Happy thanksgiving everyone!
I want to take this opportunity to share two insights about thankfulness/gratitude that I came across when researching for my book Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life, Even When Everything is Going Wrong.
The first insight is that thankfulness is good for your health. The second insight is that thankfulness is a skill anyone can develop with practice. Let’s start with the first.
Thankfulness is Good For Your Health
For thousands of years it has been common knowledge that we feel better when we take time to count our blessings. But only recently have we begun to understand the important role thankfulness plays in helping to preserve mental and physical health, strengthen the immune system, and promote resiliency.
Because of its ability to mitigate the effects of common problems like stress, depression, anxiety, and disordered cognitions, some people have suggested that a little thankfulness and gratitude (the terms are basically synonymous) each day may be even more effective than psychiatric drugs. “‘If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system,’ said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center.”[i]
Here is a smattering of some of the research on the health benefits of thankfulness:
- In 2015, researchers at the University of Southern California conducted fMRI scans on subjects who had been primed to feel thankful. “The researchers found that grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.”[ii]
- A body of research shows that a grateful outlook on life directly increases heart rate variability,[iii] which is itself associated with improved memory and greater cognitive functioning.[iv]
- “Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kindly, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.” [v]
- “Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health. They exercise more often and are more likely to attend regular checkups with their doctors, which is likely to contribute to further longevity.”[vi]
- “Gratitude can be a natural antidepressant. When we take the time to ask what we are grateful for, certain neural circuits are activated. Production of dopamine and serotonin increases, and these neurotransmitters then travel neural pathways to the ‘bliss’ center of the brain—similar to the mechanisms of many antidepressants. Practicing gratitude, therefore, can be a way to naturally create the same effects of medications and create feelings of contentment.”[vii]
- Gratitude helps people be resilient in the face of suffering. “A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for—even during the worst times of your life—fosters resilience.”[viii] Additional research confirms that grateful people are more resilient in the face of suffering and recover more quickly from stress.[ix]
This last point, regarding the relationship between gratitude/thankfulness and resilience, warrants further attention. In the early 2000s, a number of scholars studied gratitude against the backdrop of various specialties, including biology, history, spirituality, psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience. Their work was published by Oxford University Press in the 2004 book The Psychology of Gratitude. One of the most fascinating contributions to this volume was an essay by Robert Roberts titled “The Blessings of Gratitude.” Roberts, who teaches ethics at Baylor University, shared research showing that grateful people are more resilient when faced with the disappointments and challenges of life. Here is what Roberts wrote about this research:
“The constitutionally grateful person has a shield against . . . debilitating regrets because he or she is inclined to dwell on the favorable, rather than the regrettable. . . . A person with gratitude-readiness will tend to see what is good in situations and to notice less what is bad. The kind of unfortunate actions and events that make the constitutionally regretful person miserable may have occurred in the grateful one’s life as well, but the grateful person can move on from them, because his or her mind is tuned to happier things. . . .
Grateful people tend to be satisfied with what they have and so are less susceptible to such emotions as disappointment, regret, and frustration. People who believe in God as He is conceived in Christianity have an even more powerful resource for transcending many of the circumstances that disappoint, frustrate, and anger most of us. In consequence, grateful people, whether religious or not, will be less prone to emotions such as anger, resentment, envy, and bitterness, that tend to undermine happy social relations.”[x]
OK, so thankfulness is good for you. But what if I don’t feel thankful? Is it possible to cultivate thankfulness even when you are not feeling particularly thankful. The good news is that it is!
Thankfulness is a Skill You Can Develop With Practice
There is a popular misconception that gratitude practices flow out of a prior attitude of thankfulness or gratitude. But usually it works the other way around: we have a grateful attitude because we have first chosen to engage in gratitude practices.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown tells how she used to assume that joyful people were naturally grateful. But after interviewing hundreds of people about joy and gratitude and spending hours analyzing these case studies, a surprising pattern started to emerge. Brown’s research began showing that joy emerged out of a conscious choice to engage in gratitude activities. “Without exception,” Brown writes, “every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice. . . . When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice.”
Brown rightly distinguishes between a gratitude practice and a gratitude attitude. To simply say “I need to have a grateful attitude” is about as helpful as telling ourselves to have a dieting attitude or an exercise attitude. What counts is actually practicing gratitude in a tangible way. As St. John Chrysostom observed, “Learning contentment is an object of discipline, and exercise, and care, for it is not easy to attain, but very difficult, and a new thing.”
What do gratitude practices look like? Here are some examples that some people have chosen to adopt.
- Santiago works as a janitor for a large call center. One of his many duties includes taking out the garbage every morning. He has decided that each time he takes out the garbage, he will call to mind one thing to be grateful for. Throughout the rest of the day, if ever he feels stressed or maybe just needs an emotional uplift, he will return his attention to whatever he has chosen to be grateful for that day. He has now expanded this practice and also does it whenever he comes to a red light while driving. The red light is a signal to switch into what he calls “gratitude mode.”
- The Johnson family has a tradition that before dinner every member of the family will share something he or she is grateful for. No one is allowed to eat until every person has done this. The Johnson parents have also encouraged their children to put thankfulness stickers on the walls of their house as an opportunity for each child to share something or someone they are thankful for.
- Every morning Hannah starts off her day with a half-hour devotional time, in which she reads the Bible or a devotional book and then prays. Last month Hannah committed that during her devotional period, between her reading and prayer, she would bring to mind two things in her life that she is particularly grateful about. Then during her prayer she will thank God for those blessings. After practicing this for two weeks, Hannah began to find herself more joyful during the day.
- Ava has determined once a week to thank someone in her life who has blessed her. She will either email or phone the person, being sure to let the person know how much she appreciates them.
- Because gratitude does not come naturally in our culture of entitlement and grumbling, sometimes we need extra help in remembering to count our blessings. There are a number of gratitude journals available that give us the opportunity each day to recall something we are thankful for. My favorite is A Journal of Thanksgiving by Nicole Roccas (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2020).
Some of these techniques may seem artificial, but remember that thankfulness takes practice, just like learning a musical instrument. I’ve talked to a number of people who are able to play the piano with apparent spontaneity and who can use the instrument to express a high level of emotional sensitivity. When I ask these musicians how they have reached the point of being able to play so effortlessly, they tell me that it was through regimented practicing of things like scales and exercises, which felt artificial at the beginning. The research suggests that gratitude works on the same principle. By practicing gratitude as a skill, you create the conditions for the attitude to arise spontaneously.
Unfortunately, as gratitude has come to be a popular theme in the self-help industry, many people are becoming discouraged. People who have developed lifelong habits of ingratitude often feel demoralized after reading about the benefits of a thankful attitude. Taking a skills-based approach to gratitude offers hope for those who do not feel particularly grateful. The best thing about these techniques is that anyone can practice them, whether or not they feel grateful. And when you do this repeatedly over time, you actually change the wiring of your brain.
For further reading on this subject, see my article “Gratitude is an Emotion and a Skill” and my book Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life, Even When Everything is Going Wrong.
[i] Mikaela Conley, “Thankfulness Linked to Positive Changes in Brain and Body,” ABC News, November 23, 2011, www.abcnews.go.com/Health/science-thankfulness/story?id=15008148, accessed on March 15, 2020.
[ii] Adam Hoffman, “What Does a Grateful Brain Look Like?” Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, November 16, 2016, www.greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_does_a_grateful_brain_look_like, accessed on March 15, 2020.
[iii] Robert A Emmons and Michael E McCullough, The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), ch. 12.
[iv] HeartMath Institute, “Study Shows HeartMath Techniques Help Improve Memory,” HeartMath Institute, September 26, 2005, www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/science-of-the-heart/study-shows-heartmath-techniques-help-improve-memory/, accessed on March 15, 2020.
[v] Amy Morin, “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude That Will Motivate You to Give Thanks Year-Round,” Forbes, November 23, 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/, accessed on March 16, 2020.
[vi] Morin, “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits.”
[vii] Emily Fletcher, “The Neuroscience of Gratitude,” Huffington Post, November 24, 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/the-neuroscience-of-gratitude_b_8631392, accessed on March 15, 2020.
[viii] Morin, “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits”; see also Michele M. Tugade, Barbara L. Fredrickson, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, “Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health,” Journal of Personality 72, no. 6 (December 2004): 1161–90.
[ix] Robert Emmons, “Why Gratitude Is Good,” Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good, accessed on March 15, 2020.
[x] Robert A Emmons and Michael E McCullough, The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 70, 77.