This is the Christmas season, so I thought it would be a great time to reflect on gratitude. At Christmas time I and my fellow Christians celebrate the gift that God gave us in the form of His Son, Jesus. Unfortunately, Christmas in our culture has become littered with materialism and excess, just as much in Christian circles as in society at large. It’s a paradox of sorts. We set a time apart to be grateful and wind up using that time to get more stuff to (supposedly) make us happier. We ask our children, “What are you getting for Christmas?” Or, “What is Santa gonna bring you this Christmas?” We make the season about getting instead of about being grateful for what we already have. I could easily stand on that soapbox for another 20 pages or so, but I’ll refrain.
Ebenezer Scrooge was an ingrate and a generally unpleasant and insufferable person. As his story unfolds however, he is changed by what was by all accounts a spiritual awakening. He becomes generous, a behavior often associated with gratitude. And he becomes happy and cheerful, emotions that frequently accompany gratitude. Scrooge’s story of transformation is told to all of our children as some sort of object lesson. We tell our kids the story hoping they will catch the importance of generosity and gratefulness and grow up to be thankful and people who give back to society. We want our kids to catch those things because we recognize, along with the ancient philosopher Cicero, that gratitude is “the mother of all virtues.” Aesop further concludes that gratitude is, “The sign of noble souls.”
In the next two posts I want to tackle gratitude from several different angles. I want to talk about the benefits of gratitude, what blocks us from being more grateful, and what makes gratitude so hard. I’ll also make a few miscellaneous observations and offer some perspectives. Most of what I’ll include in the posts has some relevance to me and my own journey. But I think the talking points I address also have relevance to a good many others and the culture in which we live.
Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude increases general happiness. One study I read for this post cited research that concluded that a 5-minute daily gratitude journal increases happiness to the same degree as doubling your income. It notes, however, that while we would get used to the income increase and take it for granted, gratitude is a virtue that can remain constant over time.
Gratitude leads us to be more generous. Data from the IRS indicates that Americans contribute less than 5% to charitable causes on an annual basis. Gratitude causes people to be happy with whatever they have, whether it’s a lot or a little. That makes it easier to let go of what we have because grateful people don’t believe that the more they have, the happier they will be. Unfortunately, a lot of people in our culture do indeed believe that, so they hang on to what they have and try desperately to get more and more.
Gratitude leads to generally better mental health. This is a given in clinical mental health. What’s unfortunate though, is that we clinicians have to “teach” gratitude as a “skill” to our patients, presumably because they don’t already have that “skill.” More specifically, gratitude alleviates anxiety because it encourages acceptance of reality. So much of our anxiety as people comes because we see reality as unacceptable and something that needs to change…. Reality doesn’t respond well to attempts to change it.
Gratitude helps us better notice the positives of life. In our culture, we spend a lot of energy trying to influence the future in our favor. Gratitude, as an intentional act, points out the good in our lives. This is particularly true of our relationships. Gratitude helps us notice in the ways that the people around us bless us, instead of focusing on our needs that they do not meet.
Gratitude draws people to us. Being grateful causes others to gravitate to us. People like other people who are happy and contented, and tend to move away from unhappy and anxious people who never seem satisfied with their lives.
Gratitude helps fight off materialistic attitudes. Our corporate culture banks on people being unsatisfied with what they have. It also counts on people’s materialism. From jewelry to cars, companies try to sell us the lie that true satisfaction in life is just one purchase away. Buy their product and all will be perfect. And what’s crazy is we fall for it year after year after year.
Gratitude helps us connect to God (who wants to be our all in all). Gratitude helps us pull away from the busy-ness and notice the work that God is doing inside of us. Gratitude is mostly an internally generated virtue. It defocuses the external and tries to focus on internal cues. It helps us take a moral and spiritual inventory of ourselves, and it opens us up to internal cues that come from God. It, then, is easier to hear God speak when we are grateful. And when we hear Him speak, it gives us the opportunity to respond to Him.
Gratitude helps us live in the moment. Ingratitude, by nature, causes us to look to the future for satisfaction and to the past and its disappointments. Living in the moment (mindfulness) allows us to take time and focus on the goodness of *this* moment. When looking at a rose, we can notice the rose in all its beauty. When talking on the phone to our wife, we can notice how much we like to hear her voice. When washing the dishes, we can appreciate the fact that we have running water. But mindful awareness must be done intentionally. It won’t happen if we just keep doing life as usual.
Gratitude leads us to appreciate others for what they are instead of what they aren’t. Human beings are imperfect. Gratitude allows us to look past the imperfections and notice the beauty that usually escapes us. There is beauty in everyone, no matter how obscured that beauty may have become.
Gratitude improves the quality of relationships. Gratitude improves trust. Gratitude also guides people toward the other people in their lives instead of away from them. It might be said that many affairs begin with ingratitude. Marriages start seeming mundane after a few years, and the other side of the fence starts looking appealing.
Gratitude makes us less vulnerable to depression. Gratitude helps take our minds off of negative thoughts. There is also some support in research that gratitude makes us more hopeful and helps us sleep better. Gratitude leads people to connect with others, which helps fight off the depressive tendency to isolate and withdraw.
Gratitudes helps us experience other positive emotions. If it can be said that anger is the gateway to negative emotions, it can also be said that gratitude is the gateway to positive ones. Optimism, warmth, satisfaction, trust…. Who couldn’t use some more of those?
Gratitude helps us relax. Gratitude helps activate the parasympathetic part of our autonomic nervous systems. So, gratitude can actually alter your biochemistry. Gratitude helps keep our bodies from activating the “fight or flight” response, which is responsible for most of our anxiety.
In the next post I’ll address why gratitude seems so hard, and I’ll identify some “gratitude blockers.” I’ll conclude with some general observations and personal perspectives.