Gratitude is a primary theme in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul repeatedly encourages the little church there to express thanksgiving, and he’s clear in his example: “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Paul certainly had a clear idea that gratitude was important, but he’s not alone in this assessment. In 54 BC, the Roman orator and author Cicero said: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged us to “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” Meister Eckhart, the 13th century theologian and mystic, famously said, “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
Gratitude has this glorious sanction from philosophers and spiritual thinkers, but we also know that gratitude has real-world benefits. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough are the co-authors of a study titled “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” If you want to get published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you have to have a cumbersome academic title like that, but the gist of Emmons and McCullough’s work is that people who focus on things they are grateful for report a greater sense of well-being than those who complain about stuff. They found that “…a weekly benefit listing was associated with more positive and optimistic appraisals of one’s life, more time spent exercising, and fewer reported physical symptoms…People led to focus on their blessings were also more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another, suggesting prosocial motivation as a consequence of the gratitude induction. This finding lends support to the hypothesis that gratitude serves as a moral motivator.” Not only are grateful people happier, they treat others better.
But if gratitude has such a positive effect on our lives, is encouraged by influential and trustworthy people throughout history, then why do we have such a difficult time being thankful? Why aren’t we more grateful, and therefor more happy? The primary reason seems to be that we’re selfish. Gratitude, by its very nature, is an acknowledgment of something beyond us, a benevolent other that has done some good for us. Gratitude expressed for what we have done for ourselves isn’t gratitude, it’s vanity. Gratitude says that what I have, what I enjoy, the things in my life that make my life worth living, come as a grace, a gift. But gratitude is a discipline, and it seems to go against our self-centered nature.
Human history is laced with selfishness, but we appear to be in a period of time where selfishness has taken on the character of a virtue. We are encouraged at every turn to think of ourselves first, to seek our own comfort and ease, to consume and consume in an attempt to fill that aching void in our hearts. Others are an impediment, just something in the way of our self-fulfillment; or worse, they are actively trying to thwart our selfish impulses. Complaining is the vocalization of our selfishness. Things aren’t going my way, so I lash out verbally, and we are flooded with venues that allow for that complaint—comment sections on blog posts and social media are saturated with personal perspectives on what is right and vitriolic rants about why others are wrong.
Emmons and McCullough also called attention to that pious cousin of complaint—what they called “downward social comparison,” the tendency to cloak our selfishness in the false gratitude of “I’m thankful that I’m better off than they are.” True gratitude accepts that we have received a gift, while downward social comparison pretends gratitude by comparison to other’s “less fortunate” state. If considering the state of others helps us recognize what we have to be truly thankful for, then gratitude may result, but a healthy thankfulness should not be built on the backs of others. We do not need to play comparison games to see what we have to be thankful for. It’s all around us, if we choose to see it.
Gratitude is the key to stepping outside of ourselves. Complaining and downward social comparison keeps the focus inward, keeps feeding the selfish desires. Pointing our other’s flaws, grousing about our problems, ranting about how unfair life has been to us just fuels the fires of our own self-worship. Gratitude offers us a path out of that selfish trap. This is more than just not complaining. Thanksgiving actually turns our attention to the benevolent action of God in the world, and more significantly toward us personally. We become practiced in witnessing the goodness of God, God’s wonderful outpouring of love. And we learn, with each thanksgiving, that sovereign God who created the universe is also the loving God who has plans to prosper us, and give us a future.