What Is the Serenity Prayer?

Two women hugging in a support group meeting

Tom Merton / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is the Serenity Prayer?

The Serenity Prayer was originally written by a religious scholar around 1932. Since that time, the prayer has been modified and adapted for numerous purposes, including as a mantra used by Alcoholic Anonymous and other 12-step programs.

The Serenity Prayer is one of the key spiritual tools used by virtually all 12-step recovery support groups. The following is the adaptation that's generally used in these groups:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

This article discusses the history of the Serenity Prayer and how it is utilized as a part of a 12-step support group. It also explores some of the effects that the prayer may have on people in alcohol and substance use recovery.

The Complete Serenity Prayer

The following is the original unabridged Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971):

God, give us grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

History of the Serenity Prayer

Although millions of people both in and out of the recovery community have been helped and strengthened by the Serenity Prayer's simple lines, few are aware the first stanza was written by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. He was an American theologian, philosopher, and longtime dean and professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

It is unclear exactly when he wrote the well-known and beloved prayer, but it seems to have been sometime around 1932 or 1933.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) adopted the prayer in 1941 when an AA member saw it in The New York Herald Tribune and asked the AA secretary, Ruth Hock, to see if it could be printed on distributable cards. She wrote to an AA member who was a printer in Washington, DC, sent him the clipping, and asked him how much it would cost to print up some wallet-size copies.

The printer liked the prayer so much ("I can't recall any sentence that packs quite the wallop that that does," he reported said) that he sent 500 cards to her for free. As a result, the Serenity Prayer became a permanent part of AA's history.

Recap

The Serenity Prayer was originally written by a theologian. It was printed on distributable cards by Alcoholic Anonymous and grew so popular with members that it soon became a permanent fixture at support meetings. Today, it is often recited at both the beginning and end of every meeting.


Uses of the Serenity Prayer

Sometimes referred to as "the AA acceptance prayer," the Serenity Prayer is usually recited at the beginning of almost all 12-step group meetings. It is also often recited again at the end of the meeting.

Examples of these 12-step groups include:

Many other support groups utilize the prayer as well. It has gained popularity outside of the 12-step community to become a part of mainstream culture, finding its way into movies, books, memes, and even home decorations.

Impact of the Serenity Prayer

When people find themselves in desperate situations, they seek resources that offer peace, strength, and wisdom. What many people have found is that the simple words of the Serenity Prayer, whispered to a God or other spiritual power, have seen them through their darkest hours.

Many have come to believe that the qualities expressed in the prayer can come only from a power greater than themselves, one of the core components of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Because they have come to believe in a higher power, they find the serenity, courage, and wisdom they seek from somewhere outside themselves, which may give them the strength to face another situation, another step, and another day.

Some people use the Serenity Prayer as a daily reminder to help them stay on track as they work toward their recovery. Others turn to it in moments of stress or temptation to center themselves and remember that they cannot have complete control over every situation.

The prayer emphasizes the need to practice acceptance, even when working toward making a change.

The prayer also acts as a mantra. A mantra is a sound, word, or phrase that is often utilized as a part of meditation practice. Mantras can be helpful tools when a person is trying to distract themselves from negative thoughts, fight temptations, and work toward goals. 

Research supports the idea that using mantras can have beneficial effects on psychological well-being. One study found that people who recited a spiritual mantra of their choice experienced higher levels of cheerfulness and improved mental clarity.

Tools such as the Serenity Prayer may help promote wisdom over the course of a 12-step recovery program. Researchers suggest that such wisdom might help people become better at managing their lives through personal insights and reflection.

Recap

The Serenity Prayer reminds people in recovery of the need for acceptance, change, and wisdom. All three are key components of AA and other 12-step recovery programs. The use of spiritual mantras may also foster wisdom and self-reflection.

Potential Pitfalls

While many people do find the Serenity Prayer helpful, that does not mean that it works for everyone. The prayer presents challenges for non-spiritual individuals. While AA suggests that a person's higher power can be non-theistic, some participants may find that this approach doesn't work for them.

For some people, the prayer is too dichotomous, suggesting that there are only two options when confronting a problem. The prayer proposes that problems can either be changed or accepted, without considering any potential middle ground. 

This directive to either accept or change situations can leave some people in recovery feeling powerless and discouraged. Accepting that some things cannot be changed quickly or easily might be a more helpful approach. It can be empowering to recognize that there are steps a person can take to make a situation better.

Rather than accepting things as they are, it may be better to focus on the steps a person can take to make the situation better in the present moment and down the road.

One of the criticisms of 12-step programs such as AA is that they tend to take a rigid, all-or-nothing approach that accepts nothing less than total abstinence. This is not necessarily the right approach for every person working toward recovery. For people who do not respond to this approach, other treatment options might be more workable and effective.

A Word From Verywell

The Serenity Prayer has roots in theology, but has become an important spiritual tool in 12-step programs such as Alcoholic Anonymous. If you utilize the prayer, you may find that it can serve as an essential touchstone as you work toward recovery from alcohol or substance use. The prayer acts as a quick reminder that you can accept things you cannot control and still work toward making positive changes in your life.

If you don't find the prayer helpful, remember that there are other options. If AA and the strategies that the program utilizes, such as the Serenity Prayer, don't seem like the best approach for you, talk to a healthcare provider about other approaches to recovery, support, and treatment. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Alcoholic Anonymous. Origin of the Serenity Prayer: A historical paper.

  2. Lolla A. Mantras help the general psychological well-being of college students: A pilot study. J Relig Health. 2018;57(1):110-119. doi:10.1007/s10943-017-0371-7

  3. DiGangi JA, Majer JM, Mendoza L, Droege JR, Jason LA, Contreras R. What promotes wisdom in 12-step recovery?J Groups Addict Recover. 2014;9(1):31-39. doi:10.1080/1556035X.2013.836869

  4. Mendola A, Gibson R. Addiction, 12-step programs, and evidentiary standards for ethically and clinically sound treatment recommendations: what should clinicians do? AMA Journal of Ethics. 2016;18(6):646-655. doi:10.1001/journalofethics.2016.18.6.sect1-1606

  5. Davis AK, Rosenberg H. Acceptance of non-abstinence goals by addiction professionals in the United StatesPsychol Addict Behav. 2013;27(4):1102-1109. doi:10.1037/a0030563

Additional Reading

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.