Exploring Gratitude: Its Breadth and Power

Photo by Nathan Dumlao from Unsplash.com

Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect on gratitude and its relevance to daily life. I have had periods of my life where the word gratitude would make me angry and nauseous. Apologies – maybe that is a little dramatic. You get the point. Some years there didn’t seem to be much to be grateful for.

 It is my involvement with Twelve Step Recovery that has changed my attitudes and beliefs about gratitude. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, had a particularly rough time of life between 1945 and 1955.  He was trying to steer A.A., begun in 1935, through some challenging growth pains. The spontaneous formation of A.A. groups around this country and beyond had led to practices that threatened the future of the movement. A well-known baseball player in Cleveland had joined and decided he could help A.A. grow by telling everyone he was a member. This violated the principle of anonymity of members which had guided A.A. from the beginning. In other communities, members developed pre-conditions about who could join.  In some places, groups refused to allow women, Blacks, gays, Catholics or others considered different or undesirable. This violated the idea that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stay sober.

So, Bill began working on a set of principles to guide A.A. groups. They became the Twelve Traditions. There was a lot of resistance to any rules.  But he waged a five-year campaign traveling around the country and the Twelve Traditions were finally adopted at the 1950 A.A. conference in Cleveland.

This all occurred during the ten-year period from 1945 to 1955 when he was suffering from severe depression. It was difficult for him to get out of bed or do anything some days. Despite the depression, he patiently worked with others to forge agreements to guide the growth of A.A.

In the midst of this difficult time for the movement and himself, Bill Wilson wrote an article in A.A.’s publication (The Grapevine) in 1949 inviting members to consider celebrating November as Gratitude Month. Subsequently, A.A. adopted his proposal. A.A. meetings continue today to focus on the importance of gratitude, and during November members voluntarily make an extra donation to support the work of the A.A. World Services Office in New York.

Gratitude is a powerful habit that is easier for some people to develop than others. For me, fatigue and frustration can create a cascade of negativity; I feel worse about everything around me and myself.

My friend Doris, also a person in recovery, who died in August at 93 reminded me frequently there was a thin line between grief and self-pity. Life is full of losses of different sizes and importance. It’s natural to feel some sadness when becoming aware of a loss. Grief becomes self-pity when I let my mind accumulate losses until I think of myself as a victim.

Many start practicing gratitude with a decision to try something that may seem silly – writing a daily gratitude list. Your ego, like mine, may see this as a waste of time and resist. Yet when I give it a try, amazing things happen. Whether I list three things in a day or ten, whether I share them with a friend or just write them down for myself, my attitude and thinking shift to the positive from this simple act.

If I consistently practice paying attention to what I am grateful for as I go through most days, I come to see that I can learn to be grateful for both joyful and painful experiences. Slowly, I come to accept that pain and disappointment are unavoidable in life.

I am grateful this Thanksgiving that my spirit grows in compassion and acceptance for others as I look each day for all the beauty to savor and enjoy. Happy Thanksgiving!  


  • Tom Adams

    Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.

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  1. Pam

    Excellent thoughts, Tom.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Pam! Blessings this season of gratitude. Tom

  2. Mary O'Herron

    Once again, Tom, you have hit the mark! When I first darkened the doors of recovery rooms and heard people talking about gratitude and suggesting that I’ve should be grateful, I viewed it as cruel and unusual punishment. Recently, I have had some surgery on my knee, which has gone pretty well, but my back has been hurting pretty fiercely. However, I am DETERMINED to be grateful. Low and behold, I see many things around me for which I am genuinely grateful from my husband and other family members super care for me, the mini friends, who pray, and bring kindness in food or other services to the beauties of fall, but I can see out of my windows and people like yourself who have compassion and are prayerful. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    My goal for Thanksgiving is to be grateful all day long, no matter what

    Thanks again, Tom and may you and yours have a beautiful Thanksgiving!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Mary for making the power of gratitude real and tangible for all of us. Always to share expereinces. May we both focus on the good and be grateful and learn that fears and negative thoughts may come but we have choices which thoughts we welcome and entertain.Peace, Tom