The Importance of Gratitude in Recovery

With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, we are once again reminded of the things in our lives that we should be grateful for – both big and small. Thanksgiving is met with anticipation of comforting food, quality time with friends and family, and high spirits for many people. Still, Thanksgiving can be a difficult time for others, especially those in recovery. Whether it is an estranged family, an abundance of alcohol at the dinner table, or an increased sense of loneliness, Thanksgiving can be the antitheses of comfort and gratitude for those struggling in recovery. However, the Thanksgiving season can be an excellent time for those working to take a look within and examine the things in life that we can be grateful for.

In recovery, gratitude is an essential component for many, and while most accounts of gratitude’s effect on prolonged sobriety are mostly anecdotal, some research reaffirms its efficacy. What has been found through research on gratitude might surprise you. For example, gratitude has correlated significantly with well-being, such as positive affect, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, and hope. It has been associated with constructs related to physical and mental health, such as better sleep, higher physical health ratings, and lower levels of depression.* Moreover, these benefits all tie into a common theme we love to talk about and encourage at Herren Project: wellness.

Gratitude is a crucial component in wellness, so it is essential to keep in the forefront of our practices to pursue wellness. In particular, one study suggests that gratitude and recovery mutually support, inspire, sustain, and give rise to each other.* Gratitude-oriented people notice a significant increase in positive outlooks in life as it broadens the scope of thoughts and promotes positive emotions in daily life. In other words, when a person is consistently grateful for the positive events and situations happening in their life, they are more likely to face daily experiences with a more positive attitude and, in turn, increase their life satisfaction.** So, as we have discussed previously, if we are to practice and promote wellness in recovery, it’s important to consider gratitude as an integral part of our daily wellness regimens.

To get a head start on our Thanksgiving gratitude spirit, let’s go over what gratitude is, how it impacts recovery and wellness, and some common ways we can put it into practice in our own lives.


What is Gratitude?

Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness — but let’s go a little deeper. Gratitude is more than just being thankful; it is an internal recognition of the goodness in one’s life. People acknowledge that many of our lives’ good things are partially derived from an outside source or something greater than ourselves. Gratitude helps us connect to something outside of the self — family, friends, nature, a higher power, or all of the above. Moreover, gratitude helps people experience and feel more positive emotions, ruminate on good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.***

In recovery, gratitude is an integral component in learning acceptance and developing an understanding of the world around us. Expressing appreciation and acknowledging the tangible and intangible things one can be grateful for is often paramount in the pursuit of mental wellness. Personally, this is something I lacked tremendously in active addiction. In the absence of gratitude, I found myself always reaching for things I didn’t have with hopes that obtaining those things would make me happy. In doing so, I rejected my current circumstances and was obsessive in my pursuit of having everything I wanted. Once I obtained the best shoes, the best car I couldn’t afford, or the best T.V. on the market — the rush of having them was fleeting, so it was onto the next thing, hoping that it would somehow fill the constant void of wanting. It wasn’t until I learned how to apply gratitude in my life that I could shift my focus on the things I didn’t have towards the things that I did. I credit this change in my thought process in having a tremendous, positive impact on my recovery. I believe it may help others struggling in recovery, especially now going into the holiday season while in the middle of a pandemic.


Giving Thanks – Ways to Express Gratitude

Expressing gratitude can be as simple as saying, “thank you” after anything that someone does for you, but there are other ways to practice gratitude as well. As I briefly mentioned before, when I was going through the 12 steps, I agreed with my sponsor to text him five things I was grateful for at the end of every day. At first, it was easy – I was thankful for the roof over my head, food in the refrigerator, a job to pay the rent, etc. but after a week, I “ran out” of things to be grateful for – or so I thought. The exercise forced me to think outside the box and recognize something in my life I should be thankful for and that I hadn’t considered before. I began to notice a shift in my everyday thinking as I went about my day, acknowledging people and things that made my life better. Over time, my attitude began to change as well – I was much more appreciative of the small things that had a positive impact on my day. What was initially an assignment to appease my sponsor had evolved into a transcendental exercise that I still practice to this day. Though this particular exercise helped me, it’s not the only way to practice gratitude. Below are some suggestions to get the ball rolling in your mission of expressing gratitude:

Keep a gratitude journal
Like exercise above, keeping a journal and writing down the things in your life that you are grateful for is the perfect way to recognize the things you do have in your life that bring you happiness. Start with the obvious things like a bed to sleep in or the shoes on your feet. All the little things add up, and you’ll soon begin to realize there are many things in life that don’t get recognized enough or that we take for granted.

Write a thank you letter
I know letters are from a somewhat bygone era, but writing a physical letter is a much more personal way of connecting with someone than a text or email. The recipient will know that you took the time to write out a letter, and they’ll appreciate the little extra effort when they receive it in their mail. Whether for something big or small, a thank you letter

Make a homemade gift
Are you artistically inclined? Even if you’re not, making a homemade gift like a painting, craft, song, or even food for someone is such a deeply personal way of expressing your appreciation, and they’ll know that your way of saying thanks comes from the heart. It will also allow you to take some time for yourself and express some creativity in the process.

Call a family member or friend
Showing gratitude can be as easy as picking up the phone and calling someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Let the special people in your life know you are thinking of them and that you are grateful they are in your life.

Pray or meditate
Even if you’re not religious, praying and mediation is a great way to connect with your inner self and reflect on the good things in your life. It can be as simple as closing your eyes and saying either in your head or quietly to yourself, “Thank you for _____”, and list the things that you are grateful for. I have a reminder set on my phone that goes off at the same time every night just before bed that says, “What are you grateful for?” I find this helps to reflect on my day and recognize all the things I am thankful for in my life.

Expressing gratitude is an intentional practice — it requires you to engage and pay attention to the world around you and recognize what you do have and what is going right in life rather than dwelling on what you don’t have or what is going wrong. People feel and express gratitude in various ways, but the intention remains the same — to share appreciation and thanks for the positive things in life. For those in early recovery and beyond, gratitude can shift negative thoughts into positive ones, which is crucial for those who have experienced the pain and suffering that addiction can inflict. No sign of gratitude is too small. Remember that if practiced daily, you’ll begin to notice a change in how you experience the world around you. It will be easier to live in the moment and appreciate that life itself is a gift — one to cherish and be grateful for.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, stay safe, and remember to give thanks!