Why Gratitude Is Good
Article by Robert Emmons (2010)
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What is the Science?

Robert Emmons, the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude, establishes two key components of gratitude as a social emotion: 1) we must recognize there is good in the world, and 2) we must humbly accept that this goodness comes outside of ourselves. His research shows that when people intentionally engage in practices of gratitude, they experience a wide range of benefits.

  • Physically: Grateful people tend to have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and more restful sleep patterns.
  • Psychologically: Grateful people experience more positive emotions like joy and pleasure, tend to be more optimistic, and gain resilience in the face of struggles and attacks. Gratefulness can also reduce episodes of depression.
  • Socially: People who practice gratitude are more forgiving, generous, and compassionate. They also feel less lonely and more connected to others. Gratefulness counteracts negative social emotions like envy and resentment.

Emmons notes, however, that we have deeply ingrained tendencies that work against expressing gratitude, such as:

  • The “self-serving bias”: We believe that good things happen because of something we did, but bad experiences are the fault of others.
  • The need for control: Most of us want to feel in control of our lives rather than graciously accepting life as it comes.
  • The “just-world hypothesis”: Good things happen to good people (and bad things happen to bad people). Therefore, we deserve good things and, in fact, are entitled to them.

Gratitude challenges all of these behaviors by helping us acknowledge the good in our lives that, for Christians, ultimately originates in the goodness of God.

“This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.”

-Robert Emmons

What is the Theology?

Few people need convincing that gratitude is a virtue. Even still, sermons may include research that explores the personal benefits of practicing gratitude, particularly how gratitude works as a social emotion. Pastors may want to pair sermons on gratitude with thoughts on humility so that congregants recognize God as the initiator of all good things. Sermons should articulate why people should be grateful, but also emphasize that gratitude is more of a practice than a simple feeling. Doing so establishes how to be grateful.

Additionally, pastors may want to show how gratitude challenges conventional thinking that inhibits consistent expressions of gratefulness. Mindsets of entitlement or control could be exposed as idolatrous tendencies. Consider how your congregation can practice gratitude either collectively or individually. For example, Emmons contends that keeping a gratitude journal – even on a weekly basis – can be beneficial in cultivating gratitude. Perhaps taking time to express gratitude during congregational gatherings can function in this way.

What to Consider

  • Which dimensions of gratitude (physical, psychological, social) are least appreciated or recognized among your congregation? How can you highlight these as an aspect of gratitude’s virtue?
  • Have you seen how gratitude develops resilience in the face of trials? What stories of others come to mind?
  • As you reflect on the cultural inhibitors to gratitude (self-serving bias, need for control, just-world hypothesis), which keeps you from practicing gratitude consistently? Which inhibits your congregation?
  • What existing practices does your faith tradition have that helps people practice gratitude?

How to Go Deeper

  • Provide a time and place for the congregation to reflect on five things for which they are grateful. How can they express their gratitude to one another? How can they express their gratitude to God?
  • Read a psalm (see below) as a responsive reading, utilizing different voices in the congregation to show the broad dimensions of gratitude.
  • Provide a symbol (a cross, a candle, etc.) to remind individuals to express gratitude daily. Prayers are a great way to express gratitude!

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

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2017-01-31T14:34:36+00:00

About the Author:

Kyle Sears is a church planter and ministry coach (and husband and father). He is pursuing an M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary while working for the STAR Office at Fuller. He loves a good story, and finds himself called to help others envision a life lived between the overlap of heaven and earth.

5 Comments

  1. aidenkang May 19, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    Great article – Wasn’t aware of the physical benefits of being grateful.

  2. aidenkang May 19, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks for the suggestion of having the congregation set aside time to reflect on 5 things for which they’re thankful for

  3. JarrodCraw May 23, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    I think that this would work great as a church-wide project: keeping a journal of gratitude on-site that anyone can fill out. Specifics are given and each person is encouraged to write. Instead of just the personal journal, you have a whole church culture giving thanks together.

  4. matt@ncstudycenter.org June 28, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    Science is often appealed to in a reductionist manner: as all-explanatory and as casting human emotion, feeling, creative productions, etc. as mere bio-chemical phenomena. I appreciate that “the science of gratitude” appeals to “recognizing there is good outside of oneself” as its first principle.

  5. matt@ncstudycenter.org July 1, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    The “self-serving bias” here has major resonances with the way Scripture talks about sin/pride. We highlight our good deeds (which are really God working through us) and we minimize our sinfulness/wrong-doing

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