Gratitude for All Seasons
by Lisa Green, LPC – MHSP, Executive Director
Gratitude is an emotion, and certainly you’ve experienced it spontaneously before- perhaps when you received a thoughtful gift, an answer to a heartfelt prayer, a call from a friend when you’re feeling lonely. But gratitude is also a practice, the conscious act of turning your attention to what is good, and acknowledging and/or expressing thankfulness for the good thing. While we can experience gratitude spontaneously, research has demonstrated that people who have a regular gratitude practice tend to be emotionally happier, physically healthier, and more resilient to challenges than other, and even less prone to burn out (1). We are counseled many times in the Bible to give thanks, and I trust that God asks that of us not because he just wanted to teach us manners, but because the actual practice of being thankful is so good for us and connects us to Him on a deeper level.
The Bible Behind It
One of the great spiritual lessons that a gratitude practice teaches us is that we can find the gift of God’s presence, and his abundance in any circumstances. As Adele Calhoun says in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: “Thanksgiving is possible not because everything goes perfectly, but because God is present.” (2) We understand that while the spontaneous emotion of gratitude can be wonderful, the practice of thanksgiving is a discipline that strengthens our connection to and understanding of grace, and the presence of our Father.
In fact, the Bible tells us many times over to be thankful, to give thanks, to hold gratitude in our hearts (1 Thess 5:18, Heb 13:15, Eph 5:20, Psalm 103:1-4). I appreciate that this mandate of gratitude is not to take the place of a healthy practice of grieving, or to try to make us oblivious to hardship or suffering- but to teach our hearts to hold the complexity of both at once. It is so easy for many of us to become all too aware of the negative, the hard, the actions of our own, someone else’s, or even our perception of God’s that we can find fault with. The spiritual discipline in gratitude is to be willing to also look for, and find God’s grace and presence in the things we can still hold- with thanksgiving- in those circumstances. “It is a discipline to choose to stitch our days together with the thread of gratitude. But the decision to do so is guaranteed to stitch us closer to God.” (2)
The Science Behind It
Leading gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, talks about gratitude on two levels. (3) The first is an affirmation or expression of goodness- being able to see, appreciate, and express what is good around you. The second part has to do with recognizing that this good comes from a source outside yourself, i.e. others, the natural world, and God. So gratitude consists not just of recognizing good, but acknowledging that the good we experience is a function of our relationships, helpful others, the bounty we receive from creation, and certainly a good God.
Research also supports this gratitude practice as being beneficial to our health in several areas, and it is gratifying to see the threads of Biblical encouragement, “In everything give thanks,” and the benefits research demonstrates able to weave together so well. Studies have demonstrated that a practice like writing a weekly gratitude letter, or writing a list of at least 3 good things daily over a period of several weeks also increase people’s sense of wellbeing and their overall mental health, even for months following the practice. Other studies have demonstrated that cardiac patients practicing gratitude experienced “better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation, and another found that heart failure patients who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks were more grateful and had reduced signs of inflammation afterwards.” (1)
Part of the benefit of this practice is simply about attention. We are often better at paying attention to negative information- what is going wrong, or what is a barrier in our lives- especially if we are depressed, anxious or ill. And while a gratitude practice doesn’t erase our awareness of those things, what it does is cause us to give purposeful attention to the positive- what is going well, the gifts we receive, the ways we receive help and good things from God, our loved ones, even strangers. Gratitude doesn’t entirely decrease our negative feelings and experiences, it simply magnifies and increases our positive feelings. This has the effect of putting negative and positive in more balance, and even supporting our sense of resilience- that challenges are present, but we are able to overcome them.
The simplest way to start a gratitude practice if you don’t already have one is to keep a gratitude journal, and make a list each day of 3-5 things you are thankful for in that day. There are special notebooks and apps devoted to this, or you may just keep a separate notebook, add the list to your calendar, planner, or a journal you already use. This is an exercise that could take you 5 minutes, and be attached to your devotion practice, or be a 20-30 minute journaling session in the morning or evening. There is no exactly right way to do it- like so many practices the right way is whatever allows you to be consistent, especially as you start.
But if you are looking for a way to add some structure into your practice, and understand that this generally helps with consistency, here are some more in-depth practices to try.
- If you are technologically inclined, you could use an app like Presently, or 5 Minute Journal. You can set your app to prompt you daily to journal, and either follow prompts or suggestions listed, or just write your own list. These also allow you to be as simple or in-depth as you like.
- Begin a gratitude journal by keeping a record of the “abundances” God has given you. Next to each abundance, write what it means to you to have a God who interacts and intervenes in your life. Notice what you have been given that you did not deserve. What do you want to say to God about these things? (3)
- Try a 30-day Gratitude challenge like this one, following the prompts each day to either reflect on or act on your gratitude. Reflection is a powerful step, and is only enhanced and strengthened by an action or practice that takes your thanksgiving a step further.
- Invite someone to join in with one of these practices with you, both for the accountability, and the shared experience of thanksgiving!
- The Science Of Gratitude by Summer Allen, Ph.D. https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf
- The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adelle Ahlberg Calhoun
- The Science of Gratitude by Misty Pratt https://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-gratitude/