In Happiness by Randy Kassebaum

Without gratitude, life is endless work with no real meaning and no detectable results.

Research has shown how important it is to express gratitude (if you want to be happy). Positive psychology not only impacts your mental health, but physical, spiritual and social health too. And for people in recovery—whether that's from addiction to alcohol and other drugs, loss and grief, childhood or sexual trauma, family of origin issues, etc.—gratitude is perhaps the single most important element of their day.

So if you're asking yourself…

  • "What does gratitude really mean?"
  • "How can I be more grateful?"
  • "How important is gratitude in sobriety?"
  • "Can gratitude prevent a relapse?"
  • Or "How do gratitude and positivity rewire the brain?"

…then read on to learn the benefits, get some tips to maximize your efforts and see how it all ties together to form the happiest version of you.

What Life Looks Like with Gratitude

Without gratitude, life is endless work with no real meaning and no detectable results.

With gratitude, you can sense how far you've come and where you might go next. Your energy tank refills. You feel a deep sense of pride and accomplishment for all your hard work and good intentions, and you look for opportunities to connect with people, the world, the moment.

Friendships. Coffee shops. Fall browns and spring blushes. Everything feels more meaningful when you practice gratitude because you feel the full weight, worth and significance of everything around you. Talk about hopeful and inspiring!

Gratitude in Early Recovery

In early recovery, you're still in the discovery phase: You don't understand everything about yourself or your substance use, coping mechanisms and relationship patterns. Not yet. So you need to be patient and kind with yourself while you gradually learn about "the exact nature of your wrongs," as described in Step Five, and how to be present, happy and connected in recovery.

In early recovery and beyond, gratitude will help you:

  • Motivate yourself to change
  • Decommission negative mindsets
  • Think and act positively
  • Overcome feelings of pity and entitlement
  • Regulate emotions
  • Build a support network

If you've recently left treatment, or if you're worried about relapsing, gratitude is an especially important part of your coping toolkit: gratitude and anxiety can't coexist. So whenever your emotions run high, try to find somewhere to extend your thanks and appreciation.

How Gratitude Benefits Mental Health and Brain Function

Gratitude and positive psychology have been demonstrated to:

  • Increase happiness levels
  • Reduce stress, fear and anxiety
  • Inspire motivation
  • Boost resilience
  • Support emotional regulation
  • Activate reward pathways in your brain

How Gratitude Benefits Physical Health

Not only does gratitude change the interior of our minds—making everything lighter, relaxed and more hopeful— it also improves physical health. Gratitude has been proven to:

  • Improve heart health, and reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Increase physical activity
  • Enhance immune function
  • Improve sleep quality
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Reduce pain perception

How Gratitude Benefits Social Health and Connection

In addition to the effects on mental and physical health, gratitude also helps you connect (and feel connected) with others. Gratitude is shown to:

  • Activate parts of the brain responsible for feeling empathy and trust
  • Increase a sense of connection and belonging
  • Increase prosocial behavior
  • Strengthen and enrich relationships
  • Create a safe and nurturing environment

While some people have strong, pre-existing support systems and communities, those new to recovery might need to search a little. Gratitude will help you seek out these connections and communities, find and feel value in them, and share positive, connecting sentiments with people who have earned your trust. And that support goes everywhere.

Five Easy Ways to Cultivate Gratitude and Appreciation

Write It Down.

Take a moment each day to express your gratitude. Some people have compiled thousands of entries in an ongoing gratitude list. If you're struggling to think of something, ask yourself:

  • What makes me feel lucky or important?
  • How have my struggles made me stronger?
  • How can I celebrate my inner child?
  • What small thing would improve my day?
  • What am I most excited for?
  • What unexpected lesson proved the most valuable?

Try to think of questions that flip the script on painful narratives, and look for nice lights in which to paint yourself and others. Even the most painful lessons can have beautiful finishes.

Seriously, Say Thank You.

To people, to places, to songs and the skies above: give thanks for the color and sound of the universe, and for the incredible opportunity to witness it all. Just keep giving and saying thanks, even when you feel silly—the rest of you will catch up eventually.

Get Creative.

Find a creative outlet. Put on your boppiest, bubbliest playlist. And let your soul do its work. You could draw, write, paint, garden, smith, smash pumpkins, whatever. Get in touch with your creative side, especially if you haven't before. It's a great way to process tough emotions and trauma, and it's a whole new language to view and express yourself.

Try a Gratitude Swap.

Reach out to someone you like and trust, and ask to exchange gratitude. Bring a list or riff. Tell them what you're grateful for, then listen. When you hear their perspective, when you see where they look for meaning, your mind will respond in kind. You'll notice more things to feel grateful for, and you'll open yourself up to new definitions of goodness and beauty.

Go Slower.

That's it: just slow down. Way down. Make space for feelings. Make room for life. Light a candle, take a bath and breathe. Then breathe some more. Accept the pain. Accept the good. Accept everything that presents itself today. Then go slowly and thank everything you can think of.

Gratitude Works for Everyone—Not Just Sober Folks

These ideas apply to anyone and everyone—being and feeling grateful just makes life better. But if you're in early recovery or beyond, it's that much more important. If you're trying to stay sober from alcohol and other drugs, working to process an old or ongoing trauma, or simply hoping to connect and express yourself more authentically, gratitude will help you keep perspective and offer yourself levity and grace while undergoing personal transformation.