David Murray

Professor, Pastor, Author

Thankful People Are Happy People

Research shows that gratitude is a powerful force for creating positive changes in individuals, families, and organizations. In fact, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a research professor of psychology, “The expression of gratitude is a kind of metastrategy for achieving happiness.” Some of the more detailed findings, published in books like The Happiness Advantage,Flourish, and Optimal Functioning, are:

  • Consistently grateful people are more energetic, emotionally intelligent, forgiving, and less likely to be depressed, anxious, or lonely.
  • When researchers pick random volunteers and train them to be more grateful over a period of a few weeks, they become happier and more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better quality sleep, and even experience fewer headaches than control groups.
  • By noticing more kindness you’ll experience more of it in your life. Counting kindness interventions involve taking daily tallies (mental or physical) of kind acts committed and witnessed, and have been shown to increase people’s levels of positivity.
  • Gratitude encourages moral behavior and helps people cope with stress, trauma, and adversity.
  • It also inhibits negative comparisons with others and pushes out and replaces negative emotions.
  • When we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them.
  • Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives
  • Thankful people feel more physically healthy and spend more time exercising.

In The Happiness Project, the best-selling biographical experiment in positive psychology, Gretchen Rubin explains the benefits of increased thankfulness in her own life:

Gratitude brings freedom from envy, because when you’re grateful for what you have, you’re not consumed with wanting something different or something more. That, in turn, makes it easier to live within your means and also to be generous to others. Gratitude fosters forbearance – it’s harder to feel disappointed with someone when you’re feeling grateful toward him or her. Gratitude also connects you to the natural world, because one of the easiest things to feel grateful for is the beauty of nature.

Increasing Gratitude

We can increase gratitude in our lives by intensifying the feeling of it for each positive event, by increasing the frequency of it throughout the day, by widening the number of things we’re grateful for, and by expressing gratitude to more people. Some positive psychologists, like Jessica Colman, also encourage the practice of “savoring” which has three phases:

  • Anticipation: Generating positive feelings before an event occurs.
  • Present enjoyment: Generating positive feelings in the present by intensifying or prolonging them through thoughts and behaviors.
  • Reminiscence: Generating positive feelings by looking back on an event in a way that re-kindles positive emotion.

In Flourish, Martin Seligman identified four kinds of savoring:

  • Basking: Reveling in or making the most of praise or congratulations.
  • Thanksgiving: Experiencing or expressing gratitude.
  • Marveling: Being filled with wonder, astonishment, or awe.
  • Luxuriating: Delighting in the experience of the senses.

Some more practical activities for increasing gratitude are explained in Optimal Functioning:

  • Gratitude Journal: Write down what you are grateful for each day, and describe in detail why each good thing happened. This draws the attention to the precursors of good events and helps people become aware of more things to be grateful for, deepening the experience.
  • Gratitude Essay or Letter: Write an essay about, or a letter to someone to whom you feel grateful. Explain why you feel grateful in detail. If you write a letter it is not necessary to deliver it, but delivering it can produce even more positive emotion for the writer and the receiver.
  • Gratitude Partner: Plan to practice gratitude regularly with a partner by sharing good news and discussing things you feel grateful for. Respond actively and constructively when your partner shares, feeling the joy and gratitude with them when they share their blessings.
  • Meditate on the Feeling of Gratitude: Sit in a quiet place to meditate, call to mind things you feel grateful for, savor the feeling of gratitude, and let it impact your whole body.
  • Express Gratitude Directly: Make a habit of thanking people authentically for the things they do for you and the impact they have on your life.

More blessed to give than to receive

As far as I know, none of these positive psychology experts have Christian faith. And yet God is using them not only to confirm the Bible’s teaching about giving (of thanks) making us happier than receiving (Acts 20:35), but also to work out the practical details of how to increase gratitude in our lives for everyone’s benefit.

It’s the kind of thing that makes us wonder how unbelievers sometimes seem to have more understanding of biblical principles than Christians! But the Apostle Paul helps us make sense of this. He says that when unbelievers, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, they show the work of the law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:14-15).

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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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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