“It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” ~David Steindl-Rast
“Gratitude is the golden hinge on which the gate of contented sobriety swings.” So said Blackie T., an AA old-timer, whenever the topic of gratitude came up in a meeting. And he invariably followed that by saying, “If you’re grateful for yesterday’s sobriety, you’ve got a good chance of staying sober today.”
The first time I heard that description of gratitude, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. It probably took twenty minutes for my still-befuddled brain to puzzle it out. But when I think of it nowadays, I always picture an open gate in the country that leads to some beautiful, peaceful place where I’d happily spend the rest of my days-one of those long ranch gates, perhaps, opening on a lovely valley with deer grazing in the meadow and smoke curling from the chimney of a distant cabin. A ranch gate needs a strong hinge to support its weight. Without it, the gate will collapse or bind up and won’t open. Without gratitude, I can’t reach the contentment that the peaceful countryside in my imagination represents.
So just what is gratitude? Dictionaries define it as “a feeling of thankfulness or appreciation for a gift or kindness offered.” More than two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Cicero called it “the greatest of virtues.” And contemporary psychologists are discovering that “grateful people are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships.” ¹
Today that makes perfect sense. It fits with my own experience, as well as with what another old timer hammered into us at every opportunity. Marion K. taught us that by cultivating an attitude of gratitude, we can dramatically change our experience of the world. By practicing her suggestion to make a gratitude list whenever I was miserable or angry because things weren’t going my way, I learned that I always have much more to be grateful for than to be upset about.
I also learned that I take far too many blessings for granted, like having a roof over my head, enough food to eat, a car to take me where I need to go, friends and family, and a job so I can pay my bills and maybe even make a contribution to the world. When we take the time to remember all the things we have to be grateful for, we’re always reminded of just how blessed we are to enjoy such abundance. And it’s always humbling to realize just how many of our blessings are due to God’s grace (also known as “accidents of birth” or “luck”) and not to any merit of our own.
The last thing the old timers taught me about gratitude is that the dictionary has it wrong. Like love, gratitude is more than just a feeling. Real gratitude requires that we take action to demonstrate our appreciation.
The simplest action we can take is to say “thank you” when someone does us a kindness. Then we can pass on that kindness, and multiply it, by treating others with equal kindness. If we’re grateful for a job, we give our best effort and not just the least we can get by with and still collect a paycheck. If we’re grateful for a friend, we let her know by telling her how much we value her – and by being there for her when she needs us. And if we’re grateful for recovery, then we keep doing the things that freed us from our misery: practicing the steps and the principles; meditation and prayer; attending meetings; and sharing the experience, strength, and hope that we’ve been so blessed to receive.
As long as we continue to express our gratitude like this, then – as Blackie used to say – we’ve got a darned good shot at staying sober. But more than that, we’ve got a darned good shot at being happy, at being an asset in our communities and to our loved ones, and at learning to become downright comfortable in our own skins!
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¹ Quoted from wikipedia’s helpful article about gratitude.
Links to more information about Gratitude:
For an overview of modern psychology’s discoveries about the benefits of gratitude, see “Gratitude-Parent of All Virtues,”published in the January 2007 issue of The Psychologist.
Belief.net offers a helpful discussion about “The Transformative Power of Gratitude”
Recommended Books about Gratitude:
M. J. Ryan, Attitudes of Gratitude 60 short, easily digested chapters that discuss the gifts we receive by practicing gratitude, explain how to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in ourselves, and show several practical ways to put gratitude into practice in our lives.
Lesowitz & Sammons, Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude A practical guidebook to discovering the power of gratitude to transform our everyday lives.
Emmons & Hill, Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul Professor Robert Eamons is known for his scientific investigation of the role religion and spirituality play in our personal sense of well being. He and co-author Hill offer a simple guide to the practice of gratitude, with readings drawn from philosophers, theologians, scientists, and other writers through the ages.
David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who also studied Zen Buddhism in Japan, is known for building bridges of understanding between Christianity and the spiritual traditions of East Asia. In Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer, he discusses the fundamental role of gratitude in cultivating our spirituality.
Emmons & McCullough, The Psychology of Gratitude
Louse L. Hay, Gratitude: A Way of Life