by Bláthnaid Quinn and Hilary Anderson
In our opening words today, Melody Beattie made some bold claims for the power of gratitude. She states, ‘Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity ... it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.’
As you came in to the church today, you were handed a postit and invited to write on the card something for which you are grateful. The children have collected the combined ‘gratitude’ of this gathering and are making a collage of it.
Also, in relation to the time of silence today, you were invited to consider how you were feeling, to think of someone for whom you are grateful and to reflect on how you felt afterwards.
Apart from, possibly, being pleasurable activities, do they have any deeper benefit for us and for others? Also, do such activities have any validity as forms of ‘spiritual practice’? Is gratitude simply a helpful form of conscious and active manipulation of our feelings? Or, does it enable us to connect with a deeper part of ourselves? And, what role, if any, does gratitude have in faith-based approaches to living? In simple terms, why bother with gratitude?
These are some of the questions that occurred to us when reflecting on gratitude.
As part of our research for this service today, we consulted the modern online ‘spiritual’ treatise called Wikipedia. Some of you might be familiar with this online encyclopaedia. Here is some of the information included in the section about gratitude. In our preparation, we did check out at least some of the references quoted.
Regarding ‘religious approaches to gratitude’, Wikipedia states, ‘Gratitude is viewed as a prized human propensity in the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, and Hindu traditions. Worship with gratitude to God is a common theme in such religions and, therefore, the concept of gratitude permeates religious texts, teachings, and traditions. For this reason, it is one of the most common emotions that religions aim to provoke and maintain in followers and is regarded as a universal religious sentiment’.
Why, then, is gratitude required or desirable or both in terms of religious traditions?
Regarding Christianity, Wikipedia states, ‘Gratitude has been said to mould and shape the entire Christian life. Martin Luther referred to gratitude as ‘The basic Christian attitude’ and today it is still referred to as ‘the heart of the gospel.’ As each Christian believes they were created by a personal God, Christians are strongly encouraged to praise and give gratitude to their creator. In Christian gratitude, God is seen as the selfless giver of all good things … Instead of simply a sentimental feeling, Christian gratitude is regarded as a virtue that shapes not only emotions and thoughts but also actions and deeds’.
Indeed, the theologian, Jonathan Edwards, writes in his ‘A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections’ that gratitude and thankfulness toward God are among the signs of true religion. Because of this interpretation, modern measures of religious spirituality include assessments of thankfulness and gratitude towards God. Edwards also claimed that the ‘affection’ of gratitude is one of the most accurate ways of finding the presence of God in a person’s life. Indeed, in a study from 1985, it was contended that in a small sample of Catholic nuns and priests, out of fifty emotions, love and gratitude were the most commonly experienced emotions towards God.
Finally, in the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches, the most important rite is called the Eucharist. This name derives from the Greek word ‘eucharistia’ for thanksgiving.
So, in terms of Christianity, within various sects and traditions, gratitude is a fundamental component. What about some of the other major world religions?
Again, according to our online source: in Islam, the Islamic sacred text, The Quran, is filled with the idea of gratitude. Islam encourages its followers to be grateful and express thanks to God in all circumstances. Islamic teaching emphasises the idea that those who are grateful will be rewarded with more. Indeed, a traditional Islamic saying states that, ‘The first who will be summoned to paradise are those who have praised God in every circumstance.’ In the Quran it is also stated … that those who are grateful will be given more by God. The prophet Muhammad also said, ‘Gratitude for the abundance you have received is the best insurance that the abundance will continue.’ And, many practices of the Islamic faith also encourage gratitude. For example, the Pillar of Islam calling for daily prayer encourages believers to pray to God five times a day in order to thank him for his goodness. And, the pillar of fasting during the month of Ramadan is for the purpose of putting the believer in a state of gratitude.
So, again, in terms of another major world faith, namely Islam, gratitude has a central role.
5 A final example for today, in terms of considering gratitude within a major world religion, is Judaism. Again, according to our online source: in Judaism, gratitude is an essential part of the act of worship and a part of every aspect of a worshiper’s life. According to the Hebrew worldview, all things come from God and because of this, gratitude is extremely important to the followers of Judaism. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with the idea of gratitude. Jewish prayers also often incorporate gratitude beginning with the Shema, where the worshiper states that out of gratitude, ‘You shall love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might’. One of the crucial blessings in the central thrice-daily prayer, states ’We give thanks to You’. Along with their prayers, faithful worshipers recite more than one hundred blessings throughout the day. In Judaism there is also a major emphasis on gratitude for acts of human kindness and goodness.
So again, in terms of Judaism, gratitude or thankfulness is central to both worship and daily life.
We, however, are a community of spiritual seekers. While gratitude and gratitude practices are central to faithbased living for followers of specific religions, do they have relevance and benefit to us or the wider community?
Turning to consider the role of science rather than religion, some modern psychological studies have focused on the impact of gratitude and gratitude practices both for the individual and the wider community.
A large body of recent work has suggested that people who are more grateful have higher levels of subjective well-being. Fortunately, for those who are not followers of any specific religion, this appears to be separate from faith-based or religious associations. Grateful people, apparently, are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives and relationships. Grateful people also have higher levels of control of their environments, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Grateful people are also reported as having more positive ways of coping with the difficulties they experience in life, being more likely to seek support from other people, reinterpret and grow from experiences, and spend more time planning how to deal with the problem. Grateful people even sleep better, and this seems to be because they think fewer negative and more positive thoughts just before going to sleep.
Unsurprisingly, numerous studies therefore suggest that grateful people are more likely to have higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress and depression. While many emotions and personality traits have been identified as being important to well-being, there is, in fact, evidence that gratitude may be uniquely important. Firstly, a study showed that people who were more grateful coped better with a life transition. Specifically, people who were more grateful before the transition were less stressed, less depressed, and more satisfied with their relationships three months later. Secondly, two recent studies have suggested that gratitude may have a unique relationship with well-being, and can explain aspects of well-being that other personality traits cannot.
Within that context, regular gratitude practices such as the two that we have undertaken today, although simple, could have considerable impact for each of us as individuals.
But, what about the wider community? Can gratitude have an impact there?
Well, yes, apparently. Gratitude has, in fact, been shown to improve a person’s altruistic tendencies. One study from 2010 found that gratitude is correlated with economic generosity. In this study, using an economic game, increased gratitude was shown to prompt increased monetary giving. From these results, this study shows that grateful people are more likely to sacrifice individual gains for communal profit. Or, we might hope, for the common good. In fact, a study from 2002 found similar correlations between gratitude and empathy, generosity, and helpfulness.
So - modern psychological studies have allowed us to study and measure how gratitude and gratitude practices can have a positive impact.
For those among us who are interested in trying gratitude practices, the two practices we carried out today as part of the service could be developed. The first practice could be extended into keeping a gratitude journal (for example, by writing down three things every day for which you are grateful). The second practice could be extended to writing a letter to someone for whom you are grateful and delivering the letter to that person. We invite you to consider how using such practices in your daily spiritual life could benefit both you as an individual and have a possible ‘ripple’ effect into the wider community.
So, to return to some of the questions posed at the start of this address:
- Do gratitude practices have any deeper benefit for us and for others?
- Do these activities have any validity as forms of ‘spiritual practice’?
- Does gratitude enable us to connect with a deeper part of ourselves?
- And, what role, if any, does gratitude have in faith-based approaches to living?
- In simple terms, why bother with gratitude?
Possibly, many of you will by now have devised your own answers to those questions.
In terms of our own reflections, it seems to us that the prevalence of gratitude and emphasis on gratitude in some of the major religions of the world demonstrates its significance as part of a faith-based approach to living. Therefore, it is reasonable to deduce from that that gratitude practices do, in fact, count as forms of ‘spiritual practice’. In terms of ‘practical’ spirituality, the role of gratitude in increasing altruism, empathy and generosity would seem to be very well aligned to the values of those who seek to make a positive difference to the lives of others and, in particular, to Unitarians and Universalists. The combined approach of spiritual enquiry and commitment to social justice would seem to be well served by gratitude.
Regarding our own lives, can gratitude help to sustain us through challenging times and provide support and even joy in the simple and everyday elements of our lives? Well, the outcomes of studies regarding gratitude and its link to health and wellbeing indicate that the simple awareness and practice of gratitude in some form is good for both mental and physical health.
Put simply: why bother with gratitude? we would suggest: because it’s worth it.
Copyright Bláthnaid Quinn and Hilary Anderson
used by permission
given in St Mark’s on 22 January 2017
Bláthnaid Quinn and Hilary Anderson are members of
Unitarians in Edinburgh