Grateful Dog

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I am thankful for Iggy. And I’m quite certain Iggy is thankful for me.

Late last year, the Rick-Miller family lost Max—a tuxedo cat—and Mimi—a black lab. My home office became very quiet and lonely. It took some time to cope with their passing.

Enter Iggy with a playful bounce and plop on the floor for a belly-rub. We brought him home from Saving Grace dog rescue about a month ago. All he wants is love and exercise and food. You can’t rub that belly enough, and every walk is too short.

Iggy is flourishing. He has gained some weight and is less shy. He tries to obey—we’re still working on sit and stay and heel—and everyone he sees gets invited to rub behind the ears (or the belly). All three of my girls regularly say, “Look, Dad, he’s smiling,” as they play and cuddle.

Iggy is thriving, and while I may be anthropomorphizing here, I think that’s because he is a grateful dog. We are thrilled to have him, and he is full of thanksgiving for a loving home.

The research on gratitude mirrors what we believe to be true about Iggy. High levels of thankfulness correlate with many markers of flourishing. It is that research we will pursue this week as we approach Thanksgiving.

The Science of Gratitude

Gratitude is probably the most scientifically studied virtue. We could do a Thanksgiving edition every year and focus entirely on new research each time. We know the benefits of being grateful, and we know steps each of us can take to become more grateful. We even know how gratitude correlates with, and often cultivates, other virtues like optimism, humility, and forgiveness.

For those who are preparing a Thanksgiving lesson or sermon, a few highlights:

Gratitude has evolutionary roots and has been observed in other primates, and may be linked to the concept of “reciprocal altruism” seen in numerous other species.

  • The brain experiences gratitude in the frontal lobes where the two hemispheres meet, the same place associated with social bonding and stress relief.
  • There appears to be some natural aspect of gratitude: even fairly young children have some concept of it that develops as they mature.
  • Levels of gratitude are generally higher in females than in males.
  • Several studies suggest positive associations between religiosity and gratitude, but a few suggest otherwise. For example, while prayer has been shown to boost gratitude, priming people to think about religious concepts did not increase either gratitude or generosity.
  • Study after study has shown positive correlations between gratitude and health—specifically, lower levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Multiple interventions have been shown to increase levels of gratitude, and, in some cases, even offer some of the direct benefits associated with gratitude. Minimally, these interventions—such as a gratitude journal—boost happiness, well-being and positive mood.

The science suggests that one of the real benefits in gratitude is its orientation to the other, perhaps even if the “other” is God. As such, this science is relevant to ministry, serving the needs of the other, and even worship toward God, the source of all good things.

Give Thanks to God

Each day, I give thanks to God for Iggy—for his smiles and those he brings to my daughters. I’m thankful for the belly rubs, the walks, and the companionship. I think we both flourish, but my gratitude is oriented to the One who provides all good things. What I love about the virtue of gratitude is its orientation to worship.

Psalm 100 is one of the lectionary texts for Thanksgiving: “Enter [God’s] gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.” It is this connection—gratitude that leads to praise—that is for me the value of giving thanks. Along with awe and wonder, it is the emotion that most motivates me to worship.

As such, I try to cultivate gratitude as a spiritual discipline. I don’t keep a journal, and I’m not chasing after those health-and-happiness benefits. But my daily prayers are a way to cultivate gratitude—who and what am I thankful for today—and they also are as close as I get to daily worship. God is the source of all good things, and so in following 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18—with an intentional pairing of prayer, gratitude, and worship—I seek the will the God.

I don’t know if gratitude leads Iggy to pursue the will of God, or just the happiness that comes with another belly rub. Either way, I’ll keep rubbing.


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