The Power of Gratitude in Recovery

When those in recovery regularly practice gratitude, it alleviates the intensity and regularity of negative emotions, improves coping skills, lowers the rate of relapse, and supports long-term recovery overall.

This link between the dedicated, regular practice of gratitude and long-term recovery from substance use disorder (SUD) is recognized in 12-step program support groups, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude is the acceptance and recognition of positive experiences and the understanding of how these benefit your life. It is a state of mind in which we can reflect on the things that we can be grateful for as they are. 

Gratitude practice aims to counteract negative thoughts and feelings about the past and prevent the future from spiraling into a sense of self-judgment or life dissatisfaction. Although gratitude is something that often washes over a person naturally in a particular moment, it can also be cultivated. For some, feelings of gratitude come more naturally than for others, so experiencing the power of gratitude can take more work.

In positive psychology research, gratitude is associated with greater happiness. Gratitude can help people experience more consistent positive emotions, appreciate experiences, improve their overall health, overcome adversity, and build and maintain stable, healthy relationships.[1]

Recognizing and Cultivating Gratitude

So what does gratitude actually feel like? How will you know whether you are experiencing gratitude? What makes us feel gratitude? Why does it come easier to some people?

These are all questions that have been discussed and debated for hundreds of years by philosophers and religious and spiritual leaders as well as by academics from various fields. Most people have an intuitive understanding of what gratitude is, yet it can be tricky

to define. Gratitude can mean various different things to different people depending on context and culture. [2] Although there is some ambiguity surrounding the concept of gratitude and the feelings it evokes, researchers have developed a number of frameworks for conceptualizing gratitude so that it can be studied. [2]

One approach to conceptualizing gratitude is put forward by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, who define it as a two-step process. The first step is, “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome,” and the second is, “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.”[3]

Although many of the positive outcomes are recognized as a result of other people, gratitude practice can also focus on appreciation and thankfulness toward a God, the universe, fate, nature, or any other power or lifeform. 

Gratitude has also been conceptualized in other ways; an article published by the Harvard Medical School states, “[g]ratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”[1]

This is thought to be an important part of addiction recovery. Within 12-step programs, gratitude practice includes a reminder to let go of the desire to control the things that we both can and cannot change. Resentment and anger may begin to build during the recovery process, and guilt that we have repressed toward ourselves and others has the potential to cause setbacks and apathy. Gratitude practice has the potential to transform spiraling negative thoughts and emotions into something positive.[2] 

Practicing Gratitude 

There are many ways to express gratitude during the recovery process. For example, it might include:

  • Taking a few moments to think or write about aspects of your life that you are grateful for. This could also take the form of regular journaling.
  • Stopping to observe and acknowledge the great wonder and beauty of something you encounter in daily life. For example, this could be in nature, music, and human behavior, from the largest to smallest things.
  • Bringing awareness to your health and gratitude for the body that you have. 
  • Thanking people for the positive influence they have in your life and sharing the many ways that you are grateful for them.
  • Engaging in acts of service for others. Volunteering or simply doing something kind for another person will give you a strong sense of gratitude, improve feelings of self-worth, and offer different perspectives.
  • Paying attention to the little things that bring you joy and peace in life.
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation or prayer that has a focus on giving thanks and expressing gratitude.

Research on Gratitude 

Research suggests that gratitude enables those in recovery from a substance use disorder to develop the necessary personal arsenal of strengths and tools to manage and thrive in a sober and productive life. [4] 

Studies have shown that focusing on gratitude stimulates areas of the brain that regulate reward, morality, and empathy to produce heightened feelings of pleasure.[1] There is also increasing recognition of and focus on the link between positive psychological traits, including gratitude and improved clinical outcomes. [5]  

Other studies show the effects of gratitude interventions on symptoms of depression and anxiety to be relatively modest.[2] Most studies linking gratitude with well-being cannot absolutely prove cause and effect in isolating gratitude as the primary source of psychological wellness. Yet, the majority of studies published on this topic support a positive association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being. [1] 

If you or a loved one is struggling with anything you have read in this blog, please get in touch with Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email today.


[1] Giving thanks can make you happier (2021) Harvard Health. Available at: (Accessed: December 20, 2022).

[2] White Paper – University of California, Berkeley (no date). Available at: (Accessed: December 20, 2022). 

[3] Emmons, R.A. and McCullough, M.E. (2003) “Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), pp. 377–389. Available at: 

[4] Chen, G. (2016) “Does gratitude promote recovery from substance misuse?,” Addiction Research & Theory, 25(2), pp. 121–128. Available at: 

[5] Redwine, L. S., Henry, B. L., Pung, M. A., Wilson, K., Chinh, K., Knight, B., Jain, S., Rutledge, T., Greenberg, B., Maisel, A., & Mills, P. J. (2016). Pilot Randomized Study of a Gratitude Journaling Intervention on Heart Rate Variability and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients With Stage B Heart Failure. Psychosomatic medicine, 78(6), 667–676.

Sign up for our newsletter

At your side whenever you need us.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our team here at Heather R Hayes & Associates. We are just one phone call away. 

Heather Hayes & Associates is your trusted ally for navigating the complex world of treatment and recovery options for substance abuse, mental health issues, and process addictions.

Contact Us
Media Inquiries

Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc, offers experienced, trained professionals with clinical oversight, providing discreet and compassionate services in any situation.
Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc. is committed to providing the highest level of care without compromise, and we are not employed by, nor do we receive any form of payment or compensation from, the providers with whom we consult for placement or referrals.

Contact Us