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What Good is Gratitude? The Role of Thanksgiving in Personal Development

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By Tiffany Musick Matthews

As Christians, we are called to do many things: pray, love our neighbor, give of our finances. The list goes on. And while most Christians likely agree that these are important aspects of a Christian life, many of us fall short at times. We become so involved with our own desires and worldly obligations that finding time to invest in our spiritual lives often takes a back seat.  The same is often true of our call to be grateful.  Multiple times in the Bible, believers are reminded of the importance of being thankful and continually expressing our gratitude. Yet living a life of gratitude isn’t easy. Like any spiritual discipline, it requires time, effort, and faithful practice.

Without effort, feelings of gratitude are often fleeting, passing as quickly as they come. For example, I’m grateful to have a clean bill of health but gripe as soon as a cold interferes with my busy life. I have a kitchen filled with food but complain about cooking and a closet filled with clothes but “nothing to wear.” Psychologists interested in moral development have spent a great deal of time trying to understand what the benefits of gratitude are and how to foster higher levels of gratitude in individuals. Coupled with Scripture, this research offers some important insights and ideas into how we might more effectively employ practices of gratitude as a spiritual discipline.

Research suggests that gratitude can’t simply be grouped with other emotions, like happiness or anger, because unlike other emotions, gratitude takes a conscious effort. Meaning that in order to be grateful, we must first take the time to recognize that something has been done for our benefit.

This ability to recognize the kindness of others has earned gratitude the title of moral barometer.  “Psychologically, we have a lot of barometers,” said PLNU professor of psychology Dr. Ross Oakes-Mueller.  “For example, anxiety tells us when a threat is present.  In the same way, when we feel that warm, fuzzy feeling, we know something relationally is happening. Gratitude helps detect acts of kindness and generosity and is an indicator that something good has taken place.” Is there a difference between experiencing that “warm, fuzzy feeling” from time to time and living a life of gratitude? Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis and one of the leading experts on gratitude psychology, answers with a resounding yes.  “Feeling grateful is not the same as being a grateful person,” writes Emmons. “[A grateful person] is one who regularly affirms the goodness in his or her life and recognizes that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside of themselves.”

Emmons goes on to pinpoint four factors that determine one’s disposition toward gratitude: frequency, intensity, span, and density. These are essentially used to describe how often we feel grateful, the degree or depth to which we feel grateful, the number of things for which we feel grateful at a particular time, and to how many people we feel grateful for a single, positive event. Accordingly, those with a strong disposition feel more intensely grateful, on a regular basis, for multiple things, toward multiple people.

While being grateful for positive events or moments of good fortune seems simple, having a disposition toward gratitude, especially as it applies to Christianity, seems to suggest something more. A grateful heart is thankful for salvation and for God’s blessings, but it is also able to be grateful in difficult circumstances.  Take the Apostle Paul who, though persecuted and confined, produced some of the most inspired writing of the New Testament. Despite being imprisoned, Paul not only remained grateful, but encouraged others to be grateful as well, writing in Philippians 4:16, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Because of the grateful disposition he cultivated and his relationship with Christ, Paul could find reasons to be thankful even in the midst of his suffering. Not only is he thankful to God, but he also spends much of the first chapter expressing his gratitude for the Philippians, his fellow believers. He goes on to focus on the good in his plight: “As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” (Phil. 1:13-14)

Paul set an example for all believers. Through his writing, we learn that being truly grateful extends beyond convenience. Instead, as receivers of salvation and divine grace, we should strive to be grateful in all seasons of our lives.

Obstacles to Gratitude

“So this is the paradox of gratitude: while the evidence is clear that cultivating gratitude, in our life and in our attitude to life, makes us happier and healthier people more attuned to the flow of blessings in our lives, it is still difficult. Practicing gratitude is easier said than done,” reports Emmons.

Even when we can find reasons to be grateful to God, it is often more challenging to be appreciative of others.  Oakes-Mueller identified one of the main challenges in this regard as anxiety.

“For some people, it’s really a fear of intimacy,” he explained. “Gratitude involves me saying ‘I’m dependent on you,’ and that can be really scary. And if it isn’t responded to in a compassionate way, it can leave you with a negative feeling. So, a lot of people don’t do it because of the risk involved.”

In addition to anxiety, Kelsy Richardson (11), who is currently conducting graduate research on gratitude at Fuller Theological Seminary, named pride as a major deterrent.

“You would think the opposite of gratitude is being ungrateful, but it’s actually selfishness or self-conceit.  When you believe you deserve the good things you receive, you don’t feel the need to be grateful to others.” Along these lines, Emmons points out that gratitude can be difficult because it requires a new way of thinking.  While we often credit ourselves for the good things in our lives, and others for the bad, gratitude rejects this mentality by recognizing others as a part of our success.  “Gratitude also goes against our need to feel in control of our environment,” says Emmons. “Sometimes with gratitude you just have to accept life as it is and be grateful for what you have.”

While the presence of these potential obstacles may discourage some, research suggests that the return on investment is too abundant to ignore.

Reaping the Benefits

In addition to acting as a barometer, gratitude also serves as a reinforcer and motive for moral actions. Dr. Michael McCullough, professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, and colleagues expand on the nature of these qualities in the Psychological Bulletin article “Is Gratitude a Moral Affect?” “When a beneficiary expresses gratitude, either by saying ‘thank you’ or providing some other acknowledgement or appreciation, the benefactor is reinforced for his or her benevolence. Thus, the benefactor becomes more likely to enact such benevolent behaviors in the future,” they write.

Or to put it simply: “The reinforcement side of gratitude is much like receiving a gold star from your teacher,” said Oakes-Mueller. “It essentially says, ‘Job well done.’”

Gratitude also impacts us as recipients of kindness by motivating us to perform our own acts of kindness for others.

“When I recognize what I have and what I’ve been given, I want to give,” said Oakes-Mueller. “As a motivator, gratitude creates a pay-it-forward mentality. It doesn’t matter whether I give something back to the person who gave to me or to the world around me. It doesn’t end with giving to one person but emanates like ripples, getting bigger and bigger.”

The result? Research suggests that gratitude’s reinforcement and motivation capabilities lead to an increased sense of self-worth. As givers of kindness, when our actions or gifts are met with expressions of gratitude, our personal worth is affirmed, making us likely to repeat the behavior in the future. As recipients of kindness, we feel that we are of value to our benefactor.

As a result, we are likely to feel more loved and cared for and are thus likely to practice our own acts of generosity.  As it relates to our motivation as Christians, we consider God the ultimate benefactor, providing for us and granting mercy despite our undeserving nature.  Because of this, and His great sacrifice, we conclude that we are of incredible worth in His eyes.  Furthermore, we believe that we are to extend this grace onward by reaching out to others.

Research also indicates that along with an increase in moral behavior, gratitude also boosts emotional and mental well being and decreases antisocial tendencies.

“Gratitude makes you a better person, not just in the sense of doing nice things for other people, but it also carries with it joy. When I’m more grateful, even though I’m acknowledging that I’m indebted to other people, life feels more like a gift. When life feels like a gift, I feel more engaged and rejoice in the little things around me. In this way, it can act as a helpful balance to irritation, anger, and frustration,” explained Oakes-Mueller.

Emmons adds that this mindset can keep people “inhibited from committing destructive interpersonal behaviors” and could possibly explain the low occurrence of depression among grateful people, as gratitude forces acknowledgement of love, kindness, and compassion in the world.

Additionally, Emmons discusses how gratitude can enhance our ability to feel pleasure by helping us appreciate things we might otherwise take for granted. Gratitude can also prolong feelings of contentment, allowing us to savor positive situations and maximize satisfaction.

Researchers have found that gratitude provides positive physical benefits as well Among these are improved sleeping habits, lower levels of stress, and less reported aches and pains. The benefits of gratitude, though many are self-reported by study participants, are often observed by outside parties. Studies report that friends and family members notice changes in loved ones who continually practice gratitude, such as being happier, more outgoing, more trustworthy, and, overall, more enjoyable to be around.

 

Practice Makes Perfect

So what about people who aren’t inherently grateful? Just as making devotions or prayer a standard part of life takes commitment and practice, a grateful heart tends to develop over time. Fortunately, it is widely agreed that gratitude can be learned and strengthened in a number of different ways.

“Gratitude is a practiced behavior, so you have to find ways of practicing it,” said Richardson. “You have to do good often, so it becomes automated. Any new skill you want to learn takes practice to perfect. If you have to, set an alarm every day to remind yourself to be grateful.

Researchers have found that one of the most successful means of inspiring a grateful outlook on life is the practice of keeping a gratitude journal. By keeping a daily recording of events that prompt gratitude, we can reflect on the small things that might otherwise be overlooked. From receiving help from a coworker to meet a deadline to grabbing a cup of coffee with an old friend, or just basking in the sunshine of a beautiful day, recording things that provoke gratitude can help us view life through a positive lens and reap numerous benefits in the process.

In the article “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens…” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Emmons and McCullough discuss three studies that asked participants to keep a journal over a specified amount of time. Each study group was separated into three categories: one documenting things for which participants were grateful, one documenting occurrences considered “hassles,” and one simply identifying events of impact, or “neutral” situations.

These studies found that those who kept a journal of gratitude experienced better overall well-being, including increased levels of happiness and optimism, when compared to both the “hassles” and “neutral” groups. They also showed that those who kept gratitude journals reported better physical health, such as getting more sleep and feeling refreshed upon waking, making more of an effort to exercise and tend to their overall health, and experiencing less negative physical symptoms.

Keeping a gratitude journal not only provides several advantages, but does so rather quickly. Emmons states that keeping a journal for as few as three weeks can cause notable differences that last six months or more.

In addition to becoming more aware of the things we have been given, Oakes-Mueller said that articulating gratitude can be helpful as well. Writing a letter of gratitude is a perfect example. Gratitude letters are actually a staple in PLNU psychology professor Dr. Kim Schaeffer’s positive psychology class. All students in the course are required to write letters to people of influence in their lives, thanking them for their contributions and acts of benevolence over the years. Each student is then asked to invite the person they chose to class, where the letters are shared face-to-face, surrounded by peers. To make the assignment more impactful, the recipients of the letters aren’t allowed to know why they are coming to class.

“A letter is one of the biggest expressions of gratitude you can give someone,” said Schaeffer, who hopes this assignment helps students learn the importance of expressing gratitude—a hope that has come to fruition in at least one of his students.

Cherie Owen (12) wrote a letter to her mom a few months after learning of her mom’s breast cancer. Though she initially felt fearful of the assignment, she found the experience exhilarating and learned a valuable lesson in the process.

“I learned that the more you express gratitude, the more natural it becomes,” said Owen, who now describes herself as more thoughtful and purposeful when communicating. “It’s definitely a process. You have to want to change and work at it to receive the benefits. But, the more you tell yourself something, the more you believe it and live it. When you constantly say positive things, you lift yourself and others up.”

Over three years of teaching the course, Schaeffer has not only seen incredible emotional reactions from in-class readings, but has also observed the impact this exercise can have long after class is over, an impact he described as “life-changing.

Senior Randy Meza, who read a letter to his dad for his 50th birthday, can identify with the transformative power of gratitude. He, too, was hesitant but found that the end result was an overwhelming and unexpected sense of peace, as well as a richer relationship with both his dad and mom.

“I felt like what I did was meaningful, that with my words I made a significant impact on someone’s life,” he said. “I have learned that with honesty and an openness to say ‘thank you,’ you can change someone’s life as well as your own.”

 

Passing the Test

It is clear to see that gratitude is good. “Science has proven what God has been teaching us all along,” said Richardson. “This research makes so much sense because it’s what the Bible teaches us.”

Emmons perhaps sums it up best when he states: “Gratitude’s intrinsic function is to affirm the good in life, embrace that good, and then transform the good in purposeful actions to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”

Affirming and embracing the good in life seems to be the simple and natural outcome of living gratefully, especially when we stop to consider what God has done for us. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we find the ultimate demonstration of redemption and unconditional love—and a humbling reason to present our thanks to the Creator.

The true test of gratitude then seems to come in its last function: transforming the good into action.

“Thinking about gratitude is good, but it’s even better if it causes you to go out and act because of it,” Richardson confirmed. “The effects are greater when you are doing something about it.”

In 1 Timothy 4:12, and again in Titus 2:7, we are reminded to set an example in everything we do: in our speech, our conduct, our faith, and, arguably, in our gratitude. By practicing gratitude, we don’t just stand to gain the numerous benefits identified through research, but we also learn to identify the numerous ways God reveals Himself in the intricacies of our lives. We learn to better appreciate His sovereignty, better emulate His moral character, and, perhaps most importantly, better understand our worth as recipients of His unyielding grace.

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