Five years ago, I started my first semester as a new faculty member at Tyndale University College and Seminary. It was an exciting time. I was happy to finally begin a career that I had spent so many years in school pursuing. My dreams of teaching psychology and my hopes of making an impact on students were becoming a reality.
My classes at Tyndale were much smaller than the public university classes I had attended, giving me an opportunity to get to know my students. I was required to take attendance—not the most exciting activity—so I considered how I could make it fun, and maybe even transformative.
I decided to try something new. Instead of having students indicate they were present by saying “here,” I gave them the option of telling the class something for which they were thankful. I figured that starting class with gratitude would not only begin each session on a positive note, but would also encourage the students to regularly think about all the blessings they have in their lives.
I wasn’t sure how receptive the students would be, but I gave it a shot. I was happy that many chose to participate. When I received my student evaluations after the semester ended, a number of students had written about how much they appreciated this exercise in thankfulness throughout the semester.
Because of this positive feedback, I decided to continue this exercise for the remainder of my time at Tyndale. When I resigned from my position a few years later to plant a church in another city, I heard from one student at my going-away party that the thankfulness exercise made such an impact on her that she started a thankfulness journal. She also said that every time she spoke with her boyfriend on the phone, they began the conversation by asking each other what they were thankful for. I didn’t anticipate that something so simple could have such a lasting impact on students, but I was very pleased that it did.
The Effects of Thankfulness on Well-Being
When I began this thankfulness exercise, I approached it from a biblical perspective. I began the first lecture each semester by going over a few Scripture verses about thanksgiving and explaining why we were practising it. For example, I read 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” and pointed out (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that taking attendance is included under “all circumstances.” I also emphasized how the Bible clearly indicates that living a thankful life is part of God’s will for us as Christians.
Another Scripture that I highlighted for students was Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I pointed out the connection between thanksgiving and peace, and mentioned how the Scripture implies that it is also an antidote to anxiety.
Although I already believed this to be true because of my Christian faith, as a psychologist, I thought it would be interesting to run an experiment to see whether gratitude boosts positive emotions and reduces negative emotions as suggested in this Scripture. So I pitched this idea as a potential project for one of my honours students, Christina Costello, and she decided to pursue the topic for her honours thesis.
After running a controlled experiment, Christina found that people who wrote about someone for whom they were grateful showed a significant increase in positive emotions, a decrease in negative emotions and a reduction in stress when compared to people who wrote about a neutral topic. As part of her thesis, Christina also provided a thorough review of the empirical literature on gratitude. Although there are too many relevant research findings to report here, I thought I’d share a few interesting ones with you:
- Gratitude has a positive influence on life satisfaction, prosocial behaviours, religiosity, positive appraisals, and even personality.
- Grateful people tend to have positive coping mechanisms and strategies that impact their well-being.
- Gratitude is inversely correlated with stress and depression.
- Health-care practitioners who kept a simple gratitude diary twice a week show a reduction in perceived stress and depression consistently for three months.
- War veterans with PTSD who completed a daily gratitude diary experienced better self-esteem, positive affect and daily functioning.
- Gratitude was strongly correlated with higher levels of perceived social support and lower levels of both stress and depression in college students during their first three months of college.
Although this is a sample from the research literature, the effects of thanksgiving are significant and the implications for psychological health are intriguing. At the beginning of each semester, I began telling my students that not only is thanksgiving important from a biblical perspective, but that empirical research shows that it is an important practice for our personal well-being. I emphasized how thanksgiving can help buffer stress and boost positive emotions, which is particularly helpful during exam time.
Continuing the Tradition
I was recently hired at Booth University College in Winnipeg, and began teaching there in September. So far, the students seem receptive and are choosing to participate in the thankfulness exercise when I take attendance. A few have shared that before each class, they think about what they are thankful for so they will have something to say when I call their name. I’m hoping they will experience the same positive effects as my former students.
Give Thanks in All Circumstances
As we approach Thanksgiving, let’s remember the importance of being grateful, not only for our spiritual well-being, but also from a psychological perspective. Scripture tells us that it is God’s will for us to be thankful in all circumstances, and, when combined with a regular prayer life, thanksgiving has powerful promises attached to it (see Philippians 4:6-7).
Given the benefits of gratitude, it is a blessing that our culture celebrates Thanksgiving once a year. However, it would serve us all well to continually practise thanksgiving as a regular part of our daily lives. I recall a story about Charles Dickens who thought that it was rather odd that Americans celebrated Thanksgiving only once a year, suggesting that we actually have it backwards. He proposed that we should “Use that one day just for complaining and griping,” and instead, “Use the other 364 days to thank God for the many blessings he has showered on you.” Given how blessed we are here in Canada and the positive effects of living a thankful life, it seems that Charles Dickens was right.
David Cwir is an assistant professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg.
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