By Dr. Bev Snyder
Gratitude is a spontaneous feeling but, increasingly, research demonstrates its value as a practice—that is, making conscious efforts to count one’s blessings. Studies show that people can deliberately cultivate gratitude—and there are important social and personal benefits to doing so. It is possible to feel grateful for loved ones, colleagues, animals, nature, and life in general. The emotion generates a climate of positivity that both reaches inward and extends outward. Gratitude is an emotion, one that makes a person feel happier. Gratefulness is also a mood as well as a personality trait. Some people are just more inclined to feel grateful as a daily habit. Gratitude is both a temporary feeling and a dispositional trait. In both cases, gratitude involves a process of recognizing, first, that one has obtained a positive outcome and, second, that there is an external source for that good outcome.
Psychologists find that, over time, feeling grateful boosts happiness and fosters both physical and psychological health, even among those already struggling with mental health problems. Studies show that practicing gratitude curbs the use of words expressing negative emotions and shifts inner attention away from such negative emotions as resentment and envy, minimizing the possibility of ruminating, which is a hallmark of depression.
I TH 5:18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
People who are grateful feel less pain, less stress, suffer insomnia less, have stronger immune systems, experience healthier relationships, and do better academically and professionally. Overall, it can boost both your mental and your physical health. Grateful people are indeed less likely to have mental health problems like depression. One study found that a gratitude intervention was successful in reducing negative affect and increasing mental resilience in a group of older adults. Gratitude starts with noticing the goodness in life. A materialistic culture that encourages constant wanting and sees possessions as the source of happiness is not the most fertile ground for gratitude. But it is not an insurmountable barrier to developing it. Envy and especially cynicism and narcissism are similarly thieves of gratitude. In fact, the cultivation of gratitude may be at least a partial remedy for narcissism.
Cultivating the art of gratefulness
1. Take time to smell the roses. People also take time to smell the bread baking in the oven, the aroma of a new car – whatever gives them pleasure. Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant finds that savoring positive experiences makes them stickier in your brain which produces benefits to your psyche. And the key he states, is “expressing gratitude for the experience. That’s how appreciation and gratitude go hand in hand”. You might also consider adding a little ritual to how you experience the pleasures of the body. A study published in Psychological Science finds that rituals like prayer or even just shaking a sugar packet “make people pay more attention to food, and paying attention makes food taste better,” as Emily Nauman reports in her Greater Good article about gratefulness research.
2. Take the good things as gifts, not birthrights. What’s the opposite of gratitude? Entitlement – the attitude that people owe you something because you’re so very special! “…A preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful,” writes Robert Emmons, co-director of a Gratitude Project sponsored by the Greater Good in Berkeley, CA. “Seeing with grateful eyes requires that we see the web of interconnection in which we alternate between being givers and receivers,” writes Emmons. “The humble person says that life is a gift to be grateful for, not a right to be claimed.”
3. Be grateful to people, not just things. It’s easy to notice the blue sky or the beautiful trees and flowers that surround us. But they just don’t care that we appreciate them, at least not that we’re aware of. My gratitude doesn’t help the sky seem any bluer or the trees any greener, and so on. That’s not true of people – people glow in gratitude when we acknowledge who they are in our lives. One of the most rewarding statements I’ve made lately is to notice the good in individuals and to actually tell them that I see the good in them as well as the good they do in the world. The response is amazing! We are all interconnected, and to recognize the good that is there spreads it even further. Experiences that heighten
meaningful connections with others…like noticing how another person helped you engages biological systems for trust and affection, alongside circuits for pleasure and reward. This provides a synergistic and enduring boost to the positive experience. When you say “thank you” to a person, “your brain registers that something good has happened and that you are more richly enmeshed in a meaningful social community” (E. Simon-Thomas, co-director of the Expanding Gratitude project).
4. Be specific when you say thank you. Grateful people do this habitually. They don’t just say you are wonderful, but they tell you why they think so. The skilled grateful person will say something like “I love you when you notice I am hungry and offer me food and drink.” Or I appreciate you when you notice how tired I am after work and offer to rub my feet or give me hugs when I am sad. When we do this, it makes the expression of gratitude feel more authentic, for it means that the thanked person was genuinely paying attention. The richest thank you’s will acknowledge intentions and the cost to the giver and they describe the value of the benefits received. The message of this is … gratitude thrives on specificity!
5. Thank outside the box. The examples above are rather routine and ordinary, but consider the following. The really grateful person will thank the boyfriend who dumped her and the homeless person on the street corner who asked for change and the boss who laid him off. It’s easy to find gratefulness for good things. But the really advanced and skillful thanker will also say thank-you for the tough things in life. In such moments, gratitude becomes a critical cognitive process: a way of thinking about the world that can help us turn disaster into a stepping stone. It is the way spiritual person knows that God is with us, and cares for us with a view to the larger picture of what is happening in our lives. The tough times become recognized as a gateway to an expanded picture of what Spirit has in store for us… but only if we can recognize the opportunity as such when seeming disaster strikes. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying reality. Instead, it means connecting to the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, and recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude. How is Spirit asking you to think differently?
Col. 3:16: “…Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”
What good is gratitude? Reasons why it’s better to live gratefully:
1. Grateful people give 20% more to charity!
2. Grateful people have a stronger bond with the local community.
3. Happy people’s income is roughly 7% higher.
4. Grateful youth have 13% fewer fights.
5. Grateful youth are 20% more likely to get “A grades.
6. Grateful teens are 10 times less likely to start smoking.
7. Gratitude is related to age: For every 10 years, gratitude increases by 5%.
8. Grateful people will have 10% fewer stress related illnesses, be more physically fit and have blood pressure that is lower by 12%.
9. Grateful people have more satisfying relationships with others, and will be better liked.
10. The most grateful countries are: S. Africa, UAE, Phillipines and India. The least are Netherlands,Denmark, Hungary, Czech Republic and UK.
11. Grateful people have overall positive emotions that can add up to 7 years of your life.
*(Source: Jeremy Adam Smith, author and editor of the magazine, Greater Good.)
There are many reasons we can all find to practice the art of gratefulness every day. The above statistics certainly shed light on benefits we can receive by recognizing and appreciating the good we have in our lives. Want to share the good in your life as well as the sorrows or sadness? Join our Wednesday night mental health group for free and confidential support on your walk. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for how to join with us on Zoom. I look forward to hearing from you.
Counselor and Coach
Tips to Foster Gratitude
•Keep a journal of or in some way note big and little joys of daily life.
•Write down "three good things"—identify three things that have gone well for you and identify the cause.
•Write thank-you notes to others.
•Think about people who have inspired you and what about them was most significant.
•Engage in "mental subtraction." Imagine what your life would be like if some positive event had not occurred.