Throughout my recovery I’ve struggled with cultivating an attitude of gratitude towards my life and circumstances. I have suffered with a depressive condition and physical health difficulties all my adult life, which have greatly influenced my viewpoint or ‘frame of reference’.
I’m a long-term member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and find it difficult to relate to the claim of being “happy, joyous and free” made by many within the Fellowship of AA. It seems to me much easier to be thankful if you are healthy and life is going well for you.
There is a great emphasis upon being positive in recovery and a tendency to think “I must be doing it wrong” if one feels less than happy and grateful. This is not helped by some AA members suggesting this to be the case and being judgmental of others who don’t feel as joyous about their recovery or life experience. Only last week in a meeting I heard an AA member suggesting that he “wouldn’t give tuppence” for someone’s recovery if they are not happy or grateful.
This viewpoint seems to be connected to the fallacy that spiritual endeavour somehow guarantees being serene and joyous. To the contrary, a significant degree of spiritual growth seems to come about due to experiencing suffering and adversity in life. StFrancisofAssisiis a well-known example of this phenomenon; his Step Eleven prayer is often quoted by members of the AA fellowship (p.101, 12 Steps & 12 Traditions). This leads to the related idea that we often only truly appreciate life when we emerge from “the dark night of the soul”. It’s common for our difficult and destructive experiences to lead to new awakenings and values. Therefore, as well as basic compassion, we have another reason that we should be supportive and not dismissive of others’ experiencing unhappiness and adversity in recovery.
Another erroneous idea which is present within the Fellowship of AA, is that you cannot be grateful and unhappy at the same time. While being grateful definitely helps to reduce distress and unhappiness (scientific research says so!), it doesn’t exempt one from suffering and the associated negative feelings that often accompany it. It’s quite possible to feel unhappy in relation to particular aspects of one’s life, or life in general, while feeling grateful for being free from addiction and for the help and support we receive from others. It’s also possible to see the inherent beauty within life and nature, while at the same time experiencing suffering, unhappiness and adversity.
I feel genuinely thankful for certain things about my life and towards particular people who’ve given me love and support, but I don’t feel happy about the suffering that I’ve endured and the distress this has caused me to feel about my life. I can see growth on a personal and spiritual level due to the difficulties I’ve been through, but I cannot honestly say I feel grateful for them. It’s also impossible to know how I would have developed if I’d been more fortunate in my life.
I can appreciate that cultivating gratitude is a helpful and beneficial practice and can aid in the ‘reframing’ of difficult circumstances. However, this needs to be an honest endeavour and not just a strategy to deny the things we feel ungrateful for or unhappy about. It’s normal and natural to feel unhappy about negative, painful and distressing things in life.
After facing and honestly feeling our distress in relation to the circumstances we feel unhappy about, we can then choose to focus upon the things in our lives that we are genuinely grateful for. I’m not advocating dwelling upon unhappiness and letting it overwhelm us, just honestly facing and feeling the reality of life and not suppressing it. When I face and accept my difficulties and the circumstances I feel unhappy about, I then find it helpful to focus upon how I can help myself. I’m a great believer in being positive in this sense in an attempt to reduce my suffering, whilst not denying it.
Gratitude for the good things in life is a virtue. However, we shouldn’t shame others for finding life unpleasant or very difficult. Suggesting that others “should be more positive” or that they should “be grateful for what they have” is often more about the individual offering the advice being uncomfortable with their own darker feelings. They cannot bear their own negative feelings and so try to deny them in others to.
In recovery the emphasis upon practising spiritual principles can encourage us to unconsciously dismiss and avoid our darker feelings, which can lead to unhealthy repression. This process is known as “spiritualbypassing”, a defense mechanism employed by the ego to protect our perceived sense of self. In order to be whole and healthy we need to experience and work through our naturally occurring “negative feelings” before reaching more positive states of being, such as acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude.
In suggesting the adoption of an authentic attitude towards being grateful, I’m advocating being fully human and accepting the full spectrum of emotions, dark and light. Human beings experience life differently, some suffering more than others, with some seemingly very fortunate in their capacity to be positive and grateful in relation to life and its hardships. Therefore, we should be mindful that our frame of reference is only our experience and understanding and not project this onto others.
I do think that focusing upon things we are genuinely grateful for, whilst not denying our difficulties, is beneficial for health and well-being. It’s also beneficial for strengthening our social relationships as people like to be appreciated. All the studies into gratitude suggest that this is the case, but emphasize that sincerity counts. It’s unhealthy to falsely express gratitude when we don’t genuinely feel grateful. It’s the quality of our thanks that’s crucial to its beneficial power.
Regularly reflecting upon the gifts in life that we honestly value increases our conscious appreciation of them and prevents the tendency to take things for granted. However, this needs to be heartfelt and not just another head exercise. I’ve been reminded very recently that the best way to express and strengthen the gratitude that I feel in my heart is to ‘pass it on’ to others. (1) This can be thought of as “living in gratitude” and is a core principle of the 12-Step fellowships. We can give to others ‘that which has been freely given to us’.
Whilst finding gratitude difficult in relation to certain aspects of my life, it’s in my best interests, and those of others, to authentically practice this much admired virtue and to place my focus upon the things in life that I’m genuinely very grateful for.