Thanksgiving Day is on the horizon in the United States. For most people, it is a time of feasting and togetherness, a time to pause and give thanks for the blessings we experience. It can also be an opportunity to reflect a little more deeply on the discipline of gratitude. In the Bible, we are told to “give thanks in all circumstances.” 1 How do we do this? We all feel thankful now and then—some of us more often than others—but it takes work to cultivate a mindset of gratitude.
Practicing gratitude can have numerous scientifically demonstrated benefits. Gratitude can impact your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational health. 2 Articles that describe these benefits typically encourage readers to actively nurture gratitude because for many of us, gratitude doesn’t come easily or naturally.
Gratitude Gone Wrong
If improperly understood, an emphasis on gratitude can be unhelpful or even harmful. For example, “toxic positivity” happens when you feel pressure (whether from yourself or from other people) to be positive and happy all the time, so you end up pushing down negative or unpleasant emotions. We all experience a wide range of emotions, whether we are aware of them or not. If we don’t name and acknowledge difficult emotions, they can fester and become toxic. Learning to recognize and name emotions takes time and practice. Morning pages are one way to do this. Mindfulness can also help, as it requires giving time and space to curiously observe emotions (e.g. I feel angry) rather than immediately identifying with them (e.g. I am angry).
The animated movie Inside Out illustrates toxic positivity in a unique way. In the movie, we are introduced to five characters who are emotions in the mind of Riley, the main character: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear. Joy tries to run the show and colour every experience. It backfires, because Riley needs to experience a variety of emotions if she is to cope with life’s challenges in a healthy way.
“…gratitude can also be a frame of mind, a way of seeing the world.”
Then, is gratitude an emotion? If so, the push to be perpetually grateful can veer into toxic positivity. Certainly, there are times when we feel thankful, including during annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations. But gratitude can also be a frame of mind, a way of seeing the world.
This kind of gratitude can be deeper than an emotion and not dependent on specific circumstances. It can be experienced when all is going well in our lives, but it can also (and maybe especially) be experienced when times are difficult. During those times, we often see with new eyes the good things in our lives that we have taken for granted.
However, here, too, a warning is in order. We should not be quick to tell others what gratitude should look like for them. In her book Everything Happens for a Reason: And other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler warns against offering ‘at least’ statements to people going through a difficult time (“At least you can still walk,” “At least you have your family”). I have been on the receiving end of such comments, and I have also shared comments like that with other people. No matter how well-intentioned the person saying the words may be, ‘at least’ statements come across as insensitive and hurtful, minimizing the other person’s troubles.
At the same time, I have sometimes found it helpful to tell myself ‘at least’ statements. They remind me that even when things feel dark and scary, there are pockets of good that I can remember and hold on to. I didn’t consider this a bad thing until I realized how much ‘at least’ statements minimize the difficult circumstances. Maybe before using these statements (“This is hard, but at least…”), I could use ‘and’ statements instead: “This is hard, and I’m glad to not be facing it alone.”
Life as a Gift
Part of the secret of gratitude—and of its cousin, contentment—is to not take things, people, or situations for granted. Ultimately, living from a place of gratitude means learning to view the world as a gift. If you recognize that all you are and all you have are a gift, gratitude will flow more naturally. Living gratefully can lead us to a deep sense of contentment as we focus on what we already have instead of what we wish we had. Gratitude can also spur us to generosity as we realize how much we have and look for ways to share the goodness.
Gratitude is also linked to joy, but not in the way we might expect. It seems logical to assume that joyful people are led to experience and express gratitude—but the reverse is true. Brené Brown, a sociologist and well-known author, has done decades of research on how to live a full, honest, open-hearted life. She has often shared that people she spoke to for her research who described themselves as joyful all had a gratitude practice. 3 Gratitude led to joy, not the other way around.
“Ultimately, living from a place of gratitude means learning to view the world as a gift.”
In the gospel of Luke, we read a story about ten lepers who came to ask Jesus to heal them. 4 Jesus cleansed the lepers, physically healing them from their disease. Only one of the lepers came back, “…praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” In response, Jesus told the man, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” A friend pointed out to me that the leper who returned was ‘made well’—made whole—because his gratitude had established a relationship with the healer. Even in cases where physical healing is not granted, and where other hopes and dreams go unrealized, gratitude can make us whole in the way that matters most.
Kate Bowler captures this idea in her aforementioned book, Everything Happens for a Reason:
“What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, ‘You are limitless’? Everything is not possible. The mighty Kingdom of God is not yet here. What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of ‘the gospel’ meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.” 5
At its core, a gratitude practice is about paying attention, noticing, and naming the gifts around you. The most common way to do this is to keep a gratitude journal, in which you deliberately list the people, moments, ideas, and things for which you are grateful. This is simple, and can seem too simplistic, but the habit can actually be quite profound. Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox priest, describes it this way:
“To name a thing is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God…To name a thing, in other words, is to bless God for it and in it. And in the Bible to bless God is not a ‘religious’ or a ‘cultic’ act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day…and this means that he filled all that exists with his love and goodness, made all of this ‘very good.’ So the only natural (and not ‘supernatural’) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and—in this act of gratitude and adoration—to know, name, and possess the world.” 6
We give thanks for specific people, events, and situations in our lives. We give thanks that we are known and loved and redeemed. We give thanks for the stunning reality that nothing “in all creation…will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 7 We can know and commune with the God of the Universe as we see and name the gifts he gives, offering our thanks in return.
Thanks be to God!
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. ↩
See, for example, “28 Benefits of Gratitude & Most Significant Research Findings” by Courtney E. Ackerman. https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-gratitude-research-questions/ ↩
Luke 17:11-19. ↩
Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies I’ve loved. 2019. p. 144 ↩
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. p. 15. ↩
Romans 8:39. ↩