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The Intentional Practice of Gratitude

I know — Thanksgiving was months ago. Why am I talking about the intentional practice of gratitude now? Can’t I even read a calendar? 🤣

I’m talking about gratitude now because, in my experience, there’s never a bad time for gratitude. One of the clichés that gets tossed around recovery a lot is the idea that “A grateful addict won’t use.” Outside of recovery, in her excellent Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown summarizes some of the research by saying:

“There’s research that shows that gratitude is correlated with better sleep, increased creativity, decreased entitlement, decreased hostility and aggression, increased decision-making skills, decreased blood pressure—the list goes on.”

That sounds great, right? I want all that stuff in my life. But, I’ve been listening to people talk about gratitude for decades, and I’ve come to an unfortunate realization. At least for me, gratitude is rarely something that just happens. Rather, gratitude is something that I need to practice. To consciously focus on. To remind myself of. To purposefully engage in. It’s not that I’m lacking things in my life to be grateful for. Instead, it’s that I’m paying more attention to things that bother me, or that not paying attention to things I’m grateful for, or that I’m just not paying attention.

In recovery circles, the classic way to focus on gratitude is to write a gratitude list—a simple list of 10 or so things that you’re grateful for. Typically, the more specific you can be, the better. I’ve played with this in the past, and also suggested that sponsees do it, and the results have almost always been beneficial. If you haven’t done this before, I encourage you to give it a try right now. Just write out a list of things that you’re grateful for, whatever those might be. It’s okay if you’re not feeling grateful for them when you start, as long as you can become grateful as you think about them. Be as specific as you can. Shoot for at least 10 things. I’ll still be here when you’re done. 😊

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with the idea of including an expression of gratitude in my morning routine of reading, prayer, and meditation. The idea is just to pick something that I’m grateful for, acknowledge it in self-talk, and talk to myself a bit about the experience of being grateful for that thing. Then I hold it in my mind for a minute or so to shift my mindset into the feeling and experience of gratitude.

Because it’s a new habit, it still feels awkward, and I’ve had a couple of false starts and also a couple of realizations about the process. For a while, there was a part of me that was not sure that I was doing it right, or that was self-critical of the things that I’m grateful for, like I should be grateful for bigger things, or a wider variety of things, or whatever.

For example, we have a hummingbird feeder stuck to the outside of our living room window. Even in a pretty urban part of LA, the hummingbirds in our neighborhood have found the feeder, and it gets a fair amount of traffic — multiple times a day that I know about, and almost certainly more that I don’t. I love those little guys. Watching them come to the feeder and have a little snack always gives me a little bump of joy and awe, regardless of how I may be feeling in the moment. They often even feel comfortable enough to just hang out perched on the feeder for a few minutes, which is even cooler still.

But, after having mentioned in self-talk for a few days in a row that I was grateful for the hummingbirds, there was that part of me that said things like “If the hummingbirds are the only thing you have to be grateful for, your life must not be that good” or “If the hummingbirds are the only thing you’re acknowledging gratitude for, you must be doing this exercise wrong” or any of a variety of self-critical things.

But, that thinking misses the point. The point of this exercise is not to have the best gratitude list, or the widest variety of things, or even necessarily to cover everything in my life that I’m grateful for. Rather, the point is to shift my mindset into gratitude at the beginning of the day, over and over.

Because that’s the point, it’s okay if I repeat the same thing over and over. It’s okay if the things that I’m grateful for aren’t “big enough” (whatever that even means). It’s okay if the things that I’m grateful for might seem silly or trivial to someone else. As long as I’m acknowledging and focusing on gratitude every morning, and doing my best to really immerse myself in that feeling, I’m achieving the purpose of the exercise.

My experience has always been that consciously and purposefully focusing on gratitude, in whatever way, results in having a calmer, more peaceful, more loving inner existence. If that sounds good to you, maybe give it a try yourself.

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