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Oct7ThuThe surprising benefits of gratitude. October 7, 2021 by David Cwir
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I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.—Philippians 4:13 (NKJV)
These victorious words ring like they were spoken by a true champion. I can imagine them being uttered by the likes of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart immediately before he engaged in a seemingly impossible battle. Or as a declaration by Martin Luther, after he faced the ominous consequences of nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church. Indeed, many remarkable people throughout the centuries have proclaimed these very words as they faced impossible odds. It’s no wonder that the person who first coined this phrase was the ultimate poster child of faith: the Apostle Paul.
Paul was a remarkable person. Not only did he write two-thirds of the New Testament, but his ministry has influenced countless individuals throughout history. His life is truly inspiring, but his dedication was not without difficulty. One needs only to read a few short verses in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 to get a sense of the extreme suffering Paul endured for the sake of the gospel. The list includes imprisonment, floggings, beatings, stoning and lashings, to name but a few.
The nature of Paul’s suffering was so severe at times that one wonders how he ever endured it so faithfully. What was it that kept Paul going through such difficulties? Fortunately, Paul provides several keys in his writings on how we can withstand similar difficulties. One of these keys can be found immediately before the opening quote from Philippians 4:13, when Paul states: “For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:11-12; emphasis mine). Given what we know about Paul’s intense sufferings, it is noteworthy that he learned to be content in every situation. Not only that, but according to these verses, there is a secret to Paul’s contentment. So, what is it?
The Power of Thanksgiving
By looking at the context of Philippians 4:4-13, we can find the mysterious secret to which Paul was referring. In Philippians 4:6-7, he urges: “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.”
Remember that in verse 12, Paul says he learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, and in verses six and seven, he exhorts us all to be thankful in every situation. This similarity in language isn’t merely a coincidence. Rather, it suggests that thanksgiving, when combined with a regular prayer life, ultimately leads to contentment in all circumstances. Not only does Paul connect the giving of thanks in every situation with the peace of God, he also implies it is an antidote to anxiety.
Guarding Your Mind and Heart
Although many of us may already believe the promises stated in Philippians 4:6-7 because of our Christian faith, there is mounting scientific evidence that verifies the truth of it as well. Over the past couple of decades, researchers have shown the benefits that thankfulness has on the mind and heart. Psychologists have found that gratitude has a positive influence on life satisfaction, subjective well-being, social behaviours, religiosity, perceived social support, hopefulness and even personality. Several studies have also found that thankfulness can help counteract stress and depression.
A regular practice of gratitude benefits physical health as well. Researchers from the University of California San Diego found that gratitude decreases inflammatory biomarkers associated with heart disease. Other research has shown that gratitude is associated with indirect benefits—such as decreasing blood pressure. In other words, thanksgiving can literally “guard the heart,” as stated in Philippians 4:6-7.
Along with its role in guarding the heart and mind, gratitude has immune-boosting effects, which protect people from contracting various illnesses and disease. Thanksgiving also decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn boosts the immune system—especially helpful during a global pandemic. With all these benefits, it’s no wonder that Paul exhorts us all to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Scripture tells us that it is God’s will for us to be thankful in all circumstances. When combined with a regular prayer life, thanksgiving has powerful promises attached to it. Are you thankful in all circumstances? If not, then where should you begin? Fortunately, initiating a lifestyle of gratitude is simple and does not require much time or effort. We can all start being more thankful on a regular basis.
The following scientifically based strategies of gratitude are taken from Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. I challenge you to choose one or more of these strategies to implement in your own life. As you do, you will find that it will benefit your physical, spiritual and psychological well-being.
First, keep a gratitude journal or diary. Researchers from the Hong Kong Institute of Education found that health-care practitioners who kept a simple gratitude diary just two times a week over a period of four weeks showed a reduction in perceived stress and depression for three months. If this practice is something that interests you, Lyubomirsky suggests, “Ponder the three to five things for which you are currently grateful, from the mundane (your dryer is fixed, your flowers are finally in bloom, your husband remembered to stop by the store) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps, the beauty of the sky at night). One way to do this is to focus on all the things that you know to be true—for example, something you’re good at, what you like about where you live, goals you have achieved, and your advantages and opportunities. Don’t forget specific individuals who care for you, have made contributions to or sacrifices for you, or somehow touch your life.”
Lyubomirsky’s own research shows that people can benefit from this journal exercise by completing a journal entry just once a week. However, some people may reap more benefits by doing it more regularly (e.g., daily).
If writing is not your thing, then there are several other options at your disposal. For example, Lyubomirsky suggests that, “Instead of writing, some of you may choose a fixed time simply to contemplate each of your objects of gratitude and perhaps also to reflect on why you are grateful and how your life has been enriched. Others may choose to identify just one thing each day that they usually take for granted and that ordinarily goes unappreciated.” There are no limits to what you can be grateful for or how you can express it. The key is to find what strategy works best for you so that you are more likely to stick with it on a regular basis.
Whether you decide to write a journal, contemplate or personally thank someone who has blessed your life, Lyubomirsky suggests that variety is important. As soon as you find yourself becoming bored with a certain practice of gratitude, it is beneficial to mix it up by adopting other practices to “keep it fresh.” By finding new ways of being thankful or thinking of new things or people to be thankful for, you will be more likely to reap the tremendous benefits that gratitude has to offer. Not only will you be more happy, healthy and satisfied with your life, like the Apostle Paul, you will learn the secret to being content in every situation. So, as we embark on this contentment challenge, let’s remember Paul’s exhortation to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
David Cwir is an assistant professor of psychology at Booth University College in Winnipeg. In addition to teaching and research, David enjoys preaching itinerantly and leading worship with his wife. You can follow David at www.facebook.com/dtcwir.