The Radical Act of Gratitude

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When I was drinking, I would spend many a hungover afternoon with The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Ms. Winfrey’s show was often positive and life-affirming so much so that the simple act of turning it on could make one feel like they were living their best lives, even when their nostrils were still clogged from cocaine from the night before. I remember one episode where our beloved Oprah discussed the power of making a gratitude list. She described in detail how each night she wrote just five things she was grateful for and how it made a difference in her daily life. I loved this idea and shared it with everyone I knew. Not that I was ever sober enough to write anything down at night before I passed out but it sounded revolutionary for some reason. Years later when I actually got sober, a sponsor at the time suggested I do it every day and she hadn’t even seen that episode of Oprah. Turns out it was a terrific idea and one that wasn’t all Live Laugh Love or written on scented paper in a flowery journal. Living in gratitude was actually a rebellious way of life that rewired my thinking, thinking that was often set to self-destruct. 

In the dark, end days of my addiction put out a greatest hits album it would include such favorites as “Everything Sucks,” “I Hate Everyone, “People are the worst” and the classic  “F*ck My Life.” I wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine and legitimately hated the world. I was miserable so it annoyed me/ blew my mind when I would go to recovery meetings in early sobriety and hear people say crap like “I’m a grateful alcoholic.”  How could anyone be grateful to have their lives ravaged by addiction? I’d screwed myself up pretty badly and felt very little to be grateful for. It wasn’t until months into my recovery when I heard someone say they were grateful to be alive that I started to get this concept of a grateful addict/alcoholic. After the mass amounts and sometimes lethal combinations of substances I consumed, the fact that I was even still on this planet was remarkable indeed. This was a good jumping-off point with gratitude. I also heard people say they were just grateful to be sober. That was easy and self-explanatory especially given how much time I spent not sober. I was really, really poor in the first year of recovery and didn’t always eat thus the idea of being grateful for a burrito or for the sandwich a friend bought me felt powerful too. As life leveled up with difficulties (bad health, tough relationships, death) I soon became profoundly grateful for not having to drink or use over my problems. This was HUGE. I always drank over my problems therefore navigating really hard times without substances was something I was grateful for. At over a year sober, I soon wrote lists daily of things I was grateful for and shared them with my sponsor and other sober friends who did the same. On days that were hard, making the list was also hard. Thankfully, I was told things like “I’m grateful this shitty day is over” and “I’m grateful I didn’t punch that person who pissed me off” were also acceptable gratitude list items. I didn’t know why this little act which took about 5 minutes made me feel better but it did. 

Naturally, there’s a lot of science behind why a practice of gratitude makes us feel better. In study after study, gratitude has been found to help reduce depression and thoughts of hopelessness, lower blood pressure, and improve relationships. These studies have also found that people who practice gratitude exercise more, visit the doctors less, and have higher emotional intelligence. It also changes our brains. As psychologist Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury writes, “When we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel ‘good’. They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside.” More dopamine and serotine? What addict doesn’t want that? Sign me up! 

With all the benefits, it’s still easy to see why gratitude is sometimes misunderstood. After all, telling people to “just be grateful” can sound like toxic positivity at its worst. But for me, gratitude is at its most punk rock when times are hard. 2020 has been the Olympics for my gratitude practice. The entire world and daily living feels so heavy and dark and has for months. We don’t want to feel grateful right now and please piss off into the sun if you even suggest it. And yet I’ve found five things nearly every day. Not because I always want to but now a decade into my practice I need to.  Has gratitude made my 2020 the happiest place on Earth? God no. In fact, I suffer from depression which has recently gotten pretty intense. But what gratitude has done is help me see the truth about my life: that there is still beauty, that I still feel love, and that I am okay. Being grateful right now is hard but it’s also pushing against this idea that we all are doomed. As the horrific police brutality of the early summer rocked this country, I struggled to be grateful in a world so prejudiced and deeply messed up. But I eventually got to a place of being grateful for the folks who marched, for the conversations we got to have, and grateful for being humbled to change my own toxic and unhelpful thinking. Likewise, after some time I became grateful for the pandemic making me slow down, be less wasteful and get to know myself better.  Mainly, gratitude in 2020 gave me a desperately needed lifeline to hope. So maybe gratitude isn’t just for the holidays or my early recovery but a practice that could help us forge a new way of life.

Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.

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