You may have heard “gratitude” come up as a topic during meetings. You may have also heard people talk about how grateful they are to be in AA. There are several times I’ve heard old-timers introduce themselves as “______, grateful recovering alcoholic”. If you’re anything like I was in early recovery, you likely doubt their honesty. For God’s sake, how is anyone grateful to be an alcoholic?
But it’s true, gratitude is an important part of the growth process of recovery. The fact that you’re in recovery is, in itself, something to be very grateful for. Addiction is a disease, and you’re doing something that will help you heal. If someone said, “I’m grateful to be in recovery from cancer” or “I’m grateful to be in recovery from COVID” or “I’m grateful to be in recovery from smallpox”, would you doubt their sincerity? Well, okay the Smallpox one would definitely raise some eyebrows because smallpox has been eradicated since 1979 but you get my point.
This is where the idea of gratitude lists and gratitude journals comes in. Oftentimes, sponsors will have sponsees write short gratitude lists. This can help put things into perspective while you’re going through early sobriety. Like other common practices in AA/NA, there’s a reason it’s common.
In this article, we’re going to discuss gratitude in recovery and the benefits of having a gratitude journal.
Gratitude in Recovery
The two meetings I attend by far the most have a nearly identical format. They start out with the readings, announcements of out-of-towners/1st 30 days/milestones, etc, then a chair will speak for 5-7 minutes about their experience, strength, and hope, after which they will pick a topic and either call on people or make it a tag meeting. When the chair role lands on me, I often go with either acceptance, willingness, or gratitude as those are easy topics to talk about for 5-7 minutes (I also usually choose to call on people so I can have control, I am still an alcoholic after all).
There’s a reason gratitude is an easy topic. There’s a reason your sponsor might at some point have you write gratitude lists. Not only can keeping a gratitude list make you appreciative for the things you currently have, it can also put things you currently struggle with into perspective. The fact that we are even in recovery is something to be grateful for. Considering how low I was when I entered the rooms of AA, why would I not be grateful for where I am?
Now, that’s not to say life is perfect. No one on the face of this planet lives a perfect life and doesn’t have struggles. If there is intelligent life similar to ours (not in a 2001:A Space Odyssey type of way where it’s life we can’t even comprehend) somewhere out there in the infinite depths of the universe I’m sure they don’t live perfect lives either (I wrote this around a week after those incredible James Webb Space Telescope photos came out, it’s still in my head because those photos are incredible, especially the deep field). The difference now is that when problems come up, I have healthy ways to deal with them. Ways that don’t involve drowning them in a river of drugs and alcohol.
I remember being new in recovery and struggling with the topic of “gratitude”. There were days where my gratitude list was literally just 5 variations of “I’m not drinking or using”. My gratitude list has since grown beyond that.
What is a Gratitude Journal?
In the introduction I mentioned that sponsors will often have sponsees write nightly gratitude lists. My sponsor asked me to do that, and I’ve assigned that to a couple of sponsees. This assignment Is generally pretty simple. Each night, write a list of 3-5 things you are grateful for. Usually, this is done either before you go to bed or immediately upon awakening. My sponsor had me do it before I went to bed, and since I’m good at copying what others have done that’s worked (a pinnacle of AA and NA), that’s how I have sponsees do it.
It was generally a list of three to five things I am grateful for in that day. If I were to write one for today, it would read:
I’m grateful that I have a place to live
I’m grateful that I have friends who can rely on me
I’m grateful that I am able to be of service to other addicts/alcoholics
I’m grateful the Timbers beat the Sounders 3-0 in Seattle, on their home turf in front of their supporters
Your gratitude points may vary, obviously, but take that, and extrapolate that with different gratitude points each day (Side note, sorry if you’re from Seattle, but this is an Oregon-based recovery program so, go Timbers. Also yes, I know you won the CONCACAF Champions League).
But why write it in a journal? Writing it in the form of a journal allows you to expand on those gratitude points and can essentially act as a record of what made you grateful at different points in your recovery. This can help you keep track of your growth in recovery. Believe me, as someone with multiple years in the program, what you are grateful for in early recovery is different than what you are grateful for early on. As our lives get bigger, our gratitude also gets bigger.
The Benefits of a Gratitude Journal
Like all cliched recovery recommendations, this wouldn’t be a cliched recovery recommendation if it wasn’t true. These include:
Improving Mental Health
A positive attitude can have positive effects on your mental health. It’s not so much “fake it till you make it” as it is “improve your mood with perspective and looking at the positives”. Granted, that doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way.
Improving Physical Health
Improved mental health can motivate you to take steps to improve your physical health.
Your gratitude can distract you from overwhelming stress and help calm you, as it’s a good way to look back at how many things you’ve gotten through and survived.
Happiness and gratitude are closely intertwined. It’s easy to see how looking at the positives in your life can make you happier.
Feeling good about yourself and feeling good about your life can give you self-esteem.
Self-reflection is a critical part of recovery and keeping an ongoing journal of what you are grateful for in recovery can help with that.
Simple Tips on How to Use Your Gratitude Journal
Be as specific as possible (within reason):
Don’t just write down what you’re grateful for in one sentence. Expand on your gratitude. Why are you grateful to be able to be of service to others? Why are you grateful to have a place to live? Try adding some context to your gratitude. Talk about why it feels so good to be of service to others and how in the past, you weren’t able to be of service. If you’re grateful for your family, talk about why you’re grateful for them. Going deeper on your gratitude can give you a great opportunity for self-reflection.
This doesn’t mean you have to write an essay, a few sentences will do.
Simply being sober is definitely something to be grateful for every day, but if every day you’re writing that your grateful for being sober, grateful for being able to help others, and grateful for your family, the gratitude list is going to get very repetitive very quickly. It will soon simply become something you write every night without a second thought or any kind of reflection, which kind of defeats the purpose of a gratitude journal.
This doesn’t mean you have to come up with five completely unrelated things every single day for the rest of your life, it simply means that you don’t repeat the exact same gratitude every single day.
Stick with it
If you only go to the gym and eat healthy for a week, then go back to old unhealthy eating habits, you’re not going to see much of an improvement in your physical health. If you only go to meetings for a few weeks and don’t get past the first step, you’re probably not going to see much improvement in your recovery from addiction (and you’re going to be at risk of going back out).
The same logic can be applied to seeing the positive effects of keeping a gratitude journal. To see the positive effects, keep at it. Don’t just do it for a couple days then forget about it.
How Can a Gratitude Journal Aid in Recovery?
As I’ve said time and time again in my articles, the steps and recommendations of AA and NA could help anyone. The self-reflection, acknowledging you’re not the most powerful thing in the universe (the vast, infinite universe seen in the James Webb Space Telescope photos), looking at our part in resentments, looking at character, making amends to people, and continuing to keep inventory, can be useful to anyone. We get to work these steps.
The same can be said of keeping a gratitude journal. You don’t need to be in recovery to see the mental health benefits of keeping track of what you’re grateful for. We get to do this. As I’ve mentioned above, a gratitude journal not only allows you to reflect on the positive things in your life, it gives you another way to keep track of your growth in recovery.