Learning to Express Gratitude

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The world is full of things for which we may be thankful, including nature itself. We must simply learn to see it. (TL_Studio)
The world is full of things for which we may be thankful, including nature itself. We must simply learn to see it. (TL_Studio/Shutterstock)

The holiday season is currently upon us, which means that people all over the nation are learning to cultivate a spirit of giving as a means of spreading holiday cheer. But for every person to whom the holiday spirit comes naturally, there is another who is struggling. And those who are in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction are certainly no strangers to emotional turmoil during the holiday season. We’ve already discussed the importance of staying sober for the holidays, and we gave many suggestions for how to do so. Now, we’d like to hone our focus on the issue of gratitude.

Gratitude has a somewhat elusive definition to some addicts, as it is quite easy to take the word at face value with little consideration as to its deeper meaning. Rest assured, however, that gratitude can be expressed in many ways. To truly understand the importance of maintaining a grateful mindset, you must first understand what the word truly means and why the cultivation of a grateful attitude may be important to your sobriety.

What Gratitude Really Means

We must first understand the true definition of gratitude if any real progress is to be made. (Erce/Shutterstock)
We must first understand the true definition of gratitude if any real progress is to be made. (Erce/Shutterstock)

In discussing the meaning of gratitude, we are going to dig a little deeper than the dictionary definition of the word; however, its definition is still quite relevant. Merriam-Webster defines the word as:

the state of being grateful : THANKFULNESS


This definition is in line with what you may have expected. The word originates from the Latin gratus, which means “thankful” as well as “pleasing.” In other words, this is more than mild appreciation for something good that has happened. True gratus implies a level of real happiness, provoking a thankful state of being. And while you may think of this state as being somewhat short-lived, it doesn’t have to be.

Gratitude is an emotional state, but it is also a state of mind. If we are truly mindful of our thoughts, we will see opportunities to express our gratitude at nearly every turn. We may be grateful for the weather outside, the quality of the company that we keep, or the fact that we have food and shelter in a world in which many go without such luxuries. Even when these are not the facts of our lives, we can still be grateful. Those of us who struggle against our own negative thoughts may occasionally find that the weather outside is not so pleasant, that we are lacking in positive social influences, and that the roof over our head is in jeopardy (or even, in some cases, non-existent). Simply remember that things can always be worse. With every breath that we continue to draw, we are given a new opportunity to develop a mindset of gratitude. In this sense, a grateful mindset is more than just a state of thankfulness or pleasure at the realization of our circumstances. Much as cold is the absence of heat, gratitude is the absence of a downcast and pessimistic outlook that once plagued us during our years of active addiction.

Working to cultivate the above outlook on life will enable you to understand the meaning of gratitude on an emotional, physical, and perhaps even spiritual level. On the physical side of things, we must put our hands to good use by working in the service of others. We have discussed the performance of service work before, and we will discuss this same issue from a slightly different angle a bit further down. For now, all you must understand is that gratitude is more than just a feeling. If we are to truly develop a grateful attitude, then we must put this attitude into practice through our actions.

In the end, that’s what gratitude truly is. Our actions define who we are. It is one thing to say that we have developed a mindset which enables us to feel truly thankful for the lives we have been given, but it is another thing entirely to prove this mindset on a daily basis. If we are living in gratitude, we will never have to convince others of this fact because they will witness our fulfillment through the things that we do. And as we grow more proficient in the ways of grateful living, we will soon reap numerous benefits.

Why It’s Good For You

Believe it or not, gratitude can actually promote improvements in heart health. (Leonardo da/Shutterstock)
Believe it or not, gratitude can actually promote improvements in heart health. (Leonardo da/Shutterstock)

David Sack, M.D., covered the major benefits of grateful living in a very insightful blog for Psych Central this past October. And some of these benefits are rather surprising. For instance, Sack cites a recent study by the American Psychological Association (APA) which shows that patients with asymptomatic heart failure were able to improve their symptoms by simply making gratitude lists (a practice we will discuss further down). Others have experienced physical and mental benefits such as improved sleep, more vitality, and an overall stronger sense of well-being. And while Amethyst offers EMDR trauma therapy to those who suffer from disorders such as PTSD, a late 2014 study shows that those at risk of the disorder may decrease their post-traumatic stress through the cultivation of gratitude. Given the prevalence of addiction in the military, this is highly useful information.

Another focus of Sack’s writing is the manner in which our cultivation of gratitude may affect those around us. We will become a positive influence on others, to the extent that a recent 2015 study found that expressing gratitude for a relationship may improve the relationship itself. The University of Georgia study in question was particularly concerned with marriage, but this concept applies to most relationships. In fact, a study from last year indicates that gratitude is especially important to new friendships. Nobody wants to put time into a relationship with somebody who doesn’t appreciate them, so it is important that we express our appreciation for those we love.

Gratitude may even help us to develop those relationships in the first place. In fact, general skills related to practically every area of our social lives were assessed in a 2012 APA study on teenagers, which determined that those who understood the power of gratitude were usually less delinquent and less inclined to abuse illicit substances. This means that youths who are taught the value of gratitude early on may benefit from a lack of legal issues later in life. And since we have often maintained that addiction is a family disease, parents in recovery would do well to espouse such values early in their children’s lives so as not to suffer the pain of watching their children trod an all-too-familiar path.

Furthermore, if we assume that these lessons apply to more than teens, there is a chance that gratitude may factor into relapse prevention. We already know from a 2014 study that grateful living can decrease one’s impatience, so this assumption does not require much of a leap. Since those of us in recovery from addiction and alcoholism are already prone to a lack of inhibitions, self-control does not always come easy for us. Interestingly, the study in question was tested by having participants ruminate on the quality of their lives immediately before making a big decision. It appears that those who were able to summon happier thoughts were more likely to approach the decision with more patience. The implication is that gratitude gives us a bit more pause, and reduces our tendency to act recklessly.

Similar to the study on teens referenced earlier, a 2015 study indicates that gratitude can raise our overall satisfaction in life. This can help aid those who suffer from depression, while also potentially combating a number of similar co-occurring disorders that affect the sufferer’s mood. It should be noticed that the aforementioned study was primarily concerned with materialism, indicating that gratitude may not come so easily for those who constantly feel as if they want more than what they have. Those who are truly grateful for what they have in life will not feel immense dissatisfaction at their level of income or lack of material goods. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting more, but we are happier when we are able to practice acceptance and take joy in what we have.

We certainly owe our own debt of gratitude to Sack, for aggregating much of the above research and increasing our knowledge on the current studies into the powers of grateful living. But now, we must turn our focus to ways in which you may actually practice this style of living on an everyday basis, and learn to improve your life through the daily practice of mindful appreciation.

Ways to Show Gratitude

You may wish to start by making a simple gratitude list. (moomsabuy/Shutterstock)
You may wish to start by making a simple gratitude list. (moomsabuy/Shutterstock)

There are numerous ways of expressing gratitude through our actions so that we may reap the above benefits. But before we get into the ways in which you may express your gratitude, we should make another quick note about Sack’s article. In addition to laying out the many benefits of grateful living, he also cites a 2009 study on the psychological differences between men and women. This study notes that many men are subjected to various societal norms that may cause them to sometimes suppress their output of emotion. As such, some men may struggle in developing their proficiency in the art of thankfulness and appreciation. So while it would certainly behoove any individual to embrace the practices below, men might want to put a special emphasis on them.

The easiest way is to simply write a gratitude list. We may choose to do this every day, once every week, or simply when we are feeling down and need a bit of a confidence boost. It does not take much effort at all, merely the willingness to take some time out of our day to focus on our own well-being. When writing our gratitude lists, we will often include a few very general items such as family, friends, health, and even life itself. But we may also try to dig outside the box. Perhaps we had a pleasant dream the night before, or perhaps traffic was slimmer than usual during our daily commute. Even these small blessings are worthy of our gratitude. You also might feel the desire to express gratitude for your sobriety date, especially if you are about to pick up an AA or NA chip. Other recovery-related items on your list could include a recent breakthrough in working on one of your character defects. Maybe your favorite series is airing on television that night. This last item may sound silly, but anything for which you are grateful should appear on your list.

Another way of expressing gratitude is the performance of service work. By helping those who are less fortunate, you are demonstrating your appreciation for the fact that your life is not as difficult as it could be. When you volunteer at a homeless shelter, you are expressing your gratitude for the fact that you have been able to remain fed, clothed and sheltered. You are also, in a sense, expressing your gratitude for the shelter itself and for the wider world in which people still take time to care for one another. If you are feeling grateful for your health today, you might donate to cancer research. If you are feeling grateful for a raise in your income or material gain, you may donate some of your clothes to a charity clothing drive. And when this charitable act leaves you feeling useful and fulfilled, you will find yourself feeling grateful for your own generous nature.

If you are still struggling with gratitude, try giving yourself something to be grateful for. We have previous covered various ways of improving your mental and spiritual health, such as walking meditation and Zen sitting meditation. We have also covered both the mental and physical benefits of focusing on your nutrition. If you already feel as if you are doing your part to maintain your well-being, then you might just need a day off. In this case, remember that it’s okay to treat yourself from time to time. Sometimes, we need a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with being grateful for who we are. And if you treat a friend or loved one to a day off as well, you will be given a chance to express your gratitude to that person.

You might not always have the means to express your gratitude in such fashion, but you can still do it verbally from time to time. In the case of expressing gratitude toward yourself, try practicing some daily affirmations in the mirror every morning. It may feel awkward at first, but you will get used to it over time. Once you do, you will find that your affirmations really do help you believe that you are a better person. They are a way of combating your negative self-talk and replacing it with a better frame of mind. And since we are usually our own greatest critics, you might find that learning to express love for yourself makes it even easier by comparison to express such feelings for other people. Never be afraid to tell the ones you care about just how much they mean to you. They might be having their own struggles with gratitude, and your words of affection just might change their day for the better.

Gratitude is a powerful tool. You can use it to benefit both yourself and others, provided that you are willing to follow any or all of the above tips. And in some cases, it may be just the thing to keep you sober for at least one more day.

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