Tools for Living

Gratitude and the 12th Step

Step 12:  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [other sufferers], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.


By the time we have thoroughly worked the previous eleven steps, most of us will have experienced the spiritual awakening (or “psychological transformation”) necessary to free ourselves from the destructive obsession that caused so much misery and strife in our lives.  Only when we’re no longer at its mercy can we really know just how much we have to be grateful for.

For most of us in recovery, this feeling of gratitude comes automatically as a consequence of learning how to apply the Steps in our lives.  If we have to work up a sweat to feel it, then perhaps we haven’t yet had the spiritual awakening the 12th Step describes.

No worries.  As Appendix II of the Big Book points out, most of us experience a spiritual awakening of the “educational” variety.  We have probably had a number of spiritual experiences that affected us, just not the cumulative transformative effect we’re seeking.  What that means is that we’re on the right path and just need to keep working the steps and learning how to apply them in our lives.

The process usually works like this:  First, we learn to apply the steps as they relate to our drinking, or spending, or eating, or whatever got us to the program in the first place.  Only after we’ve discovered that practicing the steps enables us to “solve” that problem do we usually start applying them to other troublesome issues in our lives. Over time we find that we can rely on them to guide us sanely through whatever life throws our way.  And our gratitude grows with each situation successfully faced.

Some newcomers tend to focus on the “carrying the message” part of the 12th Step.  It usually takes a few years of practice before we recognize that the most effective way to do that is not with our words, but through the example set by our behavior and “practicing these principles in all our affairs.”

So how does that relate to gratitude? Think about it: If you’re grateful for a gift—for instance, a new widescreen TV—do you just say “Thanks” and put it in a closet? Or do you use it, set it up and watch it, invite your friends to come over and enjoy it with you? So if we’re grateful for the gift of the Steps and the blessings of these principles to guide our lives, we likewise use them and spread their blessings into others’ lives as well.

So what about the second part of the 12th Step, the part that almost everyone focuses on as if it were the whole thing, the part about trying to carry the message? What does gratitude have to do with that?

Remember what we said about gratitude in our introduction to the principle: Gratitude is more than just a feeling. It’s a feeling coupled with action. Just as “practicing these principles in all our affairs” is not just an intention but an action, so is “trying to carry this message.”

That means we have to take whatever actions are required to make ourselves available to carry it. It also means that we must be trying to carry the message of our personal experience with the 12 Steps as the path to recovery through a liberating spiritual awakening. Remember that we can’t carry what we don’t have—and bear in mind the old timers’ admonition to carry the message, not the mess.

Trying to carry the message means that we have to go to meetings, greet newcomers and talk with them, invite them to go for lunch or coffee, give out our phone numbers, sponsor people, go on twelfth step calls, get into service, take meetings into hospitals and institutions, and so on. And it means that we do these things not just as something altruistic, trying to help the other guy out of the goodness of our hearts, but that we do it out of our own enlightened self-interest.

The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, tells us that nothing does more to insure our own recovery than intensive work with others. This is the sort of gratitude in action that the old timers had in mind when they said, “If you’re grateful for yesterday’s sobriety, you have a good chance of staying sober today.” We don’t have to do all the things listed above—and we’d sure burn ourselves out in a hurry if we tried doing all of them at once!—but we must do something to put action into our gratitude and to put our gratitude into action.

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Questions about Gratitude and the 12th Step:

What does gratitude mean to you?

What are the things you have to be grateful for?

Have you learned how to make a gratitude list?

Have you expressed your gratitude directly to others? To your higher power?

What have you done today to put your gratitude into action?

Links to more information about Gratitude and the 12th Step:

From his series of “Chalk Talks,” a youtube video of Father Martin on Gratitude

“Step 12: Gratitude—an action word,” presented by on Step 12

“Taking Step 12,” from on Working Step 12

“Gratitude, What Is It?”

From, “The ABCs of Gratefulness” and “Expressing Gratitude”

And from, “The Principle of Gratitude”


Recommended Books:

M. J. Ryan, Attitudes of Gratitude       60 short, easily digested chapters that begin by exploring the gifts we receive by practicing gratitude in our daily lives, then show how we can cultivate an attitude of gratitude in ourselves and putting it into practice in our lives.

Lesowitz & Sammons, Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude       A practical guidebook to discovering how active gratitude can transform our everyday lives.