Practice These Principles
Living the Spiritual Disciplines and Virtues in 12-Step Recovery

In All Our Affairs

Emotion-Virtues: Gratitude 

While all the virtues, practiced from a spiritual perspective, can have a positive impact on our emotional life, there is a set of them that has a special relationship to the emotions. They are what Robert C. Roberts calls emotion-virtues. They are both moral character traits and expressions of emotion. In addition to fostering the healthy emotions they name, these virtues are a direct counterweight to the opposite defective emotions and they counteract directly or indirectly other diseased emotions, sometimes in interaction with other virtues. 

Among these are five we practice in AA: gratitude, hope, compassion, peace, and joy. We will consider gratitude as a paradigmatic example.

Gratitude is called a moral virtue because it is the proper and just response to a gift freely given, what is due to the person who so favors us (hence placed under the cardinal virtue justice). We have a capacity for receiving goods from others and giving thanks is how we exercise that capacity well, expressing our gratitude through a gracious response to the grace that is shown to us. But gratitude is also an emotion, a capacity to experience a certain feeling that accompanies the receipt of the good. We not only give thanks, we feel grateful. As an emotion-virtue, gratitude disposes us morally to act right and emotionally to feel right, to do good as regards others and to do well as regards our mental condition.

Gratitude promotes feelings of well-being because it is a perception of good. It is a perception in terms of a benefit, a beneficiary, and a benefactor, what Roberts calls the three interlocking B’s (bene is Latin for “good” or “well”) that make up the framework of gratitude. 

Gratitude becomes spiritual, a spiritual virtue and a spiritual emotion, when we are moved in our response by a God-centered view of the three: gift, recipient, and giver. This is the view we gain in AA. The AA understanding is that we are sober by the grace of God. Our gratitude is a response to grace, freely given.

We grow in this gratitude as we come to see not only our sobriety but every proper good we have as gifts from a loving God, and ourselves as blessed. We grow still further as we come to see the blessings of our fellows and of the natural order from the same perspective. Gratitude is our just and our loving and distinctly human response to God’s providence, for we are his creatures and his children, equally made in his image and equally dependent on his grace.

We know from our experience when we drank that gratitude, even of the garden variety that leaves God out of the picture, was one emotion that seldom arose spontaneously in us. Gratitude was not in our repertoire, as some might say. More likely, we still had the capacity, but it was greatly impaired. We took whatever good we had for granted, feeling entitled to or giving ourselves credit for it. Rather than look for the good and give thanks, our tendency was to look for the bad and complain and reject. Dissatisfaction was our default mode, creating a psychological climate in us that was hostile to gratitude and fed our power-driven obsession with changing everything. This naturally made for unsettled lives and unstable emotions.

This begins to change when we come to AA, as we saw with the grateful cabbie. But if our practice is to be spiritual and if it is to result in emotional sobriety, gratitude needs to be firmly grounded in an understanding of God as ultimately the giver of all good gifts and us as his favored and blessed recipients.

If we consciously practice it as such, time and again, through such disciplines as prayer, meditation, and service and in matters big and small, gratitude will over the long term become embedded in us as a habitual, settled part of our character. We will be morally and emotionally disposed to gratitude, looking for a reason to give thanks even in the most difficult of circumstances. In Step 11 we will then come to the knowledge that giving thanks “in all things”9 is God’s will for us. Saying that “I am a grateful alcoholic” will then reflect the truth about who we have become in our person, having understood deeply and intimately that God in his grace can turn any evil, any pain we have suffered or inflicted, to good purpose.

– From "Emotion-Virtues," pp. 55–57