While writing this newsletter, I got up from my desk and walked outside. Even in the midst of a lingering pandemic, the autumn leaves seemed to wave and greet me. Before I knew it, I was filled with gratitude.
This experience brought to mind something I’d recently discovered from the ethicist Michael Josephson: “The world has enough beautiful mountains and meadows, spectacular skies, and serene lakes. It has enough lush forests, flowered fields, and sandy beaches. It has plenty of stars and the promise of a new sunrise and sunset every day. What the world needs more of is people to appreciate and enjoy it.”
Indeed, it’s true. If we follow the sunbeam back to the Sun, we’ll find ample evidence to spur on our gratitude.
A definition I like for gratitude comes from Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough: “In positive psychology, gratitude is the human way of acknowledging the good things of life. Psychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive on giving or receiving a benefit from someone.” Kristin Armstrong puts it another way. She says, “When we focus on our gratitude, the tide of disappointment goes out and the tide of love rushes in.”
Likewise, the science of psychology reminds us that when we practice gratitude, we live healthier and more fulfilling lives.
I’m grateful for gratitude because, when we practice it, life is better. Paul reminds us, in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, that even when life is hard, we’d do well to “be thankful [grateful] in all circumstances” (NLT).
I’m grateful for gratitude because it leads to praising life and to praising God for life. As St. Clive (C.S. Lewis) succinctly phrased it, “Praise is inner health made audible.” Science and Scripture agree.
- Greater Good Magazine explores “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.”
- USC scientists have found that “Practicing gratitude can have profound health benefits.”
- Mr. Jukes has written one of my favorite recent music celebrations of gratitude. (To add to my appreciation of the song, I’m also learning the bass line.)
- The title of this piece says it all: “The Science of Gratitude – How it Changes People, Relationships (and Brains!) and How to Make it Work For You”
- World Vision offers these “20 Bible Verses About Thankfulness to God.”
- Naturally, there’s complexity when we approach gratitude as a Christian practice for our congregations. Watch this short video (3:03) from Kate Bowler, and this prayer that acknowledge gratitude is beneficial, but it’s not a cure-all and isn’t the only tool to alleviate suffering.
The Good Gratitude Does
Can we create churches full of gratitude? I can become a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of scientific studies on gratitude, let alone the many times the Bible reminds us to: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” (Psalm 106:1). Here’s a laundry list of all the benefits for being grateful either individually, or better yet, corporately:
Practicing gratitude improves our attitude toward others and our ability to contribute at work. U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons’s “Three Surprising Ways That Gratitude Works at Work” says that 1) Practicing gratitude helps us sleep better; 2) reduces excessive entitlement; and 3) enables us to contribute more to organizations. Since I love a good night’s sleep, I’ll highlight the first one. “Grateful people enjoy more restful, restorative, and refreshing sleep and reap the benefits at work the next day” (Emmons).
According to Harvard Health, “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier,” which sounds good to me. Imagine a sort of gratitude jujitsu, where gratitude uses opponents’ momentum to deflect their attack. When I give thanks for things that I both treasure and that overwhelm me, gratitude deflects stress. For example, waking up early to prepare for teaching, instead of highlighting that there’s too much to do, I can turn to gratitude for what I’m learning about Karl Jung and Karl Barth and for the opportunity to introduce my students to their ideas.
A more serious, yet inspiring, example comes from psychologist and researcher Christina Costa, who was working on her Ph.D. when an MRI scan revealed a large brain tumor in her right temporal lobe that was later diagnosed as grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma. In her wildly popular TEDx talk, “Kiss Your Brain: The Science of Gratitude,” Costa describes how she’s able to practice gratitude for her brain, even as cancer has invaded it.
Gratitude helps us fight the effects of anxiety and grief. This article highlights an experience that many of us feel in a COVID-19 world: “The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief.” It’s related to a topic that Drew highlighted two weeks ago (hope as antidote for despair).
So, Let’s Get Practical
- Find something positive in your life and choose to be grateful for it. Here I’ll simply quote the famous author and rabbi Harold Kushner, who said, “If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.”
- Write it down. As NPR news declares, “If You Feel Thankful, Write It Down. It’s Good For Your Health.”
- Let’s learn to say “Enough.” As Paul writes in Philippians 4:11-13, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (NRSV). He adds that we are content when we realize “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
For all these reasons, I’m grateful for gratitude.
And, newsletter readers, I’m also grateful for the way you seek to integrate faith and science.
P.S. We’re thankful for this too: Congratulations to our newsletter editor, Christine A. DiPasquale, in her new role as Interim Director at Religion News Association!