Gratitude is the Key by Sara Loughlin, LCSW

rhn-gratitudeGratitude is one of the key tools 12 step programs use to help addicts recover. However, gratitude is very helpful whether one is in recovery or not. There is a newer branch of psychology called positive psychology. Instead of focusing on pathology, this branch studies what makes happy people happier than the rest of us. One thing that they have found is that happy people cultivate gratitude. Feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Gratitude also boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin, another mood enhancing chemical in our brains. According to Alex Korb, PhD (from his book The Upward Spiral): “[T]rying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.”


One can cultivate gratitude as a practice. One way I tell my clients is to try to think of five things that you are grateful for at the end of each day and write them down. You can include the big things, but it is best not to repeat yourself. That is, you could be grateful for your health every day, but the exercise works best if you only use that once. It is better to try to find things that are specific to that particular day, like maybe you really enjoyed your morning coffee, or saw a beautiful sunset while stuck on the 405, or someone you care about took the time to ask how you are really doing. It can be a minor thing. I know when you are feeling depressed these things can be hard to find. But after a while, say 15-20 days or so, your mind starts realizing that it has this task at the end of each day, so it starts noticing the positive things that happen and sticks them into your short term memory. So at first it may be hard to find even three things to be grateful for, but in 30 days you may have 15 things to choose from. This is an effective way to use gratitude to retrain your brain to focus more on the positive. Good luck and have a happy Thanksgiving!

Elana Clark-Faler
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