“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.” These are the words of the great poet Maya Angelou. And we do begin so many of our prayers with words like ‘we give thanks for’ or ‘thank you God’. Gratitude is a virtue that is central in our relationship to God – it orients our prayer lives, even our worship and stimulates so much more in living the life of faith. Gratitude has also become one of the most studied virtues. We now have a wealth of information on both its benefits and ways to cultivate it.
A good introduction to the topic is this 56-minute public radio broadcast narrated by Susan Sarandon. For you podcast lovers, there is also Krista Tippett’s interview with Br. David Steindl-Rast looking more at the spiritual dimensions. There are these Oprah-approved inspirational videos that show the power of gratitude and its links to other virtues. The same videographer, Louis Schwartzberg, has a great TED talk on gratitude. While the research is a bit dated now, for those of you who like to turn pages, there is Thanks!, an easy read summarizing the research circa 2006 by one of the leading gratitude researchers, Robert Emmons, who is a Christian and also considers the theological dimensions of gratitude research.
So what does the research say? Being perhaps the most studied virtue, we have some idea of how it has evolved. It looks like gratitude is good for your health and not surprisingly there are a number of links between the science of gratitude and self-improvement. For those who remember Dr. Melanie Tew’s introduction of neuroplasticity last Lent, you will rightly guess that gratitude can change your brain. And it is really important to express it often to your partner. We also see strong links between gratitude and many other virtues – I mentioned in prior weeks the links between forgiveness, humility, and gratitude but is also strongly linked to purpose and generosity among others. And there are some simple ways to cultivate it, perhaps the easiest being a gratitude journal. You may have noticed that many of the links here are to the Greater Good Science Center – it is a primary hub for communicating research findings from positive psychology, but it has also been a key hub supporting much of the research on gratitude. This Greater Good page lists dozens of articles that look at many more aspects of gratitude’s benefits and how to cultivate it across the lifespan.
But, interestingly, despite all we know about the benefits of gratitude and how to cultivate it, it is the virtue that has received the most negative reaction. I think there is some truth that there is a selfish side to gratitude, because it is not all about me. And an overemphasis on gratitude probably can make us complacent. While individual practices like a gratitude journal might change our brains, the counting of our blessings may not always be beneficial to all people. That is to say there is tension here between the benefits to us of gratitude and the right reasons to be grateful. The goal as the grateful people of God is not to be self-help, blessing-counting, shiny, happy people clichés but rather a people genuinely thankful for all that God has done for us and, in response, sharing that love with others. Gratitude is an essential virtue, but it is not the greatest commandment. That is love – of God and of neighbor. And that movement from God, to self, to the other is key. Maya Angelou understood it. The quote we began with, about the gratitude pillow of our prayer continues, “And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.”