Each November, as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, the word gratitude seems to pop up more frequently. You’ve probably come across gratitude challenges, prompts for journaling about what you’re thankful for, and reminders to share around the dinner table.But does part of you feel like being thankful is a bit useless? You’re happy to thank God for your blessings, but what else is there to it? Or, maybe you’ve struggled with the thought that thanking God for your morning coffee or your new iPhone is too self-focused.
Either way, you might feel like gratitude is a bit of a platitude, something you do because you’re supposed to.
But the truth is, gratitude is so much more than a quick acknowledgment of today’s pleasant conveniences. Not only is gratitude a Biblical habit, but it’s also a historic virtue and a treasure trove of scientific research has shown us the benefits of gratitude for our brains, health, and relationships.
Let’s dive into some more details about the habit of being grateful, and how it can make a difference in our faith, relationships, and everyday lives.
What is gratitude?
G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is truly thankful and has no one to thank.” Although gratitude has become something of a trend in recent years, how can a secular culture truly embrace it as a discipline?
A vague sense of being thankful for your blessings isn’t really gratitude. Yes, you can show thankfulness to other people, but what about things in your life that aren’t the direct result of another person’s actions?
Let’s keep in mind that gratitude is meant to be directed to God. Otherwise, it is an empty enjoyment of the good things in life.
What does it mean to be grateful?
Gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” We can see in this definition that gratitude starts in our thoughts and emotions, in the attitude we have about the good things we’ve received.
The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratus, which means “thankful or pleasing.” The Roman orator Cicero considered gratitude to be “the parent of all virtues.” Throughout church history, gratitude was also considered to be a spiritual discipline – a devout habit to help Christians partake of daily grace and draw closer to God.
What does the Bible say about gratitude?
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. – 1 Corinthians 16:34
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. – Philippians 4:6
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. – Colossians 3:16
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. – Psalm 107:8-9
Gratitude in Scripture is often found in corporate worship settings, in the conversation and fellowship of members of the local church, and of course, in prayer. In the Philippians passage above, we can see that gratitude goes hand in hand with prayer as a way to battle anxiety.
Gratitude isn’t meant to be inward-directed and focused on the individual. It’s about God’s work in the world and the spiritual blessings he gives. It’s okay and good to be grateful for every small blessing he gives us, but as we do that, we can remember others who are not so blessed, causing us to cultivate compassion.
How being grateful impacts us
Psychologists have noted two aspects of gratitude that lead to positive effects on the person who is grateful: catharsis and reciprocity. In other words, cultivating a mindset of gratitude helps release emotions, and favorably impacts relationships based on habits of reciprocal kindness.
Christianity Today has this to say about gratitude:
“Studies show that grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. They are more forgiving and supportive than those who are ungrateful. They are less depressed, stressed, envious, and anxious. In fact, high levels of gratitude explain more about psychological well-being than 30 of the most commonly studied personality traits, according to two recent studies published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.”
Here are some other benefits of gratitude, based on the different areas of life it can improve:
Spiritual benefits of gratitude
Remember God’s blessings
The Blazing Center notes three ways that gratitude happens in a spiritual context. The first is by remembering God’s blessings. When we think back to what he has done in the past, both in history and in our own lives and those of others around us, we can be grateful for everything he has done.
Appreciate God’s blessings now
The second way is by appreciating God’s blessings now. We can look at our lives, even when we are going through suffering, and see many ways in which God has blessed us. When we notice those things, we can appreciate what he’s done even in the darkest times of life.
The third way is by cultivating contentment. This is both part of gratitude and an outcome of it. The more we notice the blessings in our lives, the more content we will be with our circumstances.
Emotional and mental benefits of gratitudeGratitude is positively correlated with happiness. In one study, people who wrote about gratitude, even just a few sentences a week, were happier, more likely to exercise, and less likely to visit a doctor.
A habit of being grateful also has a myriad of benefits for mental health. According to Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, thankfulness can help to rewire your brain, creating new neural pathways that allow you to see the good in your life more easily. Conscious Lifestyle Magazine notes that gratitude has been shown to reduce both anxiety and depression.
Physical benefits of gratitude
Here are the ways gratitude can help improve your physical well-being:
- Better overall health
- Better sleep
- Increased chance of longevity
- Increased dopamine
- Decreased pain levels
- Stress relief
- Increased energy
Relational benefits of gratitude
Gratitude also is shown to affect the people around the grateful person, leading to more cooperation. Gratitude and kindness work in tandem in the small, everyday moments to facilitate good relationships (Positive Psychology).
How to Be More Grateful
Pick new things to be grateful for
What are practical ways to cultivate gratitude in your everyday life? Psychologist Allison Davis says that if you’re trying to start a gratitude practice, it’s important to choose new things each day, not things that you’ve already recognized in the past. And it’s okay and normal to notice simple things as a reason to be grateful. Always working to notice something new will train your brain to see the good in your life.
Keep a gratitude journal
A substantial amount of the research around gratitude focuses on the practice of keeping a gratitude journal (possibly because it is a measurable way to record participants’ practice).
In one study, participants who kept a gratitude journal reported a 30% or more decrease in their depressive symptoms as long as they kept up with it. Happier Human also notes that “A 5-minute a day gratitude journal can increase your long-term wellbeing by more than 10%.”
Cultivate new habits
Cultivate a habit of noticing the good things, recognizing them in a creative way, and remembering who you’re thanking. Recognize that no matter who else knows, your gratitude will please the Lord, and impact your life and others for the better.
If you want to see benefits from a gratitude practice, Dr. Davis recommends writing down three brand-new things each day to focus on. Keep a journal and write them down simply and in list format. You can also turn them into a prayer, thanking God for what he’s done and the blessings in your life.
Do a Bible study on gratitude and spiritual blessings.
You can approach the study of gratitude in a topical format, looking for examples of thanksgiving in Scripture, or you can read through portions of the Bible, focusing on the blessings God gives to his people, and thank him for those blessings.
Gratitude is a powerful way to acknowledge God’s gifts and reframe your perspective on life. Take a moment to focus on those good gifts today, and allow God to work in your heart through the practice of gratitude.
“Set Table”, Courtesy of Hannah Busing, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forest Road”, Courtesy of Jenny Caywood, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Give. Thanks.”, Courtesy of Simon Maage, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Victory”, Courtesy of Guillaume de Germain, Unsplash.com, CC0 License