David Murray

Professor, Pastor, Author

8 Ways Thankfulness Boosts Happiness

The world’s most prominent researcher and writer about gratitude, Robert Emmons, defines gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Emmons’ research found that people who are thankful in this way tend to be happier, more energetic, more optimistic, and more helpful, more sympathetic, and more forgiving. They are also less materialistic, less depressed, less anxious, and less jealous.

In one study, some participants were asked to write down five things for which they were thankful and to do so once a week for ten weeks in a row. Other groups were asked to list five problems that they had encountered in the week. The findings?

Relative to the control groups, those participants from whom expressions of gratitude were solicited tended to feel more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives. Even their health received a boost; they reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headache, acne, coughing, or nausea) and more time spent exercising (The How of Happiness, 91).

Sonja Lyubomirsky’s studies on patients with chronic illnesses have shown that “on the days that individuals strive to express their gratitude, they experience more positive emotions (that is, feelings like interest, excitement, joy, and pride) and are more likely to report helping someone, to feel connected with others, and even to catch more hours of quality sleep.”

Lyubomirsky’s team went on to discover eight reasons thankfulness is so directly related to happiness (pp. 92-95).

1. Grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences
“By relishing and taking pleasure in some of the gifts of your life, you will be able to extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from your current circumstances.”

2. Expressing gratitude increases confidence
“When you realize how much people have done for you or how much you have accomplished, you feel more confident and efficacious.”

3. Gratitude helps people cope with stress and trauma.
The ­ability to appreciate your life circumstances enable a person to positively reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences. Indeed, traumatic memories are less likely to surface–and are less intense when they do-in those who are regularly grateful.

4. The expression of gratitude encourages moral behavior.
“Grateful people are more likely to help others (e.g., you become aware of kind and caring acts and feel compelled to reciprocate) and less likely to be materialistic (e.g., you appreciate what you have and become less fixated on acquiring more stuff).”

5. Gratitude can help build social bonds
It strengthens existing relationships and nurtures new ones. “Several studies have shown that people who feel gratitude toward particular individuals (even when they never directly express it) experience closer and “higher-quality” relationships with them…In addition, a grateful person is a more positive person, and positive people are better liked by others and more likely to win friends.”

6. Gratitude tends to inhibit invidious comparisons with others
“If you are genuinely thankful and appreciative for what you have (e.g., family, health, home), you are less likely to pay close attention to or envy what the Joneses have.”

7. Gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions
“It may actually diminish or deter such feelings as anger, bitterness, and greed…It’s hard to feel guilty or resentful or infuriated when you’re feeling grateful.”

8. Gratitude helps us thwart hedonic adaptation
Although our capacity to adjust rapidly to any new circumstance or event helps us when the event is unpleasant, it’s a disadvantage when the event provides a positive boost. The practice of gratitude can counteract this adaptation and maintain fresh wonder and joy.

Or as someone else put it: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High” (Ps. 92:1).

If you like your health plan, you can keep you health plan. Period.”

It was a lie and was told 29 times with minor modifications.

“But all politicians lie!” say the defenders and spinners.

The President? 29 times? To the whole nation? About his signature policy achievement? Impacting the health of millions?

This was a whopper by any standards. However, when found out, it was also a huge opportunity to demonstrate how to say sorry, how to tell the truth, and how to put right what was wrong.

But, if the President’s lie was bad, his response to being found out was even worse – a perfect model of how not to repent of sin. Here are a few of the excuses we’ve heard from the President and his spokesperson over the past few weeks (I’m paraphrasing them).

1. “But I didn’t think it was a lie at the time.” Reports now indicate that President Obama and his inner circle knew it was untrue and debated whether to include the line in his speeches.

2. “But how was I to know that this would happen.” Obamacare documents reveal that the government not only expected this, but that they expected cancellations to run into the tens of millions. And why wait for 2-3 years to admit it? Why only admit it when forced to?

3. “But it only affects a small minority of Americans.” So when does a lie become a lie? When it affects 10% of the population? 20%? 50%?

4. “But the vast majority will be unaffected.” Oh, so you think that I think that if I’m alright that I don’t care about the impact of this on other families. And you also think that I am unaffected and untroubled by my President lying to millions of Americans?

5. “But what I meant was that you can keep your plan if it meets my standards.” If there’s one thing worse than lying, it’s lying about your lie.

6. “But these people will end up with better plans at better premiums.” Well that’s a relief. Because it’s not a lie if it results in benefits for those lied to, does it? The end always justifies the means, doesn’t it?

7. “It was too complicated to explain all the intricacies of the legislation.” I’d rather complicated truth than simple lies, please.

8. “It’s the insurance companies’ fault.” Oh, yes, the oldest trick in the book: ”The woman whom you gave to me…”

9. “Of course I’m sorry that people find themselves in this situation.” Not sorry for the lie itself? Only sorry for the consequences? If people had not been badly affected, would it not have been a lie then?

10. “The Republicans are simply trying to take advantage of this.” A lie is a lie, no matter how many try to politicize it.

It’s really a classic demonstration of how the human heart responds to sin: more lies, minimizing, rationalizing, blame-shifting, politicization, pragmatism, diversion, etc.

Let’s for a moment try to imagine what the President should have said.

“My fellow Americans, I lied to you. I promised that if you liked your health plan you could keep it. I repeated that lie almost 30 times in multiple venues. At the time I justified it to myself and to my advisers by saying that it was for the greater good, that it was vital in order to get Obamacare passed. I should not have done that. I was wrong and I am deeply sorry. I betrayed your trust in me.

I’ve known about this for a while, and I should have come cleaner sooner. For that too, I am sorry.

As it is only right that I try to make amends so that no one, and I repeat no one, suffers as a result of my lie, I have invited Congress to work with me to re-write the law so that all those I made that promise to, can keep their health plan. If that is not possible, then I am willing to let Obamacare fall rather than see one American suffer as a result of my lie.

I have also offered my resignation to the Secretary of State, but I know Americans are a forgiving people, and I hope you will give me opportunity to serve you further, beginning with me putting right my wrong.”

Reason says, “Madness! They’ll crucify him”

Faith says, “It’s the biblical way and God will bless it.”

What Is Christian Happiness?

While almost everyone wants to be happy, there is little agreement about what happiness is. Just look at the diversity of these definitions below:

Happiness is to love and to work. – Freud.

Happiness is a warm puppy. – Charles Schulz, of Charlie Brown fame.

Happiness is like obscenity. We can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. – US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart.

Happiness is the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. – Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of the How of Happiness.

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. – Mahatma Gandhi.

Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude. – Dale Carnegie.

Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude. - Denis Waitley.

Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness. - Don Marquis.

Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product. – Eleanor Roosevelt.

And if you want to really exhaust yourself, here are 99 Definitions of Happiness.

But what would a Christian definition of happiness look like? Is there such a thing as Christian happiness? If so, what would it include?

I believe there is such a thing as Christian happiness, quite distinct from any other kind of happiness, but the problem is that it is so multi-layered and multi-dimensional that it’s probably impossible to define it in one sentence. Believe me, I’ve tried. Consider even just the following sample sources of Christian happiness.

  • God is our perfect Father.
  • We know Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
  • The Holy Spirit is sanctifying and empowering us.
  • Our sins are forgiven.
  • God lives in our hearts.
  • We are justified and adopted into God’s world-wide and heaven-wide family.
  • Everything is working together for our good.
  • God is our guard and guide
  • We have all the promises of God.
  • Jesus has prepared a place for us in heaven and will welcome us there.

How do you put all these rich ingredients into one simple recipe? But if you’re going to force me into a short one-sentence definition, then I’d say: Christian happiness is the grace of loving and being loved by Jesus who gave his life for me. That to me is the sum and summit of it all.

How would you define Christian happiness?

Who Is Your Challenger in Chief?

Did you know that you get a dopamine rush when someone echoes what you already believe? It’s similar to the buzz we get when we eat chocolate or fall in love. Sounds like we should surround ourselves with people who agree with us, doesn’t it. Sadly that’s what often happens to leaders, including church and ministry leaders. They are drawn to those who affirm them and tend to avoid, silence, or ignore those who might challenge them.

But as Noreena Hertz explains at the Harvard Business Review, “a vast body of research now points to the import of contemplating diverse, dissenting views. Not just in terms of making us more rounded individuals but in terms of making us smarter decision-makers. Dissent, it turns out, has a significant value.”

When group members are actively encouraged to openly express divergent opinions they not only share more information, they consider it more systematically and in a more balanced and less biased way. When people engage with those with different opinions and views from their own they become much more capable of properly interrogating critical assumptions and identifying creative alternatives. Studies comparing the problem-solving abilities of groups in which dissenting views are voiced with groups in which they are not find that dissent tends to be a better precondition for reaching the right solution than consensus.

Honest Feedback
It’s extremely hard for a leader to get honest feedback due to the fact that most people’s tendency is to say what the leader wants to hear. Yet how many leaders actively seek out and encourage views alien and at odds to their own? Not many. And, as Hertz demonstrates, this has damaging consequences.

President Lyndon Johnson notoriously discouraged dissent, with many historians now believing that this played a significant role in the decision to escalate U.S. military operations in Vietnam. Excessive group-think is now recognized to have underpinned President Kennedy’s disastrous authorization of a CIA-backed landing at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. Former employees of the now defunct Lehman Brothers have talked about how voicing dissent there was considered a career-breaker. Yale economics professor Robert Shiller explained that when it came to warning about the bubbles he believed were developing in the stock and housing markets just before the financial crisis he did so only “quietly” because: “Deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group with the risk that one may be terminated.”

Hertz urges leaders to actively signal that they want to hear views different and diverse and in opposition to their own and cites a number of encouraging examples.

Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google, has talked about how he actively seeks out in meetings people with a dissenting opinion. Abraham Lincoln’s renowned “team of rivals” was comprised of people whose intellect he respected and were confident enough to take issue with him when they disagreed with his point of view. Stuart Roden, Co Fund Manager of Lansdowne Partners’ flagship fund, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, tells me he sees one of his primary roles as being the person who challenges his staff to consider how they could be wrong, and then assess how this might impact on their decision-making.

Of course, for Christian ministry, we’re not talking about encouraging people to challenge core biblical doctrines and practices. We’re speaking more of vision, direction, strategy, administration, problem-solving, management, etc.

Who is your Challenger in Chief? Who questions your choices? Who contradicts your positions?

And are you listening to them, or shutting them down?

You can read Noreena Hertz’s article here, although you probably need a free subscription to get access.

About David Murray

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He blogs at HeadHeartHand . and you can follow him on Twitter @DavidPMurray .

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