Remember What Your Mother Taught You about Gratitude
Ray Wheeler, DMin. A pastor and several of his congregation visited our Chino church chair factory the other day to look at church chairs. One of the members had their seven year old son in tow and while he was well behaved he was obviously bored – church chairs were not product to purchase for him they are another form of play (something to climb on and around). We have a collection of marketing and tradeshow trinkets including a box of rubber band balls with Bertolini Sanctuary Seating name on them. In a lull in the conversation I grabbed one of the rubber band balls and offered it to the young man. As he reached to receive the gift I offered, his mother posed a question. What was this maternal prompting? As you may have guessed she asked, “What do you say?” The expected answer was, “Thank you.”
In light of today’s economic challenges I have been thinking about gratitude. Gratitude is a virtue that contributes to living well. The scripture and research both agree that gratitude possesses tremendous potential for engaging change in how a person experiences life or determines the meaning of their circumstance. Gratitude is a positive emotion that has more recently captured the imagination and eye of researchers because of the mediating role gratitude plays in other positive emotions and overall mental and spiritual health.
Gratitude Acts as a Pathway to Expand a Sense of Meaning and Purpose
Why is gratitude important? Gratitude occurs when we recognize someone has intentionally done something for us that is beneficial to us. The ability to recognize what others do for us is dependent upon a consolidated sense of self as a causal agent understanding that others are causal agents as well. This sense of self-awareness and awareness of others is called an “internalized theory of mind” by researches but it is better understood in theology as an awareness of imago Dei.
This self-awareness recognizes that our existence is a gift from God; we have purpose in partnership with God via the stewardship and exploration (rule) of the planet and its potential; we enjoy existence in the community of others who are like us (i.e., share the uniqueness of being created in God’s image); we know ourselves as male or female only in the presence of the sexually differentiated other (rather than in defined roles related to gender interpretations of this sexual differentiation). Imago Dei includes the idea that other people (like one self) are intentional beings whose behavior is motivated by desire and belief. This fundamental grasp of selfhood and sense of others formulates in children at around age 4. Without this internalized theory of mind a person becomes narcissistic.
Narcissism is a decay of imago Dei. Narcissistic people disdain gratitude because of an inflated sense of their own superiority – is it any wonder then that our mothers are so adamant about teaching thankfulness? Narcissistic people view expressions of gratitude as little more than attempts to curry favor or weakness – an unnecessary emotion that distracts from the need to perform expected tasks. In contrast to the extreme self sufficiency inherent in narcissism the experience and expression of gratitude requires the ability to relinquish some self-sufficiency to see the actions of others and to acknowledge that no one really lives independent from the beneficial actions of others.
Is it any wonder then that Paul equated the act of gratitude with the discovery of God’s will or regularly insisted that we recognize our interdependence on one another? (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18 and I Corinthians 12: 12-31) It takes a sense of self related and aware of others (including God) to come to an awareness of deeper meaning and purpose in life beyond the satisfaction of one’s own immediate and self absorbed impulses.
In a day when economic challenges force congregations and families to reconsider priorities and significance the practice of gratitude plays a significant role in helping redefine what it means to live abundantly. (John 10:10) Emotions like gratitude are not the same as sensory pleasure or mood. Emotions are multi-component response tendencies that reveal themselves over time. Emotions are rooted in how a person defines the meaning what they experience. Meaning consciously or unconsciously defined triggers a series of response tendencies that influence how a person experiences events. It is not the event itself that leads to emotion as experienced by the person in their facial expressions and physiological changes. It is the meaning assigned to the event by the person that result in emotional reaction to the event. When facing challenging times like the current economic climate this fact is important. The economy is not what determines your emotional state – it is what you believe about your circumstance that determines your emotional state.
How does Gratitude Change Us?
Gratitude broadens an individual’s mode of thinking and builds psychological, social and spiritual resources. Hence gratitude broadens and builds a person’s ability to grasp and analyze ideas, cope with problems and manage an increasing degree of complexity.
Gratitude is a powerful and critical force in personal survival and growth. Grateful individuals demonstrate (or develop) a different perspective on life that some researchers describe as a positive memory bias. A positive memory bias means that a person not only recalls a greater number of positive memories they reframe unpleasant experiences more positively over time as compared to the initial emotional impact of those experiences. People who exhibit a state of gratefulness are more alert, enthusiastic, determined, attentive and energetic. Fredrickson (2004) asserts that the benefits gained in emotional episodes of gratitude are durable i.e., they stick with a person. For example:
• Grateful people rebound faster emotionally from negative events.
• Grateful people are more adaptive. Adaptability in life is the ability to replace bitterness and resentment with gratitude and contentment (i.e., wanting the things you already have).
Gratitude literally prompts people to engage their environments and push the boundaries of experience and insight in such a way as to build new thought-action repertoires that can be called upon later in more stressful situations. Consider for a moment how David used gratitude to assess his experience. In the face of deeply challenging events David’s expression of gratitude contributes to a unique assertion about what these challenges mean.
12 Blessed is the one you discipline, LORD,
the one you teach from your law;
13 you grant them relief from days of trouble,
till a pit is dug for the wicked.
14 For the LORD will not reject his people;
he will never forsake his inheritance.
15 Judgment will again be founded on righteousness,
and all the upright in heart will follow it. (Psalm 94:12-15, NIV)
Gratitude prompts people to engage God and their circumstance in ways that are adaptive. Gratitude actually produces health and well-being and not just mark or signal health and well being. Gratitude enhances organizational transformation and performance. Finally gratitude is an interpersonal and intrapersonal experience that benefits the social, psychological and physiological health of those who are grateful.
The question raised by the mom in our factory offices looking at church chairs is a good one for all of us to consider in this time of economic challenge. Look at what we do have. Express gratitude to God. In our gratitude to God a new perspective exists that is desperately needed to face the challenges of this time and to lead the church into the creative and powerful response needed to help our neighbors discover the life changing love of God.
Let me suggest a starting point. Use the exercises below as starting point for your own psalm of thanksgiving. Let me know the results. I want to hear back from you.
Exercise 1: Recalibrating Your Thinking. Identify three things that happened today for which you are grateful? (e.g., a coworker’s extra effort, an employee’s extra effort, a friend’s feedback, or a spouse’s feedback etc.)
Exercise 2: Transform your Experience. One technique utilizing a behavioral-cognitive approach to learning gratitude encourages a four-step process: (a) identify non-grateful thoughts; (b) formulate gratitude-supporting thoughts; (c) substitute the gratitude-supporting thoughts for the non-grateful thoughts; and (d) translate the inner feeling into outward action. (If this seems too simplistic review the Stockdale paradox described by Jim Collins, “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” Admiral Stockdale said this regarding his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.)
Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in cross-cultural leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.
Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 85.