Someone recently asked me (Nathan) to define the opposite of thankfulness. Many individuals consider envy and covetousness as opposites to thankfulness. In some ways they are right. Psychologically, however, fear and thankfulness operate in a mutually exclusive manner. That is, recent research shows that the brain cannot physically process fear while simultaneously processing thankfulness. Thus, research and the Bible agree, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV). Love produces thankfulness, which in turn excludes fear. So thankfulness operates as an antidote to fear. Ministers answer the call to service out of love. As their love for others builds, fear decreases. And as they develop thankfulness, they also feel less fearful.
Anxiety disorders routinely disable some ministers. Effective medications calm those with an anxiety disorder; however, thankfulness also calms anxiety. The spiritual exercise of counting one’s blessings provides as much of an emotional lift as a spiritual lift.
Thankfulness: why is it important?
Emmons and McCullough (2003) looked at gratitude and thanksgiving in everyday life. For ten weeks, subjects were asked to complete a weekly log of their emotions, physical symptoms, and health behaviors. One-third of them were asked to simply record up to five major events or circumstances that most affected them during the week. One-third of the subjects were asked to write five hassles or minor stressors that occurred in their life in the past week. The final third were asked to write five things in their lives for which they were grateful. Additionally, they evaluated their life as a whole during the past week and their expectation for the upcoming week.
At the conclusion of ten weeks, the three groups showed significant differences. Relative to the hassles and events group, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about their expectations for the upcoming week. Over all, the thankful group reported fewer physical complaints than the hassles group and spent significantly more time exercising than the subjects in the other two groups. Please access the YouTube playlist referenced on page 31 and view the video titled “Robert Emmons: The Power of Gratitude.”
Additionally, a daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercise) resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others). There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.
Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.
The gratitude intervention seemed to cause an interesting side effect. At the beginning of the study, individuals were asked to write down six goals or projects they intended to pursue over the next two months. Two months later, they evaluated the degree of progress they had made on each of these six pursuits. Specifically, they were asked to rate how successful they had pursued their goals, noting how much progress they had made toward each goal and how satisfied they felt with their amount of progress. On average, participants who had been in the gratitude group reported making more progress toward their goals than participants in the other two groups. This fascinating finding suggests that the benefits of an attitude of gratitude extend beyond the domain of mood and well-being to encompass more specific indicators of successful living—the attainment of concrete goals in life. The study provides empirical confirmation of the saying that “thanksgiving leads to having more to give thanks for,” and that there are benefits to “counting one’s blessings, one by one” (Templeton, 1997).
In a follow-on study of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy, positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality—relative to a control group.
Interestingly, my (Nathan’s) father contracted Parkinson’s disease eight years ago. Parkinson’s disease ALWAYS includes bouts of deep clinical depression. Recently, I heard my father say,”I am so thankful for Parkinson’s disease.” Wow, I felt dumbfounded. But he went on to say that due to Parkinson’s disease he can now spend all day communing with God. And my father’s level of depression has been quite minimal compared to most of the other patients.
Other important benefits of gratefulness include:
Well-Being: Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, and lower levels of depression and stress. The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions. Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.
Pro-sociality: People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have the capacity to be empathic and to take the perspective of others. They are rated as more generous and more helpful by people in their social networks (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002).
Spirituality: Those who regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities such as prayer (and reading religious material) are more likely to feel grateful. Grateful people are more likely to acknowledge a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and a commitment and responsibility to others (McCullough et. al., 2002).
Materialism: Grateful individuals place less importance on material goods. They are less likely to judge their own and others’ success in terms of possessions accumulated, less envious of wealthy persons, and more likely to share their possessions, compared to less grateful persons.
Gratefulness: not the same as indebtedness
Ministers and especially missionaries sometimes report feelings of indebtedness to churches that support them, and even to God. In studying the difference between gratefulness and indebtedness, Gray & Emmons (2000) found that people who write about being indebted to others report higher levels of anger and lower levels of appreciation, happiness, and love—relative to people who write about being grateful. Additionally, the experience of indebtedness is less likely to lead to a desire to approach or make contact with others—relative to an experience of gratefulness. Thus, indebtedness tends to be an aversive psychological state that is quite different from gratitude. What are some ways that your feelings of indebtedness possibly stimulate a lower level of appreciation rather than feelings of gratitude?
Thankfulness: how to develop it
Mitchel Adler (2001) defines eight aspects of appreciation. To develop thankfulness, try the following eight-week program. By the end, you will discover deep feelings of thankfulness, be more appreciative of others, and sing praises to God.
Exercise 15-1: A positive statement, or thought, followed by a task is given for each day. Think about each statement and repeat it to yourself many times throughout the day. In some cases the thought may not seem to apply to your situation, especially if your thankfulness has degraded to feelings of indebtedness. Keep in mind that the statement does not have to describe you at the present time. If you can think of a single instance or episode where the statement applies, focus on that memory. Also try to complete the simple task that follows each positive statement. Make sure to complete the task for each day, no matter how you happen to feel that day. Do not stop even if horrible things have occurred.
Although this exercise might sound silly, it comes from a wide body of research. This approach is one of the tenets of cognitive therapy, which has proven highly successful. If, over time, you deliberately acustom your mind to thinking on the good things in life, your outlook will change. What Scriptures support this principle?
Week 1: Have focus—What do you have for which you feel appreciative? (Note that what you have is not only confined to material possessions but also includes possessions that are not tangible.)
- Thought: I am genuinely blessed by tangible things that God and others have provided.
- Task: List your physical blessings in this world.
- Thought: I am blessed with opportunities.
- Task: List the opportunities God has provided and write a paragraph about them.
- Thought: I am fortunate.
- Task: Pick two things for which you are particularly fortunate and write a few sentences about them.
- Thought: I am blessed with good things in life.
- Task: List some good things that God provides that you particularly like.
- Thought: My coworkers have specific qualities that make me proud.
- Task: Write down one characteristic of each coworker that makes you proud.
Describe your insights after Week 1 of this exercise.
Week 2: Awe—What makes you sometimes stand in awe?
- Thought: I feel a genuine sense of awe at how God has guided my life and ministry.
- Task: List the ways that God has guided your life and ministry.
- Thought: I am fortunate to be alive.
- Task: List specific past events where God intervened to protect you and your family.
- Thought: I am in awe of how God has designed nature.
- Task: List at least two things in nature that provide you with an emotional connection to God.
- Thought: I am blessed with miracles that God still is performing in my life and in the lives of those I love.
- Task: List some ways that God is still in the process of performing a miracle in your life and in the lives of your loved ones.
- Thought: I am in awe of my coworkers.
- Task: How is the hand of God evident in His selection of the role of your coworkers in your life?
Describe your insights after Week 2 of this exercise.
Week 3: Rituals—What specific acts or rituals do you use to give thanks to the Lord and to others?
- Thought: God guides my life and ministry through the rituals that He has put in my live.
- Task: List the specific rituals or events that remind you to give thanks on a regular basis.
- Thought: I want to purposefully give thanks to God.
- Task: List some ways that you can remind yourself purposefully to give thanks to God.
- Thought: I want to purposefully give thanks to those I love.
- Task: List some ways that you can remind yourself purposefully to give thanks to your loved ones.
- Thought: I want to purposefully give thanks to those with whom I work.
- Task: List some ways that you can remind yourself purposefully to give thanks to those with whom you work.
- Thought: I want to purposefully give thanks to those who dislike me or who hurt me.
- Task: List some ways that you can remind yourself purposefully to give thanks to those who dislike you or hurt you.
Describe your insights after Week 3 of this exercise.
Week 4: Present moment—In what ways do you stop to appreciate the present moment even while you are experiencing it?
- Thought: God gives me nature to enjoy every day.
- Task: List at least two aspects of nature that I see every day but sometimes fail to stop and appreciate.
- Thought: God gives me wonderful work and ministry to enjoy every day.
- Task: List at least two positive things about your work and ministry that you sometimes fail to stop and appreciate.
- Thought: God gives me relationships to enjoy every day.
- Task: List at least two things about the people in your everyday life that you sometimes fail to stop and appreciate.
- Thought: God orchestrates wonderful events in my everyday life.
- Task: List at least two events in your everyday life that you sometimes fail to stop and appreciate.
- Thought: God gives me wonderful leaders in my everyday life.
- Task: List at least two ways that you sometimes fail to stop and appreciate your leaders.
Describe your insights after Week 4 of this exercise.
Week 5: Social comparisons—By remembering some individuals who are less fortunate than yourself, are you periodically reminded to take note of your blessings?
- Thought: God blesses me in comparison to the others around me.
- Task: List some ways that God blesses you in comparison to those in your adopted country.
- Thought: God blesses me in comparison to my coworkers.
- Task: List some ways that God blesses you in comparison to those with whom you work.
- Thought: God blesses me in comparison to my leaders.
- Task: List some ways that God blesses you in comparison to your leaders.
- Thought: God blesses me in comparison to my relatives.
- Task: List some ways that God blesses you in comparison to your relatives.
- Thought: God blesses me in comparison to other ministers.
- Task: List some ways that God blesses you in comparison to other ministers.
Describe your insights after Week 5 of this exercise.
Week 6: Gratitude—For what do you feel gratitude?
- Thought: God blesses me with the sacrifices of others.
- Task: List the sacrifices that others have made on your behalf for which you are presently grateful.
- Thought: Others bless me in ways that I can never repay.
- Task: List the emotional or monetary debts to others that you can never repay.
- Thought: God blesses me with opportunities.
- Task: What are some of the opportunities you have experienced for which you feel grateful?
- Thought: God blesses me uniquely.
- Task: For what are you especially thankful to God (what has He done uniquely for you)?
- Thought: God blesses me with love that I never earned.
- Task: List some ways that you receive love that you never earned.
Describe your insights after Week 6 of this exercise.
Week 7: Loss and adversity—What personal losses and adversities have reminded you of how fortunate you really are?
- Thought: God blesses me with personal problems.
- Task: What personal problems remind you to value the positive aspects of life?
- Thought: God blesses me with challenges.
- Task: What personal challenges remind you to value the positive aspects of life?
- Thought: God blesses me with losses.
- Task: What losses remind you to value life?
- Thought: God blesses me with relationship conflict.
- Task: What relationship struggles remind you to value others?
- Thought: God blesses me with adversity.
- Task: What, in particular, reminds you to live every day to the fullest?
Describe your insights after Week 7 of this exercise.
Week 8: Interpersonal relationships—For what interpersonal relationships are you appreciative?
- Thought: God blesses me with people who care and show commitment to my well-being.
- Task: List the people who care about you.
- Thought: God blesses me with people who understand me.
- Task: List the people who understand you.
- Thought: God blesses me with people who I like to be around.
- Task: List the people who you like to be around.
- Thought: God blesses me with people who mentor me.
- Task: List the people who mentor you, sometimes even unknowingly.
- Thought: God blesses me with people who help me.
- Task: List the people who serve interdependently with you.
Describe your insights after Week 8 of this exercise.