At my Monday night meeting, the topic was gratitude. One member said she was tired of talking about gratitude around Thanksgiving. It was so cliche. She wondered what the opposite of gratitude was. That would be more interesting.
I can see how she could feel that way. Sometimes in the rooms of Al-Anon, I hear some of the most profound truths so often that I start to tune them out. I confess that I sometimes feel that way when I learn that the topic of the meeting is step 1. That's a problem for me because the minute I forget I'm powerless, my life becomes unmanageable. And I'm a good forgetter. I need reminders. So I keep coming back.
I think gratitude can fall into the same trap. We can get gratitude fatigue. Gratitude seems so simple. So obvious. So easy to dismiss.
The next morning, a newspaper article caught my eye. It said studies showed that gratitude improved "psychological, emotional and physical well being."
"Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not," the article said. "They are less likely to be depressed, envious or greedy. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections."
Many studies have demonstrated these effects. The article went on to say that gratitude is a complex emotion that requires self-reflection, the ability to admit one's dependence and humility. Had they been reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous? I had to wonder.
The article went on to say that gratitude also forces people to overcome the "negativity bias," the innate tendency to dwell on problems, annoyances and injustices.
Experts believe about 50 percent of this tendency is innate. That means 50 percent can be learned. And that's the good news.
The other good news is that learning to become more grateful is easy. Unfortunately, I think that's also the problem. It's so easy that it can seem inconsequential.
The newspaper article suggested a number of techniques that are staples of 12-step programs:
Keeping a daily gratitude journal
Sharing a daily gratitude list with others
Stopping to focus on the sounds, smells and sensations around you (meditation)
Reviewing the events and people you were grateful for at the end of the day (daily inventory)
I have done all of these things, and practice most of them on a daily basis. I also assign them to my sponsees. It works for me, and I've seen it work in others--sometimes dramatically.
Here's a new technique I learned from the article: the gratitude visit. Thanking someone in person.
One study found that fourth graders who took a gratitude visit felt better about themselves even two weeks months later. The effect was particularly pronounced among those whose mood was low.
I say this is "new," to me but it's not really. My daughter recently told me an amends her sponsor assigned her involved approaching a policeman or woman and thanking them for their service.
Here's another exercise. Write essay mentally subtracting a major blessing in your life. In a study, college students who did this were subsequently more grateful for that blessing. It's called the "George Baily effect," after the protagonist of "It's a Wonderful Life."
The article warns that expressing gratitude can be used to exert control over the receiver. The antidote? Another 12-step staple: assess your motives.
The article also addressed the phenomenon of "gratitude fatigue." It said when we fall back on "I'm grateful for my dog," we're in gratitude fatigue. To keep it fresh, the article suggested keeping it very specific. "I'm grateful for the way my dog licked my face when I was sad."
On Monday night, our group was small and we finished early. So one of our members pulled out her smart phone and googled the opposite of gratitude. I wish I had been taking notes so I could remember what she found. I tried it and got nothing more interesting than "ungrateful."
I do remember that her list included irritability and discontent, which sounded just about right.
And that brings me to the final point of the article. The opposite of expressing gratitude, using negative or derogatory words, even just to yourself, can darken your mood.
My sponsor gave me a wonderful assignment once. Every time I found myself "condemning, criticizing, complaining or comparing," even to myself, I had to write it down.
It amazed me how often I had to pull out that notebook. Maybe it's human nature. But today I know it's toxic. Every time I do one of those things I'm taking somebody's inventory but my own.
Every time I did that served as a reminder that I can only control the thoughts, behaviors and actions of one person: me. Over everybody else I am powerless.
Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday because it has somehow remained pure. It is a national holiday in which we gather to give thanks. There are no gift exchanges. We gather with our families, either biological or intentional, and share a meal to represent the bounty of our lives.
At Monday's meeting, I thought about Thanksgiving, pre-program. How we'd all gather around the table and say what we felt grateful for. How I always struggled with what to say.
Today I believe that gratitude is a muscle. The more I exercise it, the bigger it gets.
So this Thanksgiving I will say that I am grateful I have a program. I'm grateful that it's taught me that I don't have to wait for a national holiday to give thanks. I can give it every day. And I do.
I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving.
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