Want to be grateful? Remember to remember.


“Choose [your memories] carefully. Memories are all we end up with … You’ll have a thousand pasts and no future.” –The Secret Behind Their Eyes (film)

Robert Emmons summarizes research on gratitude and reviews the impact of it at a social level.

He closes with thoughts on cultivating it at an individual level.

Gratitude, at least initially, requires mental discipline. This is the paradox of gratitude: while the evidence is clear that cultivating gratitude, in our life and in our attitude to life, allows us to flourish, it is difficult. Developing and sustaining a grateful outlook on life is easier said than done.  A number of evidence based-strategies, including self-guided journaling, reflective thinking, and letter writing and gratitude visits have shown to be effective in creating sustainable gratefulness.

At the core of all of these practices, however diverse, is memory. Gratitude is about remembering.  . . . A French proverb states that gratitude is the memory of the heart—it is the way that the heart remembers. The memory of the heart includes the memory of those we are dependent on just as the forgetfulness of dependence is unwillingness or inability to remember the benefits provided by others. Do you want to be a grateful person? Then remember to remember.



Happy Thanksgiving!

Here are a few things I’m grateful for:

Recovery – 23 years ago I was 4 weeks abstinent (not in recovery) and 1 week away from being coerced into a psych unit because my therapist was convinced I was going to kill myself in the coming weeks. He was right. The patients (not the doctors) in the psych unit told me that my main problem was my alcoholism and that I should go to the meetings in the cafeteria. They were right. After I was released (4 weeks later), I was fortunate that my therapist was humble enough to recognize that his ability to help me was limited and that the long term solution to my problem was outside his office. He encouraged me to keep going to meetings, though he frequently expressed disgust at the smoking at meetings.

Community – I was welcomed into the recovering community in a way I had not been welcomed anywhere for some time. My first time at my first home group, Dan F. insisted that I take his seat (The meeting was too big for the small meeting space and did not have enough seats. This meant that he would have to stand or sit on the floor. He was in his 60s and needed a knee replacement.) Ron S. made sure that I never had to leave my seat for coffee, refilling my cup frequently. John M. told me that he was an atheist and that there was room for him in this program and that there was room for me. Dave H. told me that he had faith that things would get better for me and said, “if you can’t believe that things will get better, just believe that I believe things will get better for you.” Bill C. who had sponsees stop by my place to invite me to go to meetings with them. Today, my home group is a wonderful group of people who are patient, kind and generous with newcomers and people who struggle to find stable recovery. We support each other through blessings and trials.

Family – My parents were supportive and patient through the ups and downs of early recovery. (I still cringe when I think of how self-absorbed and thoughtless I could be.) Today, I have very good relationships with them and I’m very grateful for their continued support. I’m grateful for a wife who supported me in pursuing this vocation when I was on the fence about a MSW or law school. I’m grateful for two wonderful kids who expose me to new things every day and whose creativity, joy, kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness and energy challenge me to cultivate more of those traits in myself. When I got sober, I didn’t want a family and, now, I can’t imagine life without them.

Work – I’m grateful to work in a place that understands and respects recovery. We accept addicts for who they are and who they can become. In return, we get to play a small part in miraculous transformations of people who were once hopeless into healed, whole people who are fully engaged in their families and their communities–often helping others stumble through the same transformation.

Bill White did a good job summing up this experience in the context of the history of addiction treatment: “So what does this history tell us about how to conduct one’s life in this most unusual of professions? I think the lessons from those who have gone before us are very simple ones. Respect the struggles of those who have delivered the field into your hands. Respect yourself and your limits. Respect the addicts and family members who seek your help. Respect (with hopeful but healthy skepticism) the emerging addiction science. And respect the power of forces you cannot fully understand to be present in the treatment process. Above all, recognize that what addiction professionals have done for more than a century and a half is to create a setting and an opening in which the addicted can transform their identity and redefine every relationship in their lives, including their relationship with alcohol and other drugs. What we are professionally responsible for is creating a milieu of opportunity, choice and hope. What happens with that opportunity is up to the addict and his or her god. We can own neither the addiction nor the recovery, only the clarity of the presented choice, the best clinical technology we can muster, and our faith in the potential for human rebirth.

Beyond the work we do together, I’m also very grateful to work with such a great group of fun, supportive, nice and passionate people. I enjoy time off work, but I miss seeing the people I work with when I’m away.

I recently read the following and thought how glad I am to work with so many people share my gratitude for being part of something bigger than ourselves that really makes a difference in the lives of addicts, their families and the larger community.

Even though many of us have numerous occasions to feel grateful in both our personal and professional lives, we often miss out on opportunities to express gratitude, especially at work. A recent survey of 2,000 Americans released earlier this year by the John Templeton Foundation found that people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. We are not even thankful for our jobs, which tend to rank dead last when asked to list the things we’re grateful for in our lives.

Gratitude itself – On last thing. I’m grateful that Rob M. instructed me to practice gratitude on a daily basis. It was so unnatural and difficult for me. It also challenged my worldview that was colored with self-pity and pessimism about human nature and the human condition. The gratitude he taught me has kept me humble (most of the time) and free from (extreme) bouts of self-pity.