How I Practice Gratitude in My Addiction Recovery

flower growing among rocks practicing gratitude

As a person in recovery, practicing gratitude is a key part of my daily life. It has to be — otherwise, I start to slowly slip back into a self-centered, self-pitying, reckless way of thinking that, if left unchecked, will most likely lead me back to the easy-out comfort of my former best friend, vodka.

I use the word “practice” because for me, being grateful is not always easy. Sure on some days, when everything’s going my way, it’s a cinch. But when things are hard, it takes effort. And on some days, it can feel nearly impossible.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned: Choosing to be grateful for at least one thing every day is well worth the effort. Because gratitude is more than just a feeling. It’s a skill — something I have to take an active role in to achieve — and the more regularly I do it, the easier it gets.

And there’s scientific proof that it works. Research indicates that expressing gratitude boosts the production of feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Studies also show that people who practice gratitude regularly tend to be happier and feel more fulfilled.

That’s certainly true for me. I’ve been consistently practicing gratitude for more than three years now and I’m certain it’s rewired my brain. This doesn’t mean that I feel happy and carefree every single day — far from it. What’s different is my perspective. Now, if I wake up in the morning feeling fearful or sad, I’m rarely overwhelmed by those feelings because the things that bring me happiness and contentment are, by default, also top of mind. I have a more balanced way of thinking, one that I never knew existed, which helps get me through challenges and disappointments without needing to take a stiff, emotion-numbing shot.

But just what does “practicing gratitude” mean? For me, it’s about doing the following three things consistently. Not perfectly, mind you — while I aim to do them every day, sometimes it just doesn’t happen. What matters is that they’ve become as important to my daily routine as brushing my teeth and washing my face. And when I start to feel extra squirrelly for no good reason — irritable, restless, and discontent — it usually means I’ve been slacking on at least one of these daily gratitude activities:

1. Start the Day with a “Thank You Stretch”

This one is pretty easy because on most mornings I need to stretch my back first thing to stand fully upright. I’ve just added a mindful “thank you” to the task (I usually say it out loud) while making a point to really feel my feet on the ground and experience the extension of my body. I try to remember that this mobility is a gift that I’m not always guaranteed — especially as I get older — and to appreciate the fact that I can move freely and without pain. 

2. Write a Gratitude List

I used to roll my eyes when I heard people espouse the benefits of writing a daily gratitude list. I honestly didn’t believe them when they said it made a difference because it certainly didn’t work for me. But that was because I was expecting to feel better the minute I put down my pen. What I’ve learned is that it takes time and patience. Once I did it regularly for more than a month, I finally understood what the fuss was about. It just works. I usually use my Notes app to write a list in the morning while I drink my coffee. But there are also a lot of great gratitude apps that have prompts to help you think of things when you’re stumped. I’ve used Grateful: A Gratitude Journal and Presently: A Gratitude Journal and I like them both.

3. (Try My Best to) Meditate

I still struggle with this one. I’m just not a natural meditator and, like a lot of people, I have trouble keeping my mind quiet and calm. What’s helped is stripping the word down to its basic definition, which is “to think deeply, usually in silence.” That I can do. I may not achieve nirvana or even feel relaxed, but I’ve learned that, for me, it’s more about putting in the effort than achieving peace. When I do this consistently for just about five minutes a day — with no expectation for the outcome — I do feel calmer overall. If you’re looking simple guidance, Michael Imperioli (that’s right, Christopher from The Sopranos) has a great series of meditation videos you can try.

What are your tips for maintaining an attitude of gratitude? Share them with us in the comments!


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