Gratitude, the Brain and Recovery

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grat·i·tude /ˈɡradəˌt(y)o͞od/  noun – the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

It is a great day for a post on gratitude – and first, thank you for reading this post and being involved in whatever you do to support recovery efforts in your community, I am grateful for you and what you do!

If you have not yet surmised, this post is on gratitude.  While this is not an in-depth post on the relationship between gratitude and recovery (it is after all Thanksgiving and so the day has another agenda for me)  – I did want to spend a few minutes delving into this important topic. As it is the case widely across our understanding of recovery, the study of gratitude and its function related to recovery has not caught up with the practice of it.  For a very long time, 12 step fellowships have emphasized gratitude as an important element of recovery.

“Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry, and irritation. It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present-oriented.” – Sonja Lyubomirskythr

The human brain is a remarkable organ and we are learning more about how it functions. We are learning that our actions and thoughts actually change the structure of our brains. For example, the practices of yoga and mindfulness are things that we are beginning to understand the health and mind benefits of.  We are even learning that getting outside into nature and unplugging our devices is good for our mental and physical health.  Thinking positively about life helps us to actually be happier without regard to our circumstance. In this way, we actually rewire our own brains every day with what we think and do. This is a remarkable thing that bears repeating – what we do and think changes the wiring of our own brains.  

We are also learning about the benefits for everyone in respect to the simple practice of gratitude.  As an article posted on Positivepsychology.com located here indicates, “by consciously practicing gratitude every day, we strengthen neural pathways and ultimately create a permanent grateful and positive outlook within ourselves.”  While not embarking on a deep dive into the neuroscience of gratitude, it seems safe to say that the old timers in recovery where on to something when they suggested practicing gratitude as an important element of obtaining and sustaining recovery. It seems to be what the science is confirming.

One study that seems to suggest this was done in 2017 and titled Gratitude, Abstinence, and Alcohol Use Disorders: Report of a Preliminary Finding that is located here.  The study notes that “for those who were abstinent after treatment, the relationship between gratitude and future abstinence was positive; for those drinking most frequently after treatment, the relationship between gratitude and future abstinence was negative.” This seems to support the conventional wisdom of not drinking or using and looking at the positive things in life as part of a practice of recovery. I started such a practice several decades ago when someone longer in recovery and wiser than I suggested that I try it in my first few weeks of not using drugs and alcohol. It helped me a great deal.

We have a long way to go in respect to the science of recovery.  One of the things that it seems we are learning is that recovery and the practice of things that sustain recovery can help heal and rewire the brain in ways that helps us live more fulfilling lives.  The practice of gratitude may well be one of those things.  So please spend a few minutes this day – Thanksgiving day and be grateful for whatever you have, it may well make you happier and healthier!