“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Pastor Craig Barnes wrote “Gratitude may be the best measure of our spirituality.” According to Barnes, when we practice and express gratitude, we demonstrate that we are paying attention to the many blessings and gifts we have received, especially the gift of grace. Moreover, writer and researcher Michael Zigarelli, found in a study of 5,000 Christians worldwide that of all the virtues that are associated with loving like the Lord Jesus Christ, gratitude stood out above the rest.
Developing a regular practice of gratitude seems to have a transformational effect on the development of one’s character as it is one of God’s virtues that paves the way for navigating other Christian qualities. In fact, gratitude has been referred to as “the parent of all other virtues.”
Gratitude is the human way of acknowledging the good things of life. In its simplest form, it is a thankful appreciation for what one has. It is a focused state of mind, a deliberate accounting of what we already have, rather than what is missing or what one is longing for in their life. It is an intentional acceptance of the reality that life is not perfect and does not always work in the direction we desire. However, it has many blessings along the way.
Those who practice gratitude tend to feel that their lives are going well as a whole. They have a more optimistic perspective on their future, tend to experience less fear and anxiety, and report fewer physical symptoms when they are sick. Moreover, those who practice gratefulness tend to incorporate healthier habits in their life such as good nutrition, self care and regular exercise. By intentionally focusing on things that we are grateful for, we cultivate happiness, compassion and kindness.
Gratitude is sometimes referred to as a ‘natural antidepressant.’ When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, which are two very important neurotransmitters involved with happiness. In his book Grateful Brain, Alex Korb described how our brain is conditioned to function in a repeated way. For example, if a person spends the majority of their time worrying about unpleasant or adverse outcomes, the brain will become conditioned to prioritize negative information more often than positive information. He goes on to discuss how our brains cannot hold both positive and negative information at the same time. Therefore, when we consistently and intentionally practice gratitude as a part of our daily routine, we can train the brain to focus more on positive emotions and thoughts which in turn will help to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
How can we incorporate gratitude into your daily operating system?
This starts by disciplining the mind to maintain a grateful disposition. The goal is for gratitude to become part of who we “are” not just something we “do.” There are some practical things we can do to grow gratitude. For instance, one of the best ways to make gratitude a regular part of your life is to do a regular mental inventory. The way that I teach this in my practice
and use in my own life is the following: in the evening when going to sleep, lights out and head on the pillow, note 5 things about the day that you are grateful for. Then, and this for some is the more difficult part, note 5 things about yourself, who you are, your person, your character, that you are grateful for. For example, I am grateful for the beautiful hike, the wonderful swim in the lake, the weather, the fact that I could bring the dogs and that my good friends were there. Then shift to things about yourself that you are grateful for. For example, I am grateful that I am loving, adventurous, healthy, playful, and physically capable.
Other helpful tasks include keeping a gratitude journal. When we write things down they tend to imprint on our mind. Take note of all sorts of things, the big stuff and the small stuff. For example, the healing of a family member’s illness or the sunflowers blooming on the bike path.
Finally, have gratitude visits with friends and family members. These are visits with people close to us who have extended unconditional love and support and who mean a lot to us. Meet with them on a regular basis and let them know how much they mean to you.
If you can get in the habit of doing these simple skills on a regular basis, you will find that the baseline level of gratefulness in your life will increase. Typically, within a week, you will feel the difference in your outlook. Moreover, over time being grateful will become a normal part of your daily life and the benefits will become more clear and motivate the continuation of this cognitive task.