What Gratitude Can Do For Us

  • This book appeared a few years ago in a reading list published by the Globe and Mail on the Saturday before Thanksgiving Day.  The author is a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis and a leading scholar in the positive psychology movement.  More than that, he is probably a Lutheran — after all, who else would quote from the LBW in a book on psychology?

    Emmons reports on a series of experiments designed to measure whether the experience of gratitude had any observable effects.

    “We discovered scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical and interpersonal.”

    Robert A Emmons, Thanks!

    Remarkably, the experimental group still enjoyed the benefits of their directed behaviour six months after the experiment ended.

    What was it that the scientists had the subjects do?  Once a week, for ten weeks, they kept a gratitude journal in which they listed five things they were grateful for that had happened the previous week.

    The author lists a number of other techniques we can use to help us experience a sense of gratitude for what we have.  One of them is called “going through the motions”.

    “By living the gratefulness we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratefulness we live.”

    Brother David Steindl-Rast

    What would people be willing to pay for a drug that made them feel happier and more optimistic; that reduced their health complaints and helped them sleep longer and awake more refreshed; that improved their relationships and made them feel less lonely?  Those are the experimental results Dr. Emmons attributed to a few minutes of drug-free gratitude journalling per week.

    After reading the book, I conducted an experiment of my own.

    A congregation had invited me to speak during sermon time at the 8:15 a.m. service on a cold, snowy January morning in Northern Ontario.  The group that faced me as I stood in the pulpit consisted of about 25 hardy souls scattered throughout a sanctuary that could hold several times that number.  Few people made eye contact with me as I began to speak; many people had tightly folded arms and wore the characteristic scowl of “God’s frozen people”.  With some trepidation I invited them to turn to their neighbour and take turns describing one thing in their life that they were grateful for.

    Within moments the sanctuary came alive with the buzz of conversation.  When I called “time” to end the exercise, the people who turned back to face me had been transformed.  Their eyes were bright and attentive, smiles had replaced frowns and bodies were relaxed.  It was a minor miracle.  Just to be sure that it wasn’t a fluke, I tried the same experiment at the 10:30 service and observed similar results.

    If people knew that gratitude was good for them – in body, mind and soul – would they pursue it out of sheer self-interest?  How might we be changed by cultivating an attitude of gratitude?  How might our congregations be transformed if a growing number of members started experiencing gratitude and enjoying its benefits?

    My guess is that cultivating gratitude is a way of beginning to nurture a culture of generosity in our congregations.

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