We are entering the season of Gratitude and Thankfulness, being confronted by reminders all around us. You may see friends’ social media posts expressing gratitude for one thing per day leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday. We see the common signs in people’s homes that say ‘grateful, thankful, blessed.’ At my Thanksgiving table, as family and friends gather, we go around the table, taking turns, expressing the top things we are thankful for from the year. These usually bring a few laughs and more than a few tears as we share our memories together. This seasonal practice is beautiful and special, but, how and why should you incorporate gratitude into a way of life - a daily practice, especially if you are just not feeling grateful with all of the things coming against you right now in life? Let’s take a dive into a few examples of lives lived with gratefulness and look at how we can incorporate this as a habit into our daily lives.
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” — Willie Nelson
Gratitude and Thankfulness are Skills
Realizing areas of gratitude and expressing thankfulness is a practice. We have to practice the habit to make it a natural part of our lives. You may have seen gratitude journals or planners that have space each day to write one thing that you are grateful for. These are resources that help us to practice a life of gratitude.
“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness [or beauty] received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the natural following of that impulse.”— Henry Van Dyke
I’ve experienced the benefit of this daily discipline: being intentional about ‘looking for’ and ‘acknowledging’ moments of kindness or beauty that cause my heart to smile. Appreciation and gratitude, whether expressed to the Lord or simply documented in the heart, increase the level of joy in our ‘joy center’. Yes, your brain actually has a joy center where it stores joy.
So, you may be asking, “What’s the significance of the joy center?” Well, sadness, disappointment, fear, and every other negative emotion are neutralized in proportion to the amount of joy stored in the joy center! The more joy you have stored, the easier it is to move 'through' negative emotions -vs- getting ‘stuck’ in them.
To be honest, sometimes my heart and mind only have room for expressing my thankfulness for my comfy bed and cozy blanket before I go to sleep. Some days, I am able to wake up with gratitude, carrying it through the whole day, noticing the small and big things that I can be thankful for, and looking for ways to express thankfulness to the people around me. The more I practice a posture of gratitude, the easier it becomes.
Create Intentional Rhythms of Gratitude
I have friends that daily ask their young kids and teens, “What are you thankful for today?” “What is something that someone did or said that was kind or helpful to you?” And, “ How did you show kindness or thankfulness to another person?” I love this intentional rhythm of examining the heart for gratitude and becoming mindful of ways to express gratitude to others that they are building into their children’s hearts. I am trying to incorporate these thoughtful questions myself, around the table when my family gathers, or with my grands when they are over, trying to develop this as a regular rhythm. It really helps attitudes shift and helps to shift the conversation to the beauty in the present and off of negativity.
Cultivate More Gratitude and Reap the Benefits
Gratitude has social, physical, and emotional benefits, leading to closer relationships, a strengthened immune system, increased happiness, and even helps to alleviate pain.
We bond with the object of our appreciation. The expression of heartfelt appreciation to another person for something they have done for you releases oxytocin, the bonding chemical, which prepares our brains for bonding and close connection. This works with all relationships, marriages, friendships, family relationships, and our relationship with God. The correlation between appreciation and bonding was noticed by Dr. John M Gottman by studying the measurable behavior between spouses and the real-life outcomes of those marriages for fourteen years. He found that the practice of intentionally focusing on things one appreciates about one spouse leads to the outcome of staying married and being happy in a marriage.
I remember as a child listening to an older woman talking to my mother about the woman’s husband and their marriage, discussing an obvious shift for the better. The woman was telling my mother that instead of focusing on the things that annoyed her about her husband and staying bitter, she intentionally turned those things into opportunities for appreciation. She purposefully looked for things to appreciate and started thanking him and God daily for the small things that she did appreciate. Hers and her husband’s attitude shifted, and they were both noticeably happier together.
“Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry, and irritation. It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present-oriented.” — Sonja Lyubomirsky
Gratitude Grows Our Capacity to be Thankful in the Midst of All Circumstances
We also practice gratitude with God, increasing our bond with him by expressing our thankfulness for what he has done and how he has been faithful to us. We can be grateful for his character and faithfulness in the past even in the midst of trials and pain in the present. We can give thanks in all circumstances. Paul does not tell us to give thanks for all circumstances but to give thanks in the midst of all circumstances.
We can be thankful for the kind and helpful nurse, not necessarily for being sick. We can be thankful for the care and concern of friends when experiencing grief or trials. Corrie Ten Boom related that she and her sister were able to thank God for lice while they were detained in concentration camps during World War 2. It was because of the lice that the soldiers would stay away from the prison barracks and the women could read from a hidden Bible and pray together openly.
This story challenges me to look for the things that I can be thankful for instead of just pointing out what is going wrong or not as I expected. For several years, I have had an ongoing list on a note on my phone titled ‘Thankful Heart.’ I have the big things like a beautifully remodeled bathroom, a fun beach trip with my family, and getting to be with my mom when she passed away with the added blessing of a goodbye with no regrets. I also have simple things like warm showers and toilet paper listed. Those were added to my list when I was visiting another country and did not have the best of those things available. That made me grateful for mine, the things I usually take for granted. I have central heating, consistent electricity, and gas stoves on the list. Those were added after an electric power outage in winter. I have listed the sweet things about my grands and kids and shared moments together, also. Occasionally reading over this list helps my attitude shift to gratitude and appreciation, seeing the faithfulness of the Lord actively present in my life listed by year. I have noticed that each year’s list gets longer. It is not that my life is getting better or easier, it is that my heart is shifting to notice blessings and things to be thankful more easily.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes.” — Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” — A.A. Milne, Winnie The Pooh
Gratitude is a Free Anti-Depressant and Pain-Reducer
Our thoughts greatly influence our emotions. When we express gratitude and receive gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two vital neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, making us feel good. They immediately enhance our mood and make us feel happy from the inside. Dr Caroline Leaf says that gratitude is a free anti-depressant and pain-reducer. A study called ‘Counting Blessings vs Burdens’ that took place in 2003 indicated that many patients who kept a gratitude journal reported reduced pain symptoms.
Once we have trained our brains to see the blessings in everything, it becomes a way of life. It helps us to gain an understanding of the value of life, helps us to pull ourselves back from negative thoughts, and helps to put everything into perspective, health, time in this life, and how precious life is, which in turn helps us to not take anything or any relationship for granted.
“It’s a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack.”— Germany Kent
“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: It must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.”— William Faulkner
Biblical Examples of Gratitude Practices
The Lord’s Prayer shows us how to start our prayers with gratitude and appreciation. "Hallowed be thy name" shows appreciation for the Lord for who he is, for his very character, and for what he has done.
The Lord says that we will overcome "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony". Our testimony relates to our thankfulness and gratefulness for what God has done in our lives and for who he is. Our testimony of thankfulness and a grateful heart helps us to overcome.
The Lord even set up the frequent opportunity to take communion in remembrance of Jesus. Even this act incorporates gratitude, appreciation, and thankfulness, becoming a place of communion and bonding with him.
As God instructed the Israelites to set up memorial stones to remember, set up your own “memorial stones” with a journal or list of remembrances of things, people, and answered prayer for which you are grateful, and express thankfulness for those things to the Lord and to others.
Date those entries so that you can remember and see that the Lord is faithful over time, giving thanks for where he has shown faithfulness and for what he has brought you through.
Tell at least one person a day what you genuinely appreciate about them or what they have done for you or mean to you, especially those close to you. Practice appreciating instead of pointing out failings.
Practice heart encounters with the Lord with appreciation for him. Get alone with him and tell him what it is that you appreciate about him and what he is doing in your life. Then ask him to respond to what you have said to him, and ask him what he appreciates about you, listening to his response.
If you feel blocked when trying to express appreciation and desire help to be able to even start to have an attitude of gratefulness, feel free to book an INNERROOM appointment with one of our trained facilitators to help you navigate through roadblocks with the Lord or others. We are happy to meet and pray with you.