Friday, November 29, 2019

Gratitude and Harvard Medical School

      Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.       
-Colossians 3:15-16 (NIV)

This time of year everyone tells us that we ought to be thankful. A lot of us have every reason to be. We have family and friends who love us. We have work to do that pays us a living wage and allows us to contribute something to the world. We have roles to play in the lives of our children and grandchildren. We have at least some measure of health. We gather in warm homes around full tables and rightly count our blessings. 
     But there are those, aren’t there, to whom easy platitudes about being thankful might sound more insulting than helpful? There are empty seats at their tables. The food there is pretty sparse. Their families are estranged. They live with chronic health conditions that make it hard to smile and laugh. They lost jobs this year, or their jobs don’t pay the bills. I’m all too aware that there are people in our world, our city, even our church who might hear the words “be thankful” as callous disregard for the real difficulties that characterize their lives, often through no fault of their own. 
     I’m all too aware that if my life wasn’t so good, I might find gratitude much more difficult too. 
     On the Harvard Medical School website, there’s a post about gratitude that makes a pretty bold assertion: “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” It cites several studies indicating that “gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” It was honestly a little surprising to me to find such strong research on an admittedly abstract topic like gratitude among the established medical community.
     One study cited had a group of participants write about things they were grateful for that had occurred that week, a second group write about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and a third write about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After ten weeks, the researchers found that those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
     Another study, from the University of Pennsylvania, had 411 people write about early memories. Researchers tested the effectiveness of various psychological techniques in helping participants cope with those memories. When their assignment was to write and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who they had never thanked for their kindness, participants immediately exhibited a large increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.  
     Together, the cited studies found associations between acts of gratitude and a reduction in stress hormones, improved sleep quality, fewer feelings of hopelessness, and increased levels of optimism. One even suggested a connection between gratitude and eating better!
     Admittedly, all of this falls short of proving causation. I’m sure the studies have holes in them. But I bet all of us can probably attest to the fact that gratitude can make a huge difference in personal and professional relationships. I know that I can say that being grateful helps me to cope when life isn’t going as I wish it was. But even if there is no real connection between gratitude and psychological, emotional, and physical health, as believers in Jesus we should still be grateful.
     That’s because we aren’t supposed to be grateful because it’s good for us, or makes us more likable, or helps us cope. We’re supposed to be grateful because of the love and faithfulness of God. 
     Paul writes that Christians should give thanks in all circumstances. He didn’t say for all circumstances, of course, but he does think that we should be able to find a reason, whatever is going on around us, to give thanks to God. For believers, gratitude isn’t just a way of looking at the world. It’s a habit in which we choose to regularly and sincerely give thanks to God for his love and faithfulness. 
     Notice, too, that being thankful has to do with our being “in Christ Jesus.” Paul means something similar in Colossians 3, when he connects letting “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts and letting “the message of Christ dwell among [us] richly” with being thankful. When we’re grateful, we create space for the peace that Christ brings to rule our hearts (instead of the anxieties and fears that run the show when we’re not thankful). When we show gratitude by giving thanks to God and loving each other, that’s when the message of Jesus can live among us most vividly.   
     I think it’s important to note that the studies mentioned in the post emphasized acts of gratitude. That’s for obvious reasons, of course: empirically there’s no other way to measure it than by what study participants do. I think that’s true for you and me as well. Gratitude isn’t just a feeling. It’s made known in the things that we do to show it. And sometimes you can do those things even if you’re not feeling gratitude in the moment.
     When you pray, cultivate the habit of thanking God for what he’s blessed you with and how he’s shown his faithfulness to you. Be specific. Count your blessings, as the song says.
     Make your gratitude known. Tell people you’re thankful for them. Let them see it in the way you treat them. And let people know that you recognize that God has been good to you, and that you’re thankful for it.
     Say “thank you.” At home, at work, at school, when your waiter brings your food: you can’t say it too much.
     I love the way the post on Harvard’s website talks about gratitude:

     Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

     I think that definition overlays nicely with Christian gratitude, especially in emphasizing how gratitude helps us to recognize that what’s good in our lives often comes from outside ourselves.
     That’s why we can always be grateful: our God never fails us. He has shown us in Christ that nothing, not even sin or death, can un-do the good he does for us. As the writer of Hebrews says: “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,  let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe…”     

     It might make you feel better. It might make you more likable. It will certainly please God.     

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