By: Paul Ward, Spiritual Life Coordinator, Youth Opportunity Center—
What are you thankful for?
It’s a simple question to ask. The words roll off the tongue like a worn out cliché. Without a doubt many will gather around a dinner table with friends and family this year and ask each other this very same question. People may ask in regular conversation. Countless social media posts with this question will weave in and out of timelines and feeds.
There will be many different answers to this question. Some will give deep philosophical or theological answers about life and God. Others will give seemingly more simple answers like family and friends. There will also be those who aren’t be able to give any answer.
For many, giving thanks doesn’t come natural. In fact, it can be a very difficult task. This doesn’t mean life is bad. Some simply find it hard to think of good things.
Count Your Blessings
When I was a kid we would sing a hymn in church called Count Your Blessings. The song was written by Johnson Oatman, Jr. in 1897 but the words are still very true today. The first verse of this hymn is,
“When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
Oatman realized something that most of us know. When a challenge or a problem comes up in our lives we focus most of our attention and energy on it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. This can help us overcome difficulties better and quicker. The problem is we don’t always have much energy left to focus on the good things. So they often pass by us unnoticed.
Naming things we are thankful for, or counting our blessings, can help counteract this effect in our lives. There have been multiple studies to show the positive effects of listing our blessings. When we intentionally show gratitude, we feel better about our lives and about the world around us. Showing gratitude helps us to readjust the lenses we look at life through and see a better, more accurate, reflection of reality.
Researchers at Berkley took this idea one step further. They took several individuals who were seeking therapy and asked them to participate in a study. Some of the people going to therapy were asked to write three letters of gratitude to three different individuals in their life. They wrote one a week, but weren’t required to actually send the letters. Some chose to send them, and some did not.
One week after the writing assignments were complete, researchers discovered that some of the individuals who wrote the gratitude letters were feeling better than the rest of the group. After four weeks, more reported feeling better. After 12 weeks it was clear that those who had written gratitude letters were reporting feeling better than those who were not asked to write the letters. They were also responding better in their therapy.
The positive results showed up in all of the people who wrote the letters, even if they didn’t send them. Identifying something that we’re grateful for and thinking about it long enough to write a letter leaves a lasting positive impact on the rest of our lives.
Express Your Gratitude
Take some time this Thanksgiving to express exactly what you’re thankful for. You can tell your friends and family around a dinner table or share it on social media. It will help them and it will help you. You might even want to write a few gratitude letters to people who you’re grateful for. According to the researchers at Berkley, you’ll feel a lot better if you do. How do you think it would make someone else feel to receive a letter like that?
There’s an idea here that’s even more radical. What would it look like if we began doing this on a regular basis? What if once a month we made it a point to write a letter or two of gratitude? If just writing three letters had a significant positive impact on people for three months, what would writing letters every month do for us? What would it do for the people in our lives that we are grateful for? How different would your relationships be? How different would your world be? What difference could that make in our community?