By Dr. Lisa Dunne
One of my all-time favorite essays is a cautionary tale written in 1884 by Guy de Maupassant called “The Necklace.” The main character of the story, Mathilde, finds herself so focused on her dreams of popularity that she loses herself in the struggle. The joys of the present are fully eclipsed by her obsessions of the future.
Mathilde’s husband, a messianic archetype, pours out everything for her, sacrificing his own needs for her momentary materialistic gain. As a result of his wife’s selfishness, carelessness, and pride, the couple faces a decade of agony that ends in a painfully ironic revelation. Read the whole story aloud with your family at AmericanLiterature.com.
The modern relatability of the theme is clear, perhaps even more poignant and possible in an era of all-access materialism. What can we do to combat the flood of superficially-focused, entitlement-enhanced messages that saturate the airwaves today? Let’s contemplate some practical applications and study a few of the many physiological, neurological, and relational benefits of gratitude.
First, if you’re reading this message, I think I can safely assume that you have access to some type of shelter, electricity, and the Internet. Did you know that this makes you materially wealthier than the majority of the people on this planet?
In fact, if you have running water, electricity, a car in any condition, more than one article of clothing in your closet, and more than one meal to eat today, you are among the top 10 percent of the wealthiest people in the world!
How’s that for a paradigm shift?
It’s easy in our modern, media-central culture to get caught up in our lack of this or that, and let’s face it; we often have a Western tendency to approach life with a glass-is-half-empty mindset. So, this week is a great season for a little gratitude checkup.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever,” Psalm 107:1 reminds us. “Let the redeemed…give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds.”
We’ve all heard the stats on the youngest generation, the most anxious and depressed people group in the history of our nation. But, listen parents, there is a clear link of causation between gratitude and depression.
Studies in China, at BYU, and at Florida State University have collectively shown a direct and powerful correlation between the expressions of thankfulness and the mental state of depression: the more gratitude people expressed, the less depression they experienced. The entitlement spirit that has been unleashed over the last three generations is robbing our fellow Americans of joy.
Gratitude has tremendous physical and emotional benefits. Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, is known as the world’s leading scientific expert in the field of gratitude. In his work with cultivating gratitude skills in both children and adults, he found that simple acts like keeping a daily gratitude journal can improve alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, optimism, and energy.
In fact, Dr. Emmons led a joint longitudinal study with UC Davis and the University of Miami
called “Gratitude Interventions and Psychological and Physical Well-Being,” which was aimed at assessing the impact of gratitude on health and well-being. “Religions and philosophies,” the authors note, “have long embraced gratitude as an indispensable manifestation of virtue, and an integral component of health, wholeness, and well-being.”
In other words, the UM study intended to shed scientific light on what the Bible already declared to be true. ;) Read the whole UC Davis/UM study here: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/
Below is what the researchers found:
• People who keep weekly gratitude journals tend to have a number of proactive habits and mindsets: they exercise more regularly, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives, and are more optimistic about the future.
• People who keep regular gratitude lists also demonstrate a higher likelihood of making progress toward person goals, whether scholastic, interpersonal or health-related.
• Young adults who take intentional steps to expressing gratitude daily (what the researchers called a “daily gratitude intervention” reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy.
• People who express daily gratitude are more likely to offer emotional support to another person or help someone with a personal problem.
One of the studies even assessed the impact of gratitude on healing from illness. In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality.
Gratitude is a total win-win. It just takes intentionality, focus, and some self-discipline to keep our minds focused on the right topics!
God promises in Psalm 16:11 that He will make known to us the path of life, that in his presence is fullness of joy. This is a great week to assess the fruit of our home life and activate the worship weapons in our arsenal if we find ourselves a little short on gratitude.
In addition to our own self-responsibility, we also play a role in the expression and experience of gratitude for others in our realm of influence as well.
Dr. Glen Fox, a professor at the University of Southern California, has been studying how hearing stories that inspire gratitude increase activity in the Medial PFC, the zone of empathy. Just hearing these stories increases our compassion, improves sleep, enhances relationships, promotes health, and increases happiness.
Hebrews 3:13 says to encourage one another daily so we won’t be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. That word exhort, parakaleo, means to call near, to invite, to invoke, to console.
When we “come near” to offer sincere praise and encouragement to another person, we do more than simply function as corporate cheerleaders; we actually activate the reward center of the human brain, flooding it with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion, motivation, and pleasure. We play a significant role in cultivating a joyful emotional environment of the people in our realm of influence. Why not leave a meeting or a marketplace better than you found it?
One easy and powerful way to add this action step is with peer-to-peer praise, where we publicly acknowledge others for what they’ve done, a public shoutout. I call it reverse gossip.
Another fast track to learning gratitude is assessing and addressing our thought life. You’re might be focused on the wrong thing. Philippians 4: 8 literally gives us a list to think on (things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy).
Neuroscientists like Dr. Shawn Achor at Harvard have shown that we literally rewire our brains for better or worse by what we think about. That’s the same principle that underpins Romans 12:2, that we are transformed (Greek: metamorphoo--literally metamorphosed) by the renewing of our minds. What better way to renew our minds than to focus on the elements of beauty and peace that God has literally surrounded us with in this life as we await with joyful expectation the life that is to come?
Romans 14:16 reminds us that the kingdom of God is “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” As you celebrate Thanksgiving in your heart and in your home this week, you can intentionally infuse your celebrations and the realm of your influence with a spirit of Thanksgiving. Instead of allowing fears or even dreams of the future to blind us to the beauty of the moment, like Mathilde did, we can focus our eyes and our hearts on the joy of now.
If we want our homes to be established on a spirit of gratitude that eclipses the entitlement spirit so prevalent in today’s culture, we can put into practice these simple steps, popularized by researchers and written in God’s infallible word, in order to employ a spirit of gratitude in your home.
As I Thessalonians 5:16-18 reminds us, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Thanksgiving is a perfect season for developing generational gratitude. Why not take some time to read aloud and discuss “The Necklace” over the holiday and talk about practical ways you and your family can apply the lessons in your own lives? Agree to hold each other accountable for negative Nelly attitudes that can dampen even the most enthusiastically God-centered of all Christian holidays, Thanksgiving.
Once we open the door to a mindset of gratitude, we may find a host of other virtues freely spilling into our lives as well. As Roman statesman and scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero once put it: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Happy Thanksgiving from the CVCU family. We will see you back in class on Tuesday!