Gratitude is a powerful tool for recovery. A growing body of scientific research shows that people who feel more gratitude enjoy many mental and physical health benefits. Some of these include fewer negative emotions such as envy, frustration, resentment, aggression, and regret, and more positive emotions, such as happiness, and empathy. People who are more grateful experience fewer aches and pains, feel better about themselves, and sleep better at night. Perhaps most surprisingly, gratitude makes you more resilient, making you less vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. These are common co-occurring disorders that can complicate recovery, so cultivating gratitude can be a powerful aid to overcoming addiction.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to feel grateful. This is especially true for people just starting out in recovery. Most people don’t decide to get help for addiction until they feel pretty bad about the direction of their lives. They may have had a relationship fall apart, lost a job, gotten into an accident, or gotten arrested. Under these circumstances, it may be hard to look at your life and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. However, everyone can feel more grateful with consistent practice. The following practices have scientific evidence showing they increase gratitude and the benefits that come with it.
Keep a gratitude journal
The first way to cultivate feelings of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Every day or every week, just write down a few things you’re grateful for. This sounds simple but it can have impressive results. In one study, psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked participants to write just a few sentences each week for 10 weeks. One group was asked to write about things they were grateful for that week, a second group was asked to write about things that irritated or displeased them, and a third group was asked to write about events that affected them, whether good or bad. By the end of the study, the participants who wrote about things they were grateful for were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Not only that, but they also exercised more and made fewer visits to the doctor than the group that wrote about things that irritated them.
The idea behind the gratitude journal is simple: over the course of weeks and months, you gradually train yourself to focus on the good things in your life rather than the bad things. Most of us are instinctively sensitive to threats, discomforts, and disappointments. However, at any given time, there are probably some things in your life to be grateful for and a gratitude journal helps you practice identifying them. It may help speed things up to write every day for a couple of weeks, then switch to once a week so you don’t get desensitized to the effect. It also helps to write in some detail about two or three things rather than just listing many things.
Write a gratitude letter
Another powerful way to increase feelings of gratitude is to write a gratitude letter. Think of something someone did for you that you genuinely appreciated but never really thanked that person for. Write a short letter describing what they did, what it meant to you, and why. For bonus points, deliver the letter in person. Positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman found this to be the most powerful intervention tested in a study of more than 400 participants. Writing and delivering a gratitude letter significantly increased participants’ happiness scores and the benefits of delivering a single letter lasted more than a month.
Another study tested the effectiveness of gratitude letters on 300 adults who had sought counseling, mostly for depression and anxiety. Participants were divided into three groups, each of which received counseling. In addition to counseling, one group was asked to write a letter of gratitude to a different person each week for three weeks and another group was asked to write about their feelings about negative experiences. The third group was not asked to write about anything. After four and 12 weeks, the group that wrote the letters of gratitude felt significantly better than the group that wrote about negative experiences.
This study showed two important things. First, writing a letter of gratitude doesn’t just help people who are already happy and well-adjusted; it can also help people struggling with mental health issues. Second, the study found that writing letters of gratitude made participants feel better even if they didn’t deliver them. Most of the participants didn’t actually share their letters, but they felt better just by writing them. Despite that finding, you may want to deliver your gratitude letters, even if you don’t do it right away. While feelings of gratitude are positive in themselves, many of the benefits are mediated by closer relationships. Expressing gratitude to others makes them feel appreciated, leading to a virtuous cycle.
It’s also worth noting that in all of these studies, the benefits don’t happen overnight. Like many aspects of addiction recovery, developing a greater sense of gratitude takes at least a few weeks of consistent effort to notice a difference and you probably have to keep up the practice for several months for gratitude to feel habitual. However, given the many benefits of gratitude and how little effort it takes, gratitude practices should definitely be part of your recovery plan.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services: 800.910.9299.