Gratitude | The Opposite of Addiction

When potential clients seek treatment at MARR, our assessment counselors end the intake interview with two questions: 1). What things are going well for you? and 2). What goals do you have for treatment?

Coming up with goals is easy. In active addiction, people lose a great deal and can see plenty of things they are hoping to change about their lives. But finding things that are going well can feel impossible.  Even for clients that still have family members in their corner, money in the bank, and a job to return to, it’s very difficult for them to see any of that. Addiction has strangled their ability to see that anything is going well. Their gratitude muscles have atrophied.

Addiction puts us into a state of “never enough,” not just with alcohol and drugs, but in all areas of our lives. It forces us into seeing the world through a lens of scarcity and competition. No matter how abundant our lives may actually be, all we can see are the things that we lack. From this perspective, we have to remain ever-vigilant and on-guard to make sure that we get our hands on what we need.  

But when we actively participate in recovery, our perspective shifts. We cannot help but be grateful. As opposed to scarcity, we see the world through the lens of “more than enough.” What our clients often learn is that the shift to gratitude that accompanies recovery has less to do with achieving goals than undergoing a change in perspective. In active recovery, challenges and setbacks can also become opportunities to deepen the connection with one’s community and higher power.

Chores that used to simply be irritating in active addiction, like doing the dishes or taking out the trash, can infuse dignity and self-respect into one’s daily routine. 

Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean that we have to ignore the hard parts of our lives, or that we are living in denial that life presents challenges. But working from the mindset of gratitude and abundance, we can broaden our consciousness to include an awareness of the good while also confronting crises and loss.  As Marcus Aurelius said, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”  There are so many parts of life that we can’t control, but we can control our focus. With a practice of gratitude we can focus our minds on the good – community, kindness, recovery – and begin to realize how much we already have, rather than hyperfocusing on our difficulties.  

Gratitude During the Holidays

The holidays create an excellent pause in our lives for all of  us to begin or deepen our gratitude practice. As many of us sit around dinner tables surrounded by people we love, we will be reminded of everything we have. Also, the break in our busy schedules and ever-growing to-do lists is significant. It not only creates perspective and leads us to appreciate the good in life, but can give us the emotional space we need to begin cultivating this essential skill.

But what starts at the holiday dinner table can expand to all areas of our lives. In its definition of gratitude, Harvard Medical School writes “gratitude…helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.” Simply put, when we practice gratitude, we are getting to know our higher power, ourselves, and each other. This true connection is what allows us to fight the isolation of addiction.

Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude. ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

In addition to the spiritual benefits, there are very real physical health benefits as well. Being grateful has a powerful snowball effect on your entire body, and it all starts in your brain. The act of noticing what’s going well triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, improving heart rate variability, and physically lowers our heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, a study at UCSD suggests that patients at risk for heart failure show significant improvements after keeping a gratitude journal for just 8 weeks.

Developing a Practice

Developing a gratitude practice is a little like working out for the first time or learning to play an instrument. It may feel particularly strained at first as you are trying to get into the routine. But it might be the simplest way to change your entire outlook on life, whether you are in substance abuse recovery or not. 

A common practice in twelve-step fellowships is to make a daily gratitude list. Writing just five things each morning that bring joy or meaning into your life can be a manageable way to do this. Limiting this list to five items keeps the task from becoming another overwhelming daily chore. The more specific, the better. Try to avoid overgeneralized, prepackaged answers like “My wife, my kids, my house…” but give yourself the opportunity to really notice something new and take delight in it. Rather than simply putting “my wife” on the list, a more helpful entry might be: “I’m grateful that my wife made the effort to spend time with me last night after dinner, even though she had a big presentation she was preparing for at work the next day.” The specificity works out the gratitude muscle all the more.  Also, finding new things each day, no matter how small, or how much we usually take them for granted, makes it easier to enter into a grateful state of mind.

Like all aspects of spiritual growth, gratitude benefits us, but also spreads compassion to all those we come into contact with. The people around us will feel the difference. As Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, writes, “When brimming with gratitude, one’s heartbeat must surely result in outgoing love, the finest emotion that we can ever know.”


“The Science of Gratitude” on WNYC

“In Praise of Gratitude” from Harvard Medical School –