Growing up in a Christian subculture prone to both kitsch and mnemonic devices, I was subjected early on to many cringe-worthy didactic moments. One shining example was a motivational poster on the wall that asked, “Do you have an attitude of gratitude?” The subtext seemed to be, “We know how to make things rhyme, so you can trust us to dispense moral wisdom.”
The truth, though, is that despite its aesthetic and logical shortcomings, I’ve remembered that poster for years. Kitschy or not, educational research backs up the power of mnemonic devices. And that lucky (not to say providential) rhyme in “attitude of gratitude” points us to something else that the research has validated again and again: thankfulness changes us.
Research on Thankfulness and Change
Robert Emmons, a psychologist and professor at UC Davis, has done extensive research on gratitude and its effects. He breaks down the benefits of gratitude into three categories: it heals, it energizes, and it changes lives. It’s that last point I want to focus on, because it’s perhaps the most intriguing claim. Can something as simple as thankfulness actually make us a different kind of person? “Count your blessings” usually strikes me as sentimental advice, ideal for a cross-stitch in my mother’s living room. But if gratitude really changes people, it must be connected to something solid, some aspect of how the world really works. If thankfulness works, why?
Emmons, as a scientist, looks at the empirical evidence. In the early 2000s, he and his colleagues ran an experiment (replicated many times since) in which college students kept a simple journal for about two weeks, writing five things they were grateful for each day. The results? These “self-guided daily gratitude exercises were associated with higher levels of positive affect.” In other words, the college students who journaled were happier. Not only that, but they also reported more instances of helping others during the window in which they were journaling. They slept better, too. Emmons notes that in similar experiments, the increase in overall happiness has been anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five percent.
Think about that for a minute. Would you like to increase your overall happiness by up to twenty-five percent? I sure would. Emmons is quick to point out that for lasting change, more is needed than just journaling for two weeks. A long-term disposition of gratitude will take long-term practice. Even so, the research bears out that gratitude itself appears to drive such changes in well-being. Subsequent studies show that gratitude can improve our relationships, remediate mild depression, augment achievement of goals, increase generosity, and even make us more resilient in the face of trauma. Thankfulness does change people.
Why Thankfulness Changes Us
But why? How can something as simple as focusing on the good things in our lives, and giving thanks for them, have such profound effects? Here, rather than turning to the scientific research, I think we can be helped by looking at Scripture.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”
Psalm 107:1, NIV
This exact phrase appears in the Psalms five different times (and is also quoted in 1 Chronicles 16). It reminds us of the logic of thankfulness. When we are thankful, we’re thankful for something. A chance to catch our breath. A child. The sun outside. Recovery from an illness. A friendship. That promotion we were hoping for. But we’re also thankful to someone. We can be thankful to another person—the boss who gave us the promotion, the friends who helped us when we were sick. But who do we thank for all the things that no one else can take credit for?
The answer that the Bible gives is clear: We thank God. (And we even thank him for the good things others are involved in, too.) The good things we experience are manifestations of his character (“for he is good”) and of his disposition toward us (“his love endures forever”). Now, there might seem to be a corresponding logical conclusion. Do the bad things in our life mean that God is less good, or his disposition toward us less loving? The Bible rejects this line of reasoning, as plausible as it may seem.
On the surface, this rejection appears to create a logical imbalance. How come we can count good things as indications of God’s good character, but not allow bad things to impute poor character to him? An atheist friend pointed out to me recently that this does seem to stack the deck toward belief in a benevolent God.
This imbalance, though, is what helps explain how thankfulness changes us the way it does. If God really is good, and his disposition toward us is loving, then thankfulness is a response to how reality really is. When I focus on what’s good for me, I’m tapping into a story. I’m saying, “Yes, there are bad things, but things will ultimately turn out for the good.” It’s the ultimate victory of good over bad that gives us confidence we’re not just kidding ourselves by counting our blessings. Present evils are horrific, and often beyond explanation. But they will not endure. A day of judgment and justice will come, and God’s love will reign—and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the sign of that coming kingdom, the evidence and downpayment of all yet to come.
Thankfulness as Unflinching Realism
If God really is good, then the thankfulness story is the true one. And that’s why it changes us. By remembering the true story, we re-orient ourselves to how the world really works under God’s good care. We’re happier because we have put our daily experience in the context of story with an unimaginably happy ending. Our relationships improve because we’ve opened ourselves to the resources of a loving God, and can draw on those resources as we relate to each other. We’re resilient in the face of trauma because no traumatic event has the final word.
In this context, gratitude is not only beneficial, but also intelligent. Giving thanks is simply an appropriate response to the real state of affairs. The smallness of complaint and despair reflects a failure to understand one’s true situation. Gratitude, in contrast, is a sign of unflinching realism.
Thankfulness changes us by re-orienting us to the reality of God’s love. We don’t have to stay inside of a story that focuses on the bad, but can count present blessings as signs of the fullest blessing God will one day bring. As we do, we’ll experience more joy and power for life right now.
As the research shows, we can participate in life change by practicing thankfulness.
- Take thirty seconds right now, and thank God for one good thing from the past few days.
- Consider making a gratitude examen, a short prayer reviewing your day, a regular feature of your nightly routine.