Gratitude: Pathway to Permanent Change

Michael Zigarelli

Adapted from Cultivating Christian Character: How to become the person God wants you to be–and how to help others do the same (Purposeful Design Publications (ACSI), 2004). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

It’s a timeless question: How do I become more like Jesus Christ? What can I do to develop authentic Christian character–to be patient and kind, to have joy and inner peace, to be gentle, compassionate, self-controlled, and forgiving? What can I do to truly care about people and to love them as God does? How can I finally–and permanently–become a better person than I am today?

There are a lot of answers to these questions. Good answers. Helpful answers. Theologically sound, exegetically elegant answers. Answers that can forever alter the trajectory of your relationship with God and people.

This article attempts to offer some further insight into this consummate discipleship question from an empirical angle. I studied the beliefs, behaviors and character attributes of 5,000 Christians worldwide, using a methodology applied regularly in the social sciences: Compare the “gold medalists” to the “silver medalists” and see what really distinguishes the champions. In other words, for this study I compared a group of what I call “high-virtue Christians” (i.e., people who consistently display “fruit of the Spirit” virtues) to a group of “average-virtue Christians” to see what makes the high-virtue Christian different (note 1).

What I found surprised me. Of all the possible explanations for why some Christians look more like Jesus than others, one explanation–one characteristic–clearly stood out above the rest: gratitude.

In Christian circles, when we discuss the question of how to grow in godliness, gratitude is seldom identified as one of the usual suspects. Rather, we’re quick to cite Bible study, prayer, worship, fasting and a host of other spiritual disciplines. And this is why the finding surprised me. In this research, the largest study on the subject to date (of which I’m aware), a mindset of gratitude dwarfed the practice of any or all such disciplines as an explanation for how Christians go from average in virtue to consistently high in virtue; that is, as an explanation for why some of us consistently display “fruit of the Spirit” virtues (Gal. 5:22-23) and others do not. Before I get to the evidence, let me explain why this happens.

 

Gratitude is a “Parent Virtue”

Centuries ago, the philosopher Cicero argued that among virtues, gratitude is “the parent of all the others,” a virtue that begets other virtues. There seems to be a lot of truth to that claim. Growing one’s gratitude appears to have a radical and transformational effect on character because it is one of God’s primary vehicles for inducing (or “parenting”) other Christian qualities. Stated from a Christian worldview, gratitude is a vehicle that makes us better, more Christ-like people. Call it a “parent virtue,” call it “the gratitude effect,” call it miraculous, call it whatever you’d like. Regardless the label, gratitude is a powerful disposition that provides us with a very efficient, very effective mechanism for developing myriad character traits. Want more inner peace? Work on gratitude. Want more patience? Work on gratitude. Want to be more compassionate? You get the idea.

Gratitude does all this by setting a new thought context for processing our circumstances in life–a context of an abundant life. A context where everything we have is a gift. A context where we see clearly all that we really do have in life, and where we recognize that things could always be worse. Within this context, our view of the entire world is different and we are suddenly empowered to be the people God calls us to be–to more deeply love God, to love neighbor, and to love our own lives. To be authentic salt and light at home, at work, at church, and everywhere else.

This theory of gratitude as a parent virtue derives not only from ancient philosophers like Cicero, but, not surprisingly, from theologians as well. Exegetes of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and even the Qur´an have all seated gratitude as central among virtues. What may surprise some people, though, is that contemporary social scientists have also advanced and empirically-tested this theory, concluding that gratitude “stimulates moral behavior” and encourages people to behave in a “pro-social manner.” Stated more concretely, they have shown that gratitude is positively related to such critical outcomes as life satisfaction, vitality, happiness, optimism, hope, empathy, and the willingness to provide emotional and tangible support for other people, while being negatively related to anxiety, depression, and overall disposition (note 2). Collectively, such studies present credible evidence that feeling grateful generates a ripple effect through every area of our lives, potentially satisfying some of our deepest yearnings–our desire for happiness, our pursuit of better relationships, and our incessant quest for inner peace and contentment.

Pop psychology has piggy-backed on these research findings, introducing gratitude to the mass market as a potential panacea. Simply peruse the self-help section of any major bookstore these days and you’ll find that many of the best-selling books propagate the premise that gratitude is a key to joy, to replenishment of the soul, to inner transformation, and to blessing others with our lives. “Gratitude journals”–diaries with little more than flamboyant artwork and blank, lined pages–flank these best-sellers on each side. Now these journals have become best-sellers, too.

Given all this, it should be clear that what I report in this article regarding the effects of gratitude is not new information. Quite the contrary, it’s old and very public news. It’s news that’s been around for millennia. But that’s a testimony to its merits. The advice to cultivate character through growing gratitude is time-honored wisdom that transcends generations, cultures, and religious traditions.

 

Growing Gratitude by Disciplining Your Mind

Much of the above reasoning may ring true for you. We’ve all experienced moments in life when we suddenly become cognizant of the enormity of blessing in our life. A narrowly-averted collision with a tractor-trailer. A momentarily-lost child at the store. A news segment about some illness that’s plaguing a third world country. A phone call at three a.m. that, contrary to our fears, is not tragic news, but only a wrong number. An eye-opening missions trip to a destitute area. A clarifying moment of watching our children sleep.

A wave of thankfulness quickly follows such events and lasts for as long as we remain mindful of the blessing. During that time, we experience significant manifestations of Christian virtues. We become more Christ-like in our disposition toward everyone and everything. But–and most of us have experienced this as well–the empowerment vanishes as suddenly as it appeared, and we’re back to being the people we were before. The transformation, while welcome and wonderful, was fleeting. That’s the nature of gratitude. It’s a generator of other virtues, but only so long as it exists.

I found that one of the major secrets to success for “high-virtue Christians”–those who are most consistently Christ-like–is that they have mastered the art of maintaining a grateful disposition. Gratitude is simply part of who they are, rather than being some sporadic, refreshing occurrence. How do they do it? How do they nurture and sustain a grateful spirit?

In a sentence, they think differently from the way many of the rest of us think. The mind of the high-virtue Christian, it seems, is a disciplined mind, a pure and godly mind. A mind that is adept at immediately clearing away sinful thoughts. It is a mind that is focused on what one has rather than what one does not have. A mind that refuses to think in terms of what’s missing from life–in terms of how much better life could be “if only”¦” Instead, the high-virtue Christians in my study want what they have. They are fully content with what’s been conferred upon them, and they frequently thank God for their blessings.

Let’s look at the evidence regarding what goes on inside the heads of high- versus average-virtue Christians. First, more than half of the high-virtue Christians in my study (53%) say they always or almost always try to immediately clear sinful thoughts from their minds. That’s a tough thing to do, much less to do almost all the time! By comparison, this is true for fewer than one in five average-virtue Christians (18%). In other words, high-virtue Christians are about three times more likely to consistently insulate their minds from the junk that undermines most of us. Their minds are conditioned to eradicate the incubators for ingratitude–envy, jealousy, greed, lust, and so on. That’s one of their secrets to success. High-virtue derives, in part, from high gratitude and high gratitude begins with taking charge of the thought life.

That’s especially true for thoughts that drift toward envy, since envy is the chief assailant of gratitude. The more we desire what other people have, the less satisfied we become with what we currently have. Thus, in an envious frame of mind, we are blinded to God’s providence, ungrateful for what He has done, and ungrateful for what He continues to do in our lives.

In general, I found that high-virtue Christians, more so than others, reject this kind of thinking. Not all of them have completely repudiated envy, but more than two out of three high-virtue Christians (68%) say they “rarely” or “never” desire what others have. By contrast, more than half of average-virtue Christians (55%) report being envious “sometimes,” “often” or “always.” As such, many of them remain in a mindset that steals their gratitude and with it, the myriad virtues that are the descendents of gratitude.

What do high-virtue Christians think about instead of entertaining envious thoughts? Where are their minds during their day-to-day routines? Here’s a striking statistic that reveals one of the key differences between high- and average-virtue Christians: Four out of five high-virtue Christians consistently remember throughout the day how God has blessed them. Only two out of five average-virtue Christians say they do this.

One might reasonably ask at this point: Are these people thanking God more than others do because they are well-off financially? Because they have more material possessions? Because they have more temporal assets than do others? These are not the reasons for their gratitude. In fact, I found that gratitude may be related to having fewer worldly goods. By far, the most grateful group in this study are those who identify themselves as “black,” and given the generally lower socio-economic status of blacks as compared to whites, this is interesting evidence that material possessions are not what drives and sustains a grateful heart.

What does drive gratitude is proper perspective. Seeing clearly. Remaining mindful moment-to-moment of what God has bestowed upon you. High-virtue Christians are perpetually aware of their bountiful life, regardless of what that life entails. They have trained their minds to think about the abundance in their lives rather than the insufficiencies. And it is this habit–a habit of keeping perspective–that transports them to the next level of gratitude and of character.

This is information that can change our lives, as it has for many throughout the centuries. Everything can be different starting tomorrow if we begin implementing these recommendations. So to facilitate that transformation, it might be helpful to encapsulate these findings into a one-sentence, bottom-line summary: The most fertile ground for growing gratitude is a thought life that purges sinful thoughts before they fester, that eradicates envy, and that replaces these thoughts with reminders of how richly blessed one really is. The Apostle Paul apparently had the same answer, but stated it more succinctly and more powerfully: “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Indeed, perpetual gratitude begins with a renewed mind.

 

Practical Recommendations for Growing Gratitude

There is more that can be said, though. In fact, one must say more lest we make the common mistake of pointing people in a direction without furnishing the means by which they can traverse the journey. The question still remains: How does one gain this new mindset? Besides meditating on the blessings in my life and taking captive envious thoughts, what else can I do to train my mind to be more grateful? There are some practical habits that Christians have found to be valuable for growing and preserving a grateful disposition–habits that sustain them to regularly see life in the context of what they do have rather than what they don’t have. Let’s look at a few of these.

Grow Gratitude through Keeping a Gratitude Journal

I did not test this proposition in my study, but almost unanimously, commentators both in and out of Christian circles suggest keeping a “gratitude journal.” This is a daily diary that focuses exclusively on the blessings in your life thereby re-centering you on God’s providence. Beyond that, a journal permits you to look back over several days, weeks, and months to review the numerous blessings that you might have forgotten had you not written them down.

Donald Whitney speaks to this point in a fine chapter on the practice of journaling. Among his many helpful insights, he says:

Many people think God has not blessed them with much until they move it all to a new address (and have to pack up all their stuff)! In the same way, we tend to forget just how many times God has answered specific prayers, made timely provision, and done marvelous things in our lives. But having a place to collect all those memories prevents their being forgotten (note 3).

Moreover, from the world of social science we find budding evidence of the value of gratitude journals. In an experiment using undergraduate students, those students who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis reported more progress toward their personal goals, exercised more regularly, were more optimistic about the upcoming week, and felt better about their lives as a whole compared to those who kept weekly journals of hassles or of neutral life events (note 4).

Many claim there is power in the spiritual discipline of journaling, so to grow gratitude, you may want to give it a try. If you do, remember that there’s no one right way to do this. Just use a format that you find helpful. You don’t need to buy a special edition, full-color, twenty-dollar journal at your local bookstore. You don’t need to be concerned about whether your writing makes sense. You don’t need to worry about why you are grateful for these things. Just let the words flow.

The standard recommendation is to log five blessings per day. List more, list fewer. The exact number is not important. Just list some daily. For the first couple weeks, the blessings you list may be a bit repetitive from one day to the next. Over time, though, people generally find themselves including in their journal many new and formerly unrecognized gifts from God.

No one can say what you’ll discover through this process; however, one thing is almost certain. Through keeping a gratitude journal, you’ll probably grow your gratitude and through that, you’ll likely grow many other Christian qualities as well.

Grow Gratitude through the Disciplines of Periodic Fasting and Confession of Sin

I should note at the outset that one can certainly grow gratitude without fasting. In fact, looking at the most grateful one-third of Christians in my study, a high percentage (78%) say that they do not fast regularly. But I also found that fasting is one of the practices that can help people cultivate a strong and persistent feeling of thankfulness. Overall, there is a patent, positive relationship between periodic fasting and one’s level of gratitude. We see from Figure 1 that people who have lower levels of gratitude are not in the habit of fasting and that people who have higher levels of gratitude are much more likely to be fasters. In fact, by the time we get to the high-end of the gratitude spectrum, about fifty percent of these most grateful Christians say that they have made periodic fasting a habit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This finding is consistent with traditional Christian theology which regards fasting as, among other things, a reminder that we do not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4)–that it is not food that sustains us, it is God. And as we recall that teaching anew through fasting, we may feel more appreciative and more grateful to our Sustainer.

It is easy to experiment with this phenomenon for yourself. Just try going without food for a day and instead, use your mealtime for prayer or some other God-centered activity. You’ll likely enhance your appreciation for the gift of food and the sustenance of God. Perhaps you’ll better appreciate other things we take for granted as well.

The same linkage exists between confession of sin and greater gratitude. Why would this be? It is likely that regularly bringing our sin before God reminds us of both our flaws and God’s grace. The combination of contritely admitting sin and knowing it has been cleansed will automatically generate feelings of thanksgiving. The relationship works the other way as well: A stronger spirit of gratitude toward God leads us to a greater willingness to bring our sins before Him “¦ which leads to more cleansing “¦ which leads to more gratitude on our part “¦ which leads to more willingness to bring our sins before Him, and so on. It’s a theory of an upward spiral–a theory that is now bolstered by this finding of a positive association between confession and gratitude.

Grow Gratitude by Habitually Praying for the Poor

This study also found a connection between remembering the poor in one’s prayers and growing in gratitude. Figure 2 graphically illustrates the almost linear relationship. The trend is remarkably consistent. Those who more frequently pray this type of prayer report being more grateful in life (note 5).

This happens, in all likelihood, because when one prays for those who have less, one is reminded of how much tougher his or her life could be. The practice not only comports with a scriptural mandate for intercession (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:1, John 17), it essentially serves as a corrective to keep one’s own life in perspective. Our frame of reference becomes the impoverished widow, the hungry child, the jobless father, the disease-ridden infant, the refugee forced from home by war, the third-world neighbor without electricity or running water. Praying daily for these people is a practice that illuminates our own existence in the blazing light of God’s providence, and as a result, we experience a stunning series of reversals. Envy gives way to fulfillment. Resentment gives way to contentment. Complaints give way to praise. The catalyst through it all is gratitude, borne of a clearer perspective that’s generated by reflecting on the poor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: Gratitude is measured on a scale to 90 in this study

 

Growing Gratitude by Creatively Developing Your Own Habits

The common thread in these gratitude-generating habits is that they all yield fresh perspective on our life circumstances. With this in mind, you can develop other habits that work specifically for you–habits that will have a powerful effect on your own perspective. Habits that remind you of just how good things are, or of how much worse things could be. And it doesn’t matter if they seem like strange habits, if others might not understand their connection to gratitude, or if they are not sanctioned by some religious body somewhere. What does matter is that you develop habits that engender an attitude that you are richly blessed by God.

To stimulate your thinking, let me share two habits that I’ve adopted. Some might say they’re peculiar habits, but I prefer to think of them as novel and pragmatic. Regardless the characterization, I offer them as examples of creative solutions that can grow gratitude daily.

Novel Habit #1: Whenever I see the number 518–whether on a digital clock, a license plate, an address, or somewhere else–I immediately thank God for my wife. Strange? On the surface, it might seem so. But the idea is prompted by Proverbs 5:18 which says: “Rejoice in the wife of your youth.” So I make it a practice to rejoice, to give thanks to God for my wife, when I see the number. I could do this without the numerical reminder, of course, but I’ve found that for me, having a mechanism like “518” to trigger my thanks ensures that I rejoice this way more often than I would otherwise. In fact, it usually happens between five and ten times each week. And then, like a boomerang, the thanks comes right back to me. I actually feel more grateful for my wife through this simple expression of gratitude to God, and that positively affects my character in her presence.

If you’re married, you might want to try something like this. Make it a habit to thank God for your spouse. It will likely grow both your level of gratitude and your marriage at the same time.

Novel Habit #2: This sounds morbid, I know, but it works remarkably well for me. I’ve made a habit of scanning through the obituary section of the newspaper every day or two. I look at the pictures of the deceased. I contemplate the pained words of their loved ones. I pay special attention to the people who have died early in life. Through this uncomfortable activity, I’m reminded of both the preciousness and the brevity of life. And my perspective is often different–clearer and perfected–when I turn the page.

In a similar vein, I’ve tried to pay closer attention when I hear or read some news story about people who have little, whether they are local folks or people on the other side of the globe. Occasionally I make some time to visit Web sites that illuminate the plight of those in dire straights. As I do, I make mental notes of the statistics cited on such sites (e.g., 800 million people in the world suffer from malnutrition and hunger; 24,000 die everyday from hunger or hunger-related diseases). The strategy is the same as with the obituaries: I try to expose myself to moving reminders that I am exceedingly blessed.

 

The Connection to God-Centeredness

As explained above, gratitude is a parent of the other Christian virtues. More so than with any other virtue I’ve studies in this project, people who have a grateful disposition are likely to also experience inner peace, joy, patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control, compassion, and the ability to forgive. Similarly, without gratitude, one is less likely to see those other virtues manifest in his or her life.

I’ve also described some habits that develop the kind of disciplined mind that grows and sustains gratitude. However, it’s important to remember that fundamentally shifting your outlook from “I want” to “I have” takes time and perseverance. For those of us who seek quick results (and that may be the majority of us), this endeavor is fraught with setbacks and frustration.

The good news, though, is that you need not pursue this change by yourself. God is your ally in this transformation. As you grow closer to God, the many habits that generate gratitude become natural. For example, the recommendations advanced in this article–discipline your thought life, thank God throughout the day, keep a gratitude journal, fast periodically, regularly confess sin, pray for the poor–are an outgrowth of that divine relationship. So let me close with a word of caution: It would be imprudent to engage in some gratitude-growth program apart from God. Instead, if you want to become perpetually grateful–if you want to experience long-term transformation in your thinking–imitate one final strategy of high-virtue Christians: Engage in this gratitude-growth program in tandem with a broader agenda to become more God-centered than you currently are. As you do, you’ll find that God’s gift of gratitude is a pathway to permanent change and to the life you’ve always wanted.

A Summary of the Recommendations for Growing and Sustaining Gratitude

  • Make a habit of thinking about the blessings in your life and thanking God for them. Make this a practice throughout every day. Consider keeping a daily “gratitude journal” to formalize this process of identifying the blessings.
  • Watch for envy. Regularly examine yourself to identify where and when you are envious and work toward rejecting such thoughts when they creep into your mind. Replace those thoughts with thanks to God for what you do have in life.
  • Practice the disciplines of periodic fasting and regular confession of sin with one aim being a clearer understanding of the gifts bestowed on you in life.
  • Expose yourself to information about the dire condition of others around the world and make prayer for these people a staple of your prayer life.
  • Create other habits that remind you of how blessed you are and of how much worse life could be.
  • Engage in this gratitude-growth program as part of a broader program to become a more God-centered person.

 

NOTES

  1. If you are interested in the specifics of the methodology, including the measures of Christian character and how I distinguished high- from average-virtue Christians, please see my book, Cultivating Christian Character (Purposeful Design Publications (ACSI), 2004). To review the instrument I used for estimating character (the Christian Character Index), please visit Assess-Yourself.org.
  2. See, for example, Michael McCullough et al., 2001: “Is Gratitude a Moral Affect?” Psychological Bulletin, 127:2, 249-266 and Michael McCullogh et al., 2002: “The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82:1, 112-127.
  3. Donald S. Whitney, 1993, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, (NavPress: Colorado Springs), p. 201.
  4. Robert A. Emmons and Cheryl A. Crumpler, 2000: “Gratitude as Human Strength: Appraising the Evidence,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19:1, p. 64.
  5. Technical note: I have considered the possibility of the relationship going the other way–that being more grateful leads one to pray for the poor. I used a reasonably sophisticated statistical procedure (called a two-stage least squares regression) to examine this issue and found that prayer for the poor does indeed lead to gratitude.

Adapted from Cultivating Christian Character: How to become the person God wants you to be–and how to help others do the same (Purposeful Design Publications (ACSI), 2004). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of Christianity9to5.org.