Westmont Magazine Flourishing as Human Beings
The Impact of Practicing Gratitude
An excerpt from a 2018 Westmont Downtown talk by Jane Wilson, Professor of Education
No matter where we find ourselves in life, we all desire to flourish. According to current research on gratitude, savoring good things in life helps us flourish both personally and professionally. You might be thinking, “Hasn’t the notion of gratitude been around for centuries?” And you would be right. From the earliest of times theologians, philosophers, and sociologists have exalted gratitude as a central virtue. Yet only recently has gratitude been studied scientifically.
The Bible directs our attention to gratitude as a prominent theme, mentioning thankfulness 150 times; 33 times it commands us to be thankful in all circumstances. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Though God directs His people to be thankful, gratitude often emerges in believers as a natural response when learning of God’s generous grace and goodness. Swiss theologian Karl Barth explains, “Grace and gratitude go together like heaven and earth: grace evokes gratitude like the voice and echo.” The Old Testament reminds us numerous times to express gratitude for God’s loving-kindness: “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His love endures forever” (I Chronicles 16:34, Psalm 106:1, Psalm 107:1, Psalm 118: 1, 29, Psalm 136:1). While expressing gratitude for God’s goodness appears to be a natural response, God challenges His people to remain grateful even amidst difficult circumstances. In the New Testament, Peter gives reason to be thankful for trials and suffering as “they may result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (I Peter 1:6-7). God calls us loudly and clearly to be grateful, and social science research has affirmed the value of this practice.
Gratitude found a place in the scientific literature about 20 years ago when a group of psychologists led by two researchers, Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania) and Christopher Peterson (University of Michigan), began what became known as the field of Positive Psychology. Their research team identified 24 character strengths (including gratitude) that help people lead meaningful and flourishing lives.
Some educational psychologists then explored which of these character strengths help people learn—a question that particularly interests me as an educator. Researchers identified curiosity, self-control, gratitude, grit, zest, social intelligence and optimism as strengths that help people learn. Some of these traits make good sense to me; for example, curiosity is the greatest scholarly trait. But I was intrigued—how does gratitude enhance learning?
Two books in particular helped to deepen my understanding of gratitude. “Flourish” (Seligman, 2012) describes the 24 character strengths, and “Thanks!” (Emmons, 2007) summarizes the research of gratitude. UC Davis Professor Emmons encourages his readers to recognize the good, appreciate the good, and acknowledge the good each day. I rephrased these ideas in three memorable phrases for my life:
- See good things each day.
- Savor these good things.
- Speak often about the good things.
BENEFITS OF PRACTICING GRATITUDE
In the last 20 years, the body of research on gratitude has grown significantly. This groundbreaking research points to several beneficial effects: gratitude enhances our lives psychologically, spiritually, physically, and cognitively. The evidence that cultivating a spirit of gratitude promotes the overall well-being of people is substantial—gratitude affects all of us: heart, mind and body.
Psychologically, grateful people experience more positive emotions such as love, joy and hope, and fewer negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and bitterness. People practicing gratitude also become more resilient in dealing with life’s ups and downs and find themselves less depressed.
Gratitude yields social benefits as well, such as stronger relationships with friends, family members, teachers and coworkers. Grateful people find themselves being more collaborative and generous, and other people view them as more supportive and helpful.
Spiritually, grateful people experience greater awareness and connectedness with God as well as increased contentment and inner peace. People report being more aware of God’s grace in their life, and, as this awareness increases, it becomes easier to respond gratefully.
The researchers were surprised to discover physical benefits. People who practiced gratitude experienced improved energy, sounder sleep, fewer health complaints, healthier hearts, and increased longevity. Researchers found these people exercised more often and their attendance at work or school improved.
Cognitively, grateful people are more alert, focused, creative in problem solving, appreciative of learning, and resilient while learning. Learning should be challenging, and gratitude can help people remain calm—embracing the challenge and being more open to growth. Research shows that thanking while thinking helps people think in more engaged ways. Thus, people who examine their hearts prior to learning and make a deliberate choice to be grateful for the opportunity to learn are better positioned to learn to their full potential.
GRATITUDE AMIDST ADVERSITY
But how do we express gratitude in challenging times? The Montecito community experienced tragedy this past year when we faced fires, mudslides, destruction of homes, and loss of life. While we certainly don’t need to feel grateful for tragic events such as this, gratitude can help us in the midst of adversity. When a challenge confronts us part of our brain, the amygdala, starts firing and shuts down our prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain where we think, organize information and solve problems. Practicing gratitude calms the amygdala and helps us to think more clearly and find ways to solve challenges. When we approach a challenge with gratitude, we can find the ingenuity to solve problems locally and globally. In the moment, we can be grateful for the first responders, physicians and therapists who help us through the trauma. And looking back on challenging seasons, we might experience gratitude for the ways we bonded as a community and grew stronger.
When a young man I loved like a son died some years ago, insights from “A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss” helped guide me through my own grief. In his book, Jerry Sittser explains his reaction when his mother, wife and daughter died in a car accident. He chose not to let this experience embitter him or close his heart. Instead, he let his heart open up and be enlarged with a greater capacity to love others.
Experiencing gratitude in difficult seasons can be particularly hard, and sometimes we need friends to walk with us and help us see good things. We may need to be gracious to ourselves and understand it could be months or years before we can look back and be grateful. When we recognize the good that emerges from bad events (i.e, bonded community, resilient spirit, new solutions, enlarged capacity for compassion) we can be grateful for this “redemptive twist.”
Is a grateful spirit a genetic disposition or a learned trait? Research suggests that 50 percent of our tendency toward gratitude is our genetic set point, 10 percent is related to our circumstances, and 40 percent is connected to intentional activity. This news is empowering. No matter what our gratitude set point is, we can engage in intentional activity to increase our sense of gratitude, which enhances our overall well-being.
G.K. Chesterton believed that our capacity for gratitude can and must be developed through dedicated practice. If we view gratitude as something we can practice, we can train ourselves to focus our minds on gratitude-inducing experiences. Research suggests four practices that can help us strengthen our gratitude muscle. As you try some of these practices, consider modifying them to make them work best for you.
BREATHE AND FOCUS
Try this at the beginning of the day, as you wake up or drive to work to prepare your heart for the day ahead. Take a moment to focus your heart and mind and be grateful for the day’s opportunities. Breathe deeply and think about good things you are looking forward to doing and people in your life. You may choose to do this as a prayer. Making a choice like this colors your day in a positive light and helps your mind to recognize and appreciate good things throughout the day.
KEEP A GRATITUDE JOURNAL
The most frequently used practice is keeping a gratitude journal. Identify and record three to five specific good things either on a daily or weekly basis. This activity tends to be more effective if you focus on gratitude toward people rather than material objects, and take time to savor each blessing as you write it down.
USE THE LANGUAGE OF GRATITUDE EVERY DAY
Though writing down three good things enhances our own well-being, you can bless others by expressing gratitude orally or in writing. At work, in your home, or in your community, tell your colleagues, your family, and your friends specific things you notice and appreciate about them. You can also use the language of gratitude in random encounters with people in a store, at a park or while standing in line.
WRITE A GRATITUDE LETTER
This practice takes the most effort, yet the research shows it can have the most profound affect. Think of a person who has made a positive impact on your life, but someone you have not properly thanked. Write a letter (about 300 words) that expresses specific thanks for the ways they have impacted you. Finally, set up a time to meet and then read your gratitude letter out loud to the person. Research suggests that writing, delivering, and reading gratitude letters can enhance joy for both you and the receiver.
God’s call to gratitude is loud and clear. And social science research confirms that if you make a choice to intentionally practice gratitude each day, you will see benefits that help you flourish. I challenge you to try one or more of these practices (or a variation of them) for a few weeks. You may be pleasantly surprised to experience a sense of flourishing as you see good things, savor good things, and speak of good things more often. Emmons summarizes the research with this powerful statement: “Gratitude has the power to heal, energize and transform lives.” No wonder God call’s us to be grateful!
This article appears as my final academic year comes to a close. As I retire, I want to seize this moment to express a deep sense of gratitude to some key people at Westmont who helped me flourish in this final chapter of my career.
Thanks to President Gayle D. Beebe for leading with a strong sense of vision and purpose. Your entrepreneurial spirit and ability to solve problems in difficult circumstances is truly admirable. A chapter in your book on leadership inspired me to begin our departmental meetings with celebrations and gratitude by sharing the good things happening at work.
Thanks to Provost Mark Sargent for leading our faculty with grace. I always looked forward to meetings in your office as you clearly valued faculty opinions and guided us to work collaboratively. You consistently inspire faculty with your well-crafted words, creative spirit, and punches of humor.
Thanks to the Westmont faculty for being stimulating colleagues. The finest moments I experienced at Westmont were when we gathered to discuss controversial issues and carefully examine differing perspectives in a respectful manner.
Thanks to the Westmont students who showed up in my classes—eager to learn, willing to thoughtfully engage in discussions, completing assignments in creative ways, and adding moments of laughter. You have deeply enriched my life.
Finally, thank you to our donors. Your generosity allows Westmont to provide a rigorous academic liberal arts program while deepening our love of God.