Part 3 of Positive Psychology Series
This series of articles on Positive Psychology began by introducing the field’s philosophy. Positive Psychology emphasizes human capability rather than pathology and seeks to enhance thriving rather than address dysfunction. In essence, it studies the positive side of human psychology. While pathology and dysfunction are certainly valid concepts to address, it would be folly to not address concepts such as personal strengths (how we are wired for good and beneficial things, which I addressed in the previous article) or gratitude.
A Social Emotion
Gratitude is a social emotion that revolves around two parties: the goodness of one person and the appreciation of the other. (Resentment may be the opposite of gratitude and is an interpersonal phenomenon that also requires another entity.) Imagine the powerful implications that gratitude has for relationships. These extend beyond the personal benefits of having a grateful mentality, which have been widely researched and shown to have astounding results. Gratitude brings life to grateful people, it affirms others and is a profound blessing to a relationship. An attitude of gratefulness is an encouragement to others who see it.
The Google dictionary defines gratitude as: “The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Psychology Today defines it as: “An emotion expressing appreciation for what one has.” A commonly accepted definition within Positive Psychology is: “Willingness to recognize that one has received a valuable positive outcome from another individual’s kindness … and the recognition that the individual intentionally provided this benefit, often at the cost of some personal benefit.” Note that gratitude is described as an emotion, but it is also defined as an act or expression – one must choose to be grateful. Moreover, gratitude is often described in the context of the kindness of another.
Gratitude is Good for Your Health
One of the reasons why gratitude is such a cardinal concept in Positive Psychology is the breadth of research showing that people who are grateful experience a wealth of benefits – including significant health benefits. Gratitude is linked with better sleep, fewer illnesses, a stronger heart, and relief from stress, depression, addictions, and other physical symptoms. Gratitude is actually linked with exercising more and experiencing higher levels of energy. While many of these health benefits cannot really be explained, some of them are the result of the mental and relational health benefits of gratitude. These include protection from depression, anxiety, phobias, and addictions, and a marked decrease in impaired body image and general anxiety disorder. Other effects of gratitude include an increase in life satisfaction, optimism, a feeling of connection to others (with a consequent decrease in loneliness), enthusiasm, and of course gratitude. Studies have also shown that gratitude has a lasting therapeutic effect.
What Does the Bible Say About Gratitude?
It is important to realize that people and circumstances can have more than one aspect – and this applies to both the good and bad. We can choose not only to see (or fear) the bad but also to look at and appreciate the good. I discuss with nearly every one of my clients what Jesus meant when He said: “The eye is the lamp of the body if your eye is good, your whole body will be filled with light. Here I see the truth that seeing (paying attention to, appreciating) what is good (what God is doing) will affect your whole internal state. The King James Version says: “…if your eye is single,” because your internal state is concerned with attention. The passage that follows it is about not being able to serve two masters or pay attention to both the goodness of God and the negativity of the world. Choosing to see the good in a person or in a circumstance is an act of gratitude.
When I began to seek wisdom as an adolescent and trusted the Holy Spirit as a teacher, one of the first things the Lord impressed strongly upon me was to live a lifestyle of appreciation: to find in my life the things I love, and to love what I have. Very recently, I was asking the Lord to bless and protect my marriage, and I simply heard the Lord say: “Have I not?” I then started praying the exact same prayers, but traded “Lord, please…” with “Lord, thank You for…” and it has changed my life.
A Grateful Heart is a Porthole for the Kingdom of God
The Lord’s recipe for the Peace that surpasses understanding (talk about mental health!) in Philippians 4 is to be anxious about nothing (don’t serve any “master” with your fear/attention) and to bring everything before the Lord with prayer, petition, and thanksgiving. We are called to be grateful and thankful in countless verses and Psalms throughout the Bible, especially in times of hardship. God knows that this will bring us life because thankfulness turns our attention from our problems onto what is good. It “fills [our] whole body with light.” God wants to heal us – and He knows that anxiety is a poison. God knows that a heart of appreciation changes one’s outlook and empowers one’s faith. He knows that appreciation gives life and anxiety takes life away. As the research suggests, God designed the soul to heal the body. A grateful heart is a porthole for the Kingdom of God to enter – and wherever God goes in this world His footprints are marked by healing.
We don’t have to have rain clouds in order to see the silver lining. God’s Great Commandment is that we are to love one another, especially the people close to us. Love is the strength that it takes to appreciate and see the good in these people – to be grateful for them and to see where they have been kind to us.
Exercises to Foster Gratitude
- Gratitude Journal
Write down three things that you are grateful for every day for a few weeks. Always write all three – make yourself find good things that you are grateful for to help you realize that they are always there. Write down the good event, and note why something happened. (E.g., “My coffee was fast, hot, and tasty this AM because my barista did their best for me.” Or, “My car isn’t pretty, but it gets great mileage because the maker focused on value.”) This is something I’ve had many clients do and they describe it as a good challenge that changes their focus and is very beneficial.
- Gratitude Visit
This is a very powerful intervention with a lasting impact. Write a letter to someone you are grateful for: be detailed, specific, and concrete about what they did, naming the actual events. Sending the letter is good, but making this into a hand-delivery visit is much better and the benefits of this exercise have been found to only be lasting for those who deliver the letter in person. Talking through the feelings involved in this process (debriefing) also has a powerful impact.
- Self-Gratitude Letter
Write a gratitude letter to yourself. Explain why you are grateful to yourself for the things you do, the decisions you have made, the principles you hold, and the achievements you have accomplished that matter to you. Seal it, and ask someone you trust to mail it to you in the future.
- Good-in-the-Hard Journal
This is a stretching practice that fits well with the Biblical call to gratitude in hardship and perseverance. Simply keep a gratitude journal that is specifically concerned with something that you have a hard time with (e.g., your job, your family, your class, even an illness). There is a positive side to something just as surely as there is a negative side. Finding the positive is a choice and in some cases a hard one that offers growth.
Christian Counseling to Recognize Your Reasons to Praise
If you would like to engage in Christian counseling from a praise-based perspective, please contact me here to inquire about setting up a session. As a Christian counselor, it would be my pleasure to join with you and help you realize how gratitude and praise can change your life. Although this can sometimes mean “putting on the sacrifice of praise,” you will learn that it becomes easier and easier. You will enjoy the peace and confidence of knowing that God inhabits the praise of his people in so many positive and healthy ways.
“gratitude and rust,” courtesy of Shannon Kringen, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Deepam (Light),” courtesy of shine oa, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)