Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi (among many other saints) we hold true that ‘in giving you receive’. Since God is never outdone in generosity, it is only fitting that in His great design there are ‘built-in’ blessings to the virtue of gratitude – psychological, physiological, relational and of course, spiritual. Therefore, when we give thanks, we’ll find that God multiplies that offering of a grateful heart and returns it back to us one hundred fold. So what natural benefits will you receive from ‘giving thanks?
Psychological/Physiological Benefits of Gratitude
In a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health, researchers monitored blood flow in different brain regions while subjects were instructed to direct their thoughts/feelings towards gratitude (Zahn et al, 2009). The results indicated higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus in those subjects who displayed more gratitude. Why is this important? Because the hypothalamus is the mega-center for the brain – controlling some of our most basic body functions – like eating, drinking and sleeping – not to mention that it also affects our metabolism and stress levels. The studies demonstrated that increased gratitude was linked to improvements in sleep and energy to exercise; as well as decreases in depression and anxiety – plus relief of physical aches/pains.
Another interesting discovery from the NIH research was that thoughts/feelings of gratitude directly activated brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. What is dopamine? Dopamine is essentially responsible for controlling the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. In addition, it helps us to regulate our emotions and movements, not to mention it is also a key player when it comes to motivation. So, when you are practicing gratitude and ‘giving thanks’, your brain literally associates that as a reward – releasing that ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter of dopamine! Not only that, but because that act of gratitude produced a positive response, your brain will reinforce this and motivate you to continue being grateful.
Emmons (2007) demonstrated through his research that thankfulness can also reduce blood pressure and lower risk of heart attack. In a study conducted by Affleck (1993), it was discovered that even should a person suffer a heart attack, gratitude makes a positive difference in both their recovery and in predicting whether or not the person will suffer another heart attack in the future. Plus, those who received heart transplants showed a positive correlation between thankfulness and perceived mental/physical health a year after their transplant.
Lastly, numerous studies have shown that gratitude is linked to longevity of life. Snowdon (1986), famous for what has been affectionately dubbed ‘The Nun Study”, found that “the more positive emotions expressed in the life stories of these nuns (contentment, gratitude/thankfulness, happiness, hope and love), the more likely they were to still be alive six decades later.”
Relational Benefits of Gratitude
Many researchers have shown how gratitude is connected to improved quality of relationships. Algoe et al (2014) demonstrated that when couples acknowledged the kind things their partner had done for them and were grateful for them, their overall satisfaction with the relationship and feelings of connectedness increased.
In addition, many studies show how gratitude and generosity go hand in hand (Which is why “Thanks”-“giving” makes a good combo indeed). Those most keenly aware of their blessings are more likely to actually give thanks where it is due – to God or others. This promotes an improved sense of community and belonging.
“A generous life is a connected life,” said Psychology Professor Mary True of Saint Mary’s College (2014). “We have known for a long time that the most critical moments of connection, the birth and the nurturing of an infant, are accompanied by the release of oxytocin, the trust hormone. A solid body of more recent research has demonstrated that other social interactions, including warm couple interactions, father-child play, and expressed gratitude, are linked to—and enhanced by—the release of oxytocin. We are biologically wired to give.”
Spiritual Benefits of Gratitude
Remember the study above that demonstrated how gratitude promotes increased activity in the hypothalamus? Another responsibility of the hypothalamus is moral cognition and subjective value judgments. In other words, it’s the part of the brain that contributes to our sense of conscience, the natural law that is written in human hearts informing us of what is right and what is wrong. So in essence gratitude makes your conscience stronger and more readily able to choose the light of truth over the darkness of sin.
While many saints could speak of this, St. Ignatius had a particularly interesting perspective on the importance of gratitude for the spiritual life. According to him, the deadliest sin is ingratitude. He quoted it as being “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.” Not pride, not lust, not wrath. Why ingratitude? Because if we aren’t truly immersed in the truth of God’s love and benevolence in our lives, we will look for other ways to fulfill ourselves. Addictions sink their dark grasp into our minds and hearts - whether it's to food, shopping, drugs, alcohol or pornography - precisely because these, too, activate dopamine neurotransmitters and reinforce vicious cycles of seeking out that same pleasure to feel some sense of 'goodness' (false though it may be). We fall into traps of comparing ourselves to others and jealousy reigns. We become bitter, negative and judgmental. We sin because we do not heed the counsel of Psalm 24 - we do not truly "taste and see the goodness of the Lord." In essence, we sin because gratitude does not prevail in our hearts. If we were keenly aware of God’s blessings in our lives, we would return the love He has showered upon us with thanksgiving, striving to love Him even more. How can we do this? By loving Christ in the Eucharist, in Adoration and especially in receiving His own body and blood in the Eucharist – because the word Eucharist itself means ‘thanksgiving’! Receiving the Eucharist and making a spiritual ‘thanksgiving’ in its truest sense can only produce beautiful spiritual fruits in our lives.
In John 10:10, Jesus states: “I came that they might have life, and have it in abundance.” Truly, God desires for us to be well – psychologically, physically, relationally and spiritually – so that we can live life in a way that truly glorifies Him. Having read the above benefits of gratitude we see clearly that…
God in His goodness
desires to bless us
when we bless Him
and those around us.
How can you resolve to make gratitude a more integral part of your daily life?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Start your day off by giving thanks to God for the gift of life. If you’re not a ‘morning person’, give thanks for each thing that brings you some sense of comfort – your slippers, the sunrise out your window, your cup of coffee. It will help get you out of the rut of thinking “Blah…I hate being awake!”.
- Pray at meals, giving thanks for the food you have to eat – and pray for those who go without.
- Give thanks when exercising – for the ability to move and be healthy – something that so many wish they could do.
- At the top of each hour of the day, pause and give thanks to the Lord for whatever is on your heart.
- Give thanks whenever something good happens or when a problem was solved/crisis averted.
- Express to at least one person a day how thankful you are for who they are in your life. If you can extend this practice to include each person in your immediate family, even better! It’s ok to be thankful for things they do, but also affirm that you are simply grateful that they exist. Delight in who they are!
- Be thankful for your own existence, your own life, for who you are and how God created you to be uniquely different than anyone else.
- Cultivate gratitude in your children by playing a gratitude game like “I spy something to be grateful for….”
- Keep a gratitude journal – write down a few things at the end of each day for which you are grateful.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving day, but even more importantly, make it a blessed Thanksgiving life!