This is because, when we first start recovery, our lives are usually a mess. And when that’s the case, it’s hard to find much to be grateful for. The advice I was given was to start by saying, “I’m grateful to be sober in this moment.” So that’s what I did. But after that, I tended to focus on the fact that roses come with thorns instead of being grateful that thorns are often accompanied by roses.
Over time, as I continued the practice of creating a daily gratitude list, finding things in my life to be grateful about got easier. As a direct result of this, my general outlook on life changed for the better. And as a direct result of that, it was much easier to stay sober.
If you’re struggling to believe this assertion, there is some excellent research to back it up. The amazing Dr. Brené Brown has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews examining the causes and underlying factors of happiness, and through this work she has identified one (and only one) meaningful difference between happy people and unhappy people. That difference? Happy people are grateful for what they have, and unhappy people aren’t. So as addicts, if we can find ways to be grateful for what we have (instead of focusing on what we’ve lost or never had), we can find happiness, emotional healing, and lasting sobriety.
Brown’s research also tells us that people who are grateful for what they have tend to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Thus, they are more hopeful, less stressed out, less likely to get stuck in shame and depression, and more likely to recover from serious life issues (such as addiction). So gratitude is powerful medicine—even for a disease as cunning, baffling, and powerful as addiction. And for that, I am eternally grateful.