Gratitude

This week’s exploration of the kind of good fruit our lives can bear returns to the character strength of Gratitude. I say ‘returned,’ because it’s a subject that I’ve already visited a few times on the blog. Gratitude has been an important touchstone for Christian living for centuries, and has proven to be low-hanging fruit for psychologists seeking to understand and improve human wellbeing. 

According to the psychologists at the VIA Institute on Character Strengths, “gratitude involves feeling and expressing a deep sense of thankfulness in life, and more specifically, taking the time to genuinely express thankfulness to others.” This can be triggered by something specific, such as receiving a gift, or from a generalized awareness of what is valuable — good, true and beautiful — to you.

Gratitude has many benefits, including increased positive feelings and decreased focus on the self. This means that not only does being grateful make us happier, but, in recognizing that there is goodness whose source is outside of us, it makes us humbler, and in recognizing the gifts we have received, it makes us kinder. In this way, gratitude encourages the development of other character strengths, such as kindness, love, humility, and even forgiveness. These psychological benefits of gratitude have been shown to have positive impacts on physical health as well, particularly in cardiovascular and immune functioning. As I previously mentioned in my post on the Three Good Things practice, Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, explained that gratitude “works because it changes your focus from the things that go wrong in life to things that you might take for granted that go well and changing your focus to things that go well breaks up depression and increases happiness.” Reminding ourselves of the good things in life also helps to combat hedonic adaptation, the tendency for us to get less joy from things over time. 

With all these benefits, it’s no wonder that gratitude is a core element of most religious traditions. In my own Judeo-Christian tradition, much of the sacrificial system of the covenant of Moses involved thanksgiving sacrifices (see, for example Leviticus 7). This is a helpful reminder for Christians who often assume sacrifices were primarily about sin offerings. Instead, the idea being that we offer part (usually the first part) of what we have received from God back to God as a recognition of the gift and that we are dependent on something beyond ourselves for the goodness we have received, is at the heart of the ancient Hebrew sacrificial system. This sensibility has been continued in the liturgical traditions of at least some of Christianity. The quintessential Christian act of worship, commonly known as “Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper,” is called the Eucharist, which is Greek for thanksgiving. In offering up the bread and wine to God in thanksgiving — in gratitude — they are given back to us as the Body and Blood of Christ. The great liturgical theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann, considered this act to fundamental to our humanity. He suggested that our true name is not homo sapiens but homo adorans: the worshiping human. (See his wonderful book, For the Life of the World for more on this line of thought.) 

The miraculous thing is that, through these intentional acts of gratitude — whether the Eucharist or something as simple as a gratitude journal — gratitude begins to seep into our everyday life, extending beyond the practices to our entire way of looking at the world. And it is through this movement that we can truly live up to the Apostle Paul’s difficult deal: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thes. 5.18). 

A lack of gratitude can rob life of much of its joy. Worse still is the opposite of gratitude: entitlement, the belief that we are owed everything that comes to us and still more. These focus our attention on what we don’t have and give us a closed, defensive posture toward the world, rather than remember all the blessings that we do have. The shadow side of gratitude is ingratiation or obsequiousness. While proper gratitude improves our relationships, ingratiation is rooted not in genuine thankfulness but in anxiety and an ego that longs to be stroked. This can harm relationships because it comes across both as needy and fake. 

How can we increase our strength of gratitude? Here are some simple places to start:

  • Martin Seligman’s Three Good things practice (scroll up for the link).
  • Radical gratitude practice
  • Take a few seconds to ask yourself “What else can I be grateful for right now?”
  • When a loved one or colleague does something you appreciate, write them a short but heartfelt thank you note. This can work well at work too; if you really want to be cheeky about it, copy your colleague’s manager on the email.

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