Gratitude Research

Looking-up-with-gratitude-by-WJG

In recent years scientific research has validated the ancient wisdom of the Bible: ”Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.” (This is the most repeated verse in the Bible. See Psalm 136 for instance.)

Today there is a whole school of psychology called “Positive Psychology.” (It’s related to Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology.) In my studies as a Psychologist I have learned about this approach. It focuses on understanding thankfulness, conducting gratitude research, and utilizing therapeutic interventions aimed at increasing gratitude. Many, many research studies have been done to test the effects of a thankful attitude. The results show the tremendous benefits of being a grateful person.

Now we have all the more reason to learn to become the kind of person who is prepared to, “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-20).

Gratitude Research Results

Gratitude or being thankful is an attitude of appreciation for something good and beneficial that a person has received or will receive from another person or from God. Gratefulness is completed when it is expressed in words of thankfulness, smiles and hugs, or other gifts.

The gratitude research shows that thankfulness has the strongest link to mental health and physical well-being of any of the thirty most commonly studied personality traits. Some of the gratitude research goes beyond correlational research to show that gratitude actually has a causal effect on our well-being.

Compared to other people grateful people are:

  • Happier. Being thankful lowers depression and self-blame and increases optimism, energy, self-acceptance, and life satisfaction. It seems that the positive emotions associated with gratitude undo the painful and debilitating effects of negative emotions.
  • Less Stressed. Grateful people have lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in their bodies. They have better coping mechanisms to deal with personal difficulties and life transitions: they are quicker to seek help and less likely to avoid or deny their problems or to use drugs.
  • More Social. Being grateful is associated with increased social connections and leads to greater satisfaction in your relationships.
  • More Purposeful. Thankful people are more focused on their priorities and they are more mature in their personal growth.
  • Sleep Better. Grateful people think positive things before going to sleep and it greatly improves their sleep. They spend less time in bed unable to sleep and are more refreshed when they awake.
  • Fewer Health Complaints. People who are more thankful have fewer symptoms of physical illness. Their bodies have increased resistance to viral infections.
  • Increased Financial Well-Being. Grateful people are less likely to be greedy or envious. At the same time they are likely to have more wealth.
  • More Altruistic. Being thankful helps people to be more generous with others, giving of their time and money to help others. Surely, this is the most important finding of all! We are blessed by God to be a blessing to others! Being happier, more energetic, less stressed, and so forth helps us to be more effective in loving God and our neighbor.

Gratitude Research on Children

There has also been gratitude research studies focused on children. Kids who feel and act grateful, compared to those who don’t, are more satisfied with their friends, families, and schools. They set higher goals and get better grades. They are less materialistic. They complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches.

Gratitude Exercises

Some of the gratitude research focuses on the effects of particular gratitude exercises. Recently psychologists began using these gratitude exercises as therapeutic interventions, but thousands of years ago these exercises were taught in the Bible! I have found that these gratitude exercises work well with clients in psychotherapy and for anyone who is seeking to grow spiritually.

Here are a few examples of gratitude exercises that you can do to train with Jesus to become a more thankful person.

  • Gratitude Letter. Write a letter or a card to someone who has blessed you. Thank him or her for specific things they’ve done to encourage you. Offer affirmations for qualities you appreciate about them.
  • Gratitude Journal. Each day, write down the things you are grateful for. Try to identify new things that you haven’t appreciated before. Offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
  • Thankful Thoughts. What you think about is hugely significant! Spend a few minutes focusing your thoughts on the good things in your life that you’re thankful for. Turn your thoughts into gratitude prayers.
  • Gratitude Story. Write down a memory, story of appreciation, or affirmation of the characteristics of someone who has blessed you. It’s wonderful to do this about Jesus!

What the Secular Psychologists Don’t Understand

We can truly understand gratitude without studying the Bible. Sadly, most scientists and psychologists are not people who are putting their trust in Christ. God’s wisdom shines forth to us from “Bible Verses on Thankfulness.”

“Every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights” (James 1:17). If it weren’t for God, our Creator, and his generosity we wouldn’t have anything to be thankful for. (Of course, we wouldn’t even exist!) All of the good things we experience are blessings from God so in our expressions of gratitude we ought to focus especially on thanking God.

Also let’s be very clear on this: of all the blessings that we might be thankful for the one that far and away surpasses them all is the blessing of knowing God through Jesus Christ and helping others to know him too. This is the “surpassing greatness” that the Apostle Paul counted everything as garbage for (Philippians 3:8).

Thank God for God!

So the most important expression of gratitude is to thank God for God! This is often missed. Even at Thanksgiving time when we are especially mindful of offering thanks we may not go beyond giving thanks for our tangible, visible blessings like our food, health, material provisions, and loved ones. As students of Jesus Christ we ought to think careful about “Turkey and Prayer” and use this wonderful holiday wisely!

The one thing we can be thankful for anytime — in good times and bad times — is the presence of the risen Christ in our lives and the joy of being part of the Kingdom of the Heavens with him. We joy in Jesus! We joy in honoring him! We joy in serving him!

We see beyond physical reality and look with eyes of faith into spiritual reality where “in the heavenly realms” we have “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).

Don’t Seek the Blessings, Seek the Blessed One

Why do we thank God for God and for all of his blessings? Not to experience all the wonderful benefits of thankfulness promised in the Bible and the gratitude research! If we go about it that way we’ll miss the point. The point is to give thanks to God as an end in itself. It’s good and right to give thanks. It blesses God. It blesses other people.

What we’re talking about is much deeper than behaviors or emotions. We’re speaking of character, of becoming a certain kind of person, of being someone who seeks the Giver, not just his gifts.

Expressions of gratitude done in a spirit of genuine appreciation, faith, generosity, and, above all, love for Christ will bless us in all the ways described above and many more.

(For references on gratitude research studies read the Wikipedia article on Gratitude and the Wall Street Journal article, “Thank You. No, Thank You.”)