Very few things are more American than gathering the family around the table for a turkey dinner with all the trimmings and a seemingly endless showing of football games to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. On this day, we take time off our busy schedules to remember God’s goodness as a tangible demonstration of our gratitude. But what is gratitude? Is it simply an emotion? Is it a virtue? Or is it a state of mind? Even when we intuitively understand gratitude, a more concrete definition seems to elude our grasp.
Merriam-Webster defines gratitude as the state of being grateful or exhibiting thankfulness, mapping to the idea of being mindful and appreciative of the good things we receive. Along these lines, psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough present gratitude as a dual process where we recognize obtaining a positive outcome and acknowledge the source of this outcome as outside ourselves. In other words, gratitude is recognizing our blessings and acknowledging that people around us play an essential role in realizing these blessings. After all, like Reuben Welch, an old Nazarene pastor, said, “We really do need each other.”
During the last few decades, we have seen far-reaching advances in the study of the quantifiable benefits of gratitude. For example, scientists at UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center discovered that gratitude substantially contributes to personal well-being, physical health, and social interrelations. Moreover, they describe gratitude as the “social glue” that connects, sustains, and nurtures human relationships.
The Intersectionality of Gratitude
Gratitude is powerful. Perhaps this is why the biblical writer reminds us of the importance of giving thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). In a strange way, a sustained attitude of thankfulness helps us focus on the interconnectedness of life. Emmons, who is a professor of psychology at UC Davis, suggests that gratitude helps us realize that we would not be where we are without the help of others. In other words, gratitude provides a path to embrace everything (i.e., the places, the experiences, the people, etc.) that make up our lives and make us who we are.
Juxtaposed with the harshness and cruelty that delineate our social context, practicing gratitude helps us celebrate the goodness present in our world. It helps us build a scaffolding that supports and anchors the meaningful contributions of others, the goodness of the human heart, the generosity of others, and the importance of human interactions. Therefore, gratitude reinforces our relationships with others, fosters generosity, makes us feel secure and connected, and decreases negative feelings and depression.
The study of gratitude highlights that more than being happy or content with the positive aspects of our lives (i.e., those things that are going according to our plans), gratitude embodies a willingness to look beyond what seems obvious to recognize the goodness that envelops our existence. In 1 Chronicles 16:34, we are instructed to give thanks to God because his goodness and his steadfast love are his enduring promise to us. Ergo, the door that is held open for us, the welcoming smile greeting us from behind the counter, the tear shared in deep conversation, the camaraderie in our workspace, and the warm embrace of our loved ones are the interconnected building blocks of life that should move us towards gratitude.
- Forbes’ Kevin Kruse examines how gratitude and thankfulness impact our brains and professional performance.
- In the video “An Experiment in Gratitude,” SoulPancake explores what makes people happy using an experimental approach.
- In this article, The John Templeton Foundation unpacks insights and open questions from the science of gratitude.
- Psychologist Courtney E. Ackerman with Positive Psychology offers twenty-eight benefits associated with gratitude.
- In the video “The Science of Gratitude & How to Build a Gratitude Practice,” the Huberman Lab Podcast discusses the science of gratitude and introduces highly effective gratitude practices.
- Greg considers the personal impact of gratitude and provides practical advice for gratitude.
- Need help cultivating gratitude? Greater Good Magazine provides a comprehensive list of science-based activities for cultivating gratitude.
The Benefits of Gratitude
Psychologist Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury posits that being thankful (e.g., to others, to self, and to God) will “enlighten the mind and make us feel happier.” Chowdhury suggests that gratitude increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in our brains, which are crucial for positive emotions. Focusing on Emmons and McCullough’s framework of gratitude, she highlights some of its overarching benefits. First, gratitude has psychological benefits. Gratitude engenders optimism, selflessness, spirituality, empathy, and high self-esteem generating true happiness. These elements work together to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. Second, gratitude has social benefits. By helping us focus on the positive things in life, gratitude fosters empathy, better communication, stronger interpersonal relationships, community-building behaviors, and sustained relationships. Third, gratitude has physical benefits. Gratitude helps us maintain a more robust immune system, reduces body pain, supports optimal blood pressure and cardiac function, and promotes healthy sleep-wake cycles.
Also, gratitude has demonstrable effects on the human brain. For example, gratitude promotes cognitive restructuring leading to positive thinking by fostering an active awareness and change of negative thought patterns. Additionally, gratitude moderates fear and anxiety by regulating the production of cortisol and other stress-related hormones. Lastly, gratitude wires and enables new neural paths and connections to the brain’s bliss center.
It is not surprising that one of the central themes in the Bible maps to practicing thankfulness, rejoicing, and gratitude. Just take a moment and meditate on these words: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1, NRSV).
In a couple of weeks, we will sit at our tables with our families. As we prepare for this joyous occasion, there will be excitement, strong emotions, and expectation. Look around the table. There will probably be new people. Maybe, there’s an empty chair that belonged to a departed loved one. Perhaps, you are feeling the pain of a strained relationship. There is even possibly a strange-looking casserole dish waiting to be passed around the table. Approach this moment with gratitude. Give thanks to God for the opportunity of celebrating the relationships represented at that table. Be glad for his provision. And bask in the power of gratitude.
In Nobis Regnat Iesus,