The Science of Woo: Gratitude

a simple decorated place setting with "thanks" on it to reinforce the idea of gratitude as a tool in substance abuse recovery

The Science of Woo: Gratitude

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson


It was 1991 and a pleasant enough day. I was not employed, but had been to a support group for recovery and “worked my program” (as they say in AA) to the best of my ability at that time. I returned home to discover that my electricity had been turned off.

I was immediately livid. I was unaware of the irrationality, and my thought process went something like this:

“What the hell! I’m sober! I’m doing the best I can. I’m doing the right thing. I can’t fix everything right away. I never get a break, even when I am trying.”

I called my sponsor (the person in AA who “takes you through the steps.”) Remember, it was 1991. Cell phones were not a thing but my landline was working. Her suggestion at the time was irritating but retrospectively, brilliant:

“Joanne, do you have laundry? Do you have quarters? Get your laundry, some recovery material, a pen, and a notebook. Start your laundry and before you start reading your Big Book, I want you to write a Gratitude List.”

After getting clarification on what a Gratitude List is, I reluctantly followed her advice. I don’t recall how the electricity bill got resolved (how dare they turn it off, anyway? Didn’t they know I was finally sober?), but nearly 28 years later, I still remember my first Gratitude List.

Intentional Gratitude is a Brain Changer, and persons with a substance use disorder need changed brains.

  • Gratitude can help with sleep. [1][2]
  • Gratitude can assist with other recovery habits, such as reversing the habits of negative rumination. [3]
  • Gratitude helps with stress relief, and stress is a trigger for relapse. [4]
  • Gratitude improves personal relationships at work and home.[5]
  • Gratitude lowers the risk of depression and anxiety. [6]
  • Gratitude improves self-esteem. [7]
  • Gratitude assists with cardiac health. [8]
  • Gratitude lessens the symptoms of anxiety and depression. [9]


A quick google search will produce a copious amount of evidence and documentation supporting the positive results of an intentional gratitude practice. While my writing and blog posts are written for persons who are high functioning and high achieving but have a substance use disorder and their family members, an intentional gratitude practice has benefits for all humans, and I encourage you to develop the habit of gratitude.

a gratitude word scramble to reinforce the idea of gratitude as a recovery skill in substance abuse recovery

Gratitude is the second tool in my series “The Science of Woo: How the Practices of Spiritual Disciplines, Positive Psychology, and Other ‘Out There’ Practices are Backed by Science. You can read the intro to the series here.  The first was Forgiveness and you can find it here.

I suggest using gratitude in both “in the moment” such as my sponsor suggested all those years ago and also as a daily habit in which you seize the opportunity to “change the things you can” (your brain’s circuitry) for profound and lasting change.

Here are some suggestions on how to build a gratitude habit:

  1. Start and keep a simple gratitude journal – each day, preferably at the same time in your a.m. or p.m. routine (to maximize the habit building), write in a designated journal a short list of things you are grateful for that day. A common number of items for this list is 3.
  2. Write Thank You Letters or Cards (or, welcome to 2019, email or social media post) – Write a thank you to a person, place, or thing that means something to you. While it would be difficult for most people to do this daily, perhaps a weekly habit, for example, Sunday nights.
  3. Choose one of your social media platforms to be a gratitude account – plan and post a gratitude centered post daily.
  4. Seek “Success” or “Win” stories – using print, YouTube, or other media to find stories that highlight persons who have transcended barriers and realized success (personal, business, health, prosperity, service).
  5. Create ritual – Create a space, a mood, an experience in which you infuse your thoughts and preparation with gratitude and appreciation as you prepare the physical space, the food, the guest list.
  6. Use a gratitude meditation – My favorite meditation app is Insight Timer. There and on YouTube and other apps, you’ll find many guided meditations on the topic of gratitude.
  7. Designate a Gratitude Prompt – Research into habits find that habits are best established when prompted. Identify something that happens each day that you will tie to being prompted to practicing a moment of gratitude. Some ideas include brushing your teeth, stopping at Starbucks, a red light, loading the dishwasher, walking the dog, etc.
  8. Develop a regular practice of writing a narrative of a meaningful moment – Buy a lovely notebook and fill it with stories of moments you cherish.

Here are some ways to use gratitude in the moment of stress, disconnect, or uncertainty:

  1. Take charge of nighttime thoughts – I often suggest that clients experiencing insomnia play “alphabet gratitude” and gently go through the alphabet finding something they are grateful for that begins with “A”, then “B”, and so on.
  2. Use a token representing gratitude – I remember when I first become sober and was given a token of my commitment to stay sober. I kept it in my pocket and would hold it in my hand (or mind) as a physical reminder of the principles I was trying to live by, including gratitude.
  3. Be mindful, practice mindfulness, be present – while this is also a habit to cultivate, it is also a reminder at times of stress to bring your senses and presence forward. Try to access something in real time to savor or appreciate.


Here are some books from my personal bookshelf that are on the same topic:

A thankful heart – How Gratitude brings hope and healing to our lives by Carole Lewis

Living Life as a Thank You The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons

The Book of Joy – Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams

 No, Not Toxic Positivity

So, I’m a psychotherapist and the last thing I want is for you to deny reality, suppress feelings, and not process stuff that needs to be processed. Living in a solution and changing a brain does not equal a superficial “positive thinking” coat of paint slapped on a decaying and deteriorating structure. However, brains operate on the chemicals and neuro-circuitry created by habit. It can become a habit to filter “life” through a lens that supports maladaptive and poorly functioning neuro-chemistry. An intentional gratitude practice is one way individuals have of shaping a chemistry that supports wellness, and, yes, a contented and happy sobriety.

a simple chalkboard that says "thank you" to reinforce the use of gratitude as a recovery skill in substance abuse recovery



4 thoughts on “The Science of Woo: Gratitude”

  1. Victoria says:

    This is delightful, well done you!! I shall be sharing with family, friends, and clients…right after I go do my gratitude list!! 😉

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