“Give thanks with a grateful heart, give thanks to the Holy One, Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ His Son …”
I still remember those words from a song we often sang at the Good Counsel Friary and Light of Life community at St. John’s in Morgantown, West Virginia, where my new life in the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) began in 1977.
Officially, I was born on the eve of Thanksgiving in 1958 when, according to my mom, there was hardly any hospital staff on duty … everyone was home preparing for the holiday. But nearly 60 years ago, I came into the world born of two New York, Jewish parents who tried their best to give my brother and I a life filled with hope and promise. However, life got in the way and our home (like many) was filled with tragedy and despair.
Becoming a God-follower more than 35 years ago changed all of that – slowly, sometimes painfully, but completely – and now I share and speak and write (in any and every way I can) about the goodness and totally transformative Love of God for us. And so, it is only fitting at this time of personal and national Thanksgiving that I share why and how we can give thanks in all circumstances!
How often do you say thank you – either in spoken or written word? Would it surprise you to learn that scientific research has shown that people who have gratitude also have greater happiness?
Gratitude helps people:
Feel more positive emotions;
Enjoy good experiences;
Improve their health;
Deal with adversity; and
Build strong relationships.
The word gratitude comes from the Latin word, gratia, which means grace, graciousness or gratefulness. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what a person receives. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. Dr. Robert Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, has done much research on gratitude. He writes, “A decade worth of research on gratitude has shown me that when life is going well, gratitude allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness.
“But what about when life goes badly? I have often been asked if people can – or even should – feel grateful under dire circumstances? My response is that not only will a grateful attitude help – it is essential. In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.” He adds, of course, that gratitude will not come easily or naturally in a crisis.
No one feels grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health. But it is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t necessarily have control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. But feelings do flow from the way we look at the world. Being grateful is a choice, he states, a prevailing attitude, a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Yes, he admits, this perspective may be hard to achieve – but his research and the research done by others – says it is worth it to make the effort.
Ironically, trials and suffering can actually refine and deepen gratefulness if we allow them to show us not to take things for granted. Thanksgiving was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression. Why? When times are good, people take prosperity for granted and begin to believe they are invulnerable. But in times of uncertainty, it becomes much harder to take for granted all that we have. So crisis can make us more grateful and research shows us that gratitude can actually help us cope with crisis.
Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress. To say, however, that gratitude is a helpful strategy does not mean that we try to ignore or deny suffering or pain. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. Instead it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity.
You can do this by thinking:
What lessons did the experience teach me?
How am I now more the person I want to be because of this experience?
What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me and that I will now be able to use in other ways in life?
There are also medical advantages to gratitude. Researchers at the University of Connecticut found that gratitude can have a protective effect against heart attacks. Studying people who had experienced a heart attack, the researchers found that those patients who saw benefits and gains from their heart attack, such as becoming more appreciative of life, experienced a lower risk of having another heart attack.
Grateful people will:
Have 10% fewer stress-related illnesses;
Be more physically fit;
Have blood pressure than is lower by 12%;
Will have a strong bond with the local community;
Will have a roughly 7% higher income than others.
Grateful youth are:
20% more likely to get good grades;
10 times less likely to start smoking.
Overall positive emotions can add up to 7 years to your life! So how do we actually do this?
1. Change your self-talk. We all carry an inner dialogue that is often called self-talk. When the inner conversation is negative, our mood is usually low. Research has shown that we can change our mood by changing the tone of the things we say to ourselves.
2. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Record several things that you are grateful for. The important thing is establishing the daily practice of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events and write them down. Did you hear the birds singing this morning? Did you see a beautiful sunrise? Are you feeling good? Is there money in the bank? Do you have friends and family with whom you share your life?
3. Write thank you notes. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationships with others by writing thank you notes. You remember how good it makes you feel to receive a thank you note. Think how happy you will make someone to receive one!
4. Hang around with people who are grateful and make a commitment to be one of those people!
Here are just a few quotes on gratitude:
“We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.”
– Neal Maxwell
“Life isn’t fair, but it is still good. It is never too late to be happy. But it is all up to you and no one else. However good or bad a situation is, it will change. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.” – Regina Brett
“What we appreciate, appreciates.” – Lynne Twist
“There is no key to happiness. The door is always open.”
“Do the math … count your blessings.”
“Laugh every day, it is like inner jogging.”
“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall outlast everyone and not be bent out of shape!”
“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones,” Proverbs 17:22.
“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,”
1 Thessalonians 5:18.
And my mom’s life verse which has now become mine:
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His love endures forever!” – Psalms 118:1.