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Thanksgiving: The Role of Gratitude in Recovery

Flat lay of a pink gratitude journal, gold pen, and sprig of greenery.

During Thanksgiving, it’s natural to reflect on gratitude. The holiday has its roots in hardship -- fully half the Pilgrim settlers died of disease and starvation that first winter. But half lived, and that first Thanksgiving feast was meant both to cement the colony’s newly formed and peaceful relationship with its Native American neighbors and to express gratitude for having come through tremendous difficulties. The same is true of gratitude in recovery -- we are thankful and ready to do the work to solidify our relationships with ourselves and others.

In recovery, gratitude and humility are essential, not simply because of their impact on our spiritual needs. Gratitude and humility also have psychological and physical benefits. Gratitude and humility change the brain’s chemistry -- replacing negative feelings that sap the body’s energy and strength with a positive mindset, releasing dopamine into the brain, promoting physical and mental well-being. Gratitude leads to a much more open-minded view of recovery and an ability to truly listen to what people are saying. I believe that by being thankful for your sponsor and for the community of support makes you more likely to reach out to these people when you need help.

Gratitude opens you up to the possibilities of recovery

Sometimes the more challenging aspect of gratitude is being grateful for what’s inside of ourselves, for who we are. It can be difficult to look inside and say, “Whatever situation I’m in, I’m grateful to wake up in the morning and have the opportunity to make a difference today.”

Gratitude is a mindset, no matter what circumstances we’re in. We all go through times where life is hard, where we might experience grief or loss. It’s not about, “Turn that frown upside down,” or “Suck it up, buttercup.” Gratitude is recognizing that we are allowed to feel, authentically, what we feel. We are allowed to grieve when there are moments of grief, to be upset when there are moments we are upset, but, that, as a whole, we can be grateful for the support we have.

In fact, the challenging times are often the times when we’re most grateful. Those dark times -- when we’re in the belly of the whale so to speak -- force us to grow, to connect more closely to our source of strength. We might not be grateful for the immediate circumstances, but growth can still happen. As we learn to risk trusting whatever that source of strength is for us, the gratitude can increase, and with it comes humility.

Humility goes hand in hand with gratitude, because without humility, gratitude can become egotistical. From a Biblical perspective, Jesus spoke of the people who stand up in the temples and say, “Oh God, thank you for all the things that I have.” That’s not gratitude. That’s just boasting. Authentic gratitude is humble in its origins and understanding in its relationship to others.

Cultivating Gratitude

There are many ways we can cultivate gratitude in our lives. Some people keep a gratitude journal or a list, where they regularly record the things they were grateful for today. Others get in the habit of reprogramming themselves -- each time they say or think something negative about themselves, they immediately respond by thinking of three positive things about themselves. This not only feeds a positive self-image, it also promotes a feeling of being grateful for oneself.

Service is another way in which to experience gratitude, whether you volunteer at a soup kitchen or some other place where people might need help. Service develops an understanding that sometimes we’re all just one step away from needing such help. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” With humility, you know you have the gift to be able to help people right now, so you help as you can.

There is also much for us to be thankful for in today’s world, even in the midst of our strife and difficulty. I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, and I hope you can put yourself in a place of gratitude and humility. It is balm for the soul.

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