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what’s with being thankful?

… in all circumstances?

ThankfulHave you read the apostle Paul’s letter from around 50AD to the church at Thessalonica (northern Greece)? Even if you haven’t, you may have at least heard one of the more commonly referenced verses. “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1Thessalonians 5:18)
…really? Was Paul serious? … In other words, Paul means being thankful pretty much all the time!

However, there is even more to it than that – the whole of the sentence reads …. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Thessalonians 5:16-18). … seriously? Who lives like that?
 

In all circumstances, in everything, whatever you do …..

As a matter of fact, it wasn’t the only letter of Paul’s that mentioned being thankful. And all of them read more as a command than a piece of advice……
To the Philippians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil 4:6). And to the Colossians, Paul wrote “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed; do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17)

So then, it is all the time …. but just how thankful? Paul says “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Col 4:2). Prior to that “….. continue to live in him [Christ Jesus] ….. overflowing with thankfulness” (Col 2:6-7). He sets an example when he tells the Ephesian Christians, “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:16)

Other References to being thankful …

As an illustration of how important thankfulness is, there are around 100 verses in the Scriptures concerning thankfulness. Rather than you having to go search, here is a list I compiled from an online version of the NIV translation. Obviously, thankfulness is spread throughout the Old and New Testaments alike. In view of that fact, one gets the idea that being thankful is a pretty important concept/part of life


As it happens

Just recently, when I was chatting with a friend/brother I mentioned having recently heard the expression, “attitude of gratitude”. With hearty laughter he ‘fessed’ to having “an attitude alright” but ….. Indeed we both had a laugh much to the wonder of those around us. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about it on the drive home. These verses from Paul were rolling around in my thoughts along with numerous others I had found. Before long, it became strikingly obvious. The Word was directing us to a lifestyle or life choice that embraced an “attitude of gratitude”

Being thankful from the world’s perspective …

As is often the case, one thing led to another and to my surprise I was soon reading about studies in neuroscience. In the past 15 years or so, neuroscientists have started publishing neurological and psychological effects of being a thankful person. The “neuroscience of gratitude” as it is being called

  • neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system
  • gratitude the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation, (derived from the Latin word ‘gratus’ – thankfulness)

“An attitude of gratitude means making it a habit to express thankfulness and appreciation in all parts of your life; on a regular basis, for both the big and small things alike.” (Andrew Merle – How to Have an Attitude of Gratitude, on Huffpost.com)

Back to Paul for a second ….

Imagine writing a letter and it later being included in the Bible. So around 2000 years later it is still being read by millions. Moreover, people are using sentences from within it to guide their life. Even more incredible, neuroscientists are discovering the wealth of psychological and emotional benefit for whoever should follow the advice. Amazing concept, yet that’s how it is

There is now a ‘pile of papers’ from psychology and mental health research establishing an overwhelming connection between thankfulness and good health. Amazingly, though personal experience would confirm, the benefits come from both directions – giving OR receiving gratitude

The findings – being thankful is good for you

Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury in her post on positivepsychology.com called, “The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief”, summarises the results of numerous studies by saying—
When we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel ‘good’. They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside.” She goes on to cite a study that showed “The effect of gratitude on the brain is long lasting (Moll, Zahn, et al. 2007). Besides enhancing self-love and empathy, gratitude significantly impacts on body functions and psychological conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression.

She lists several such impacts of practising thankfulness. Gratitude:-

  1. releases toxic emotions – and replaces them with positive feelings
  2. reduces pain – attributed to the extra dopamine released in the brain
  3. improves sleep quality – gratitude activates the hypothalamus which controls sleep and other bodily mechanisms
  4. aids in stress regulation – gratitude reduces the level of cortisol, the stress hormone
  5. reduces anxiety and depression – by reducing the stress hormones and also by being associated with an increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex, the brain site responsible for managing negative emotions like guilt, shame, and violence

She also quotes “Gratitude fosters adaptive coping mechanisms. By managing positive emotions like satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure, gratitude enhances our emotional resilience and builds our inner strength to combat stress (Steinhardt, 2016)

Brain and Body

In an article called “Thankfulness Linked to Positive Changes in Brain and Body” on abcnews.go.com in 2011, Mikaela Conley comments:-

“Studies have shown measurable effects on multiple body and brain systems”, said Doraiswamy ( head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Centre ). Those include:-

  • mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine)
  • reproductive hormones (testosterone)
  • social bonding hormones (oxytocin)
  • cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine)
  • inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines)
  • stress hormones (cortisol)
  • cardiac and EEG rhythms, blood pressure, and blood sugar

Reflection

There are enough calls to thankfulness in the Scriptures that one can hardly ignore them or treat them as optional. Secular studies show a strong correlation between better health (mental, emotional and physical) and the practise of thankfulness. So what is one to do?

The most common approach mentioned in research papers is keeping a daily journal of things for which one can be honestly thankful that happen within the day AND making a determined effort to express the thanks to the appropriate person where relevant

Also, according to Mikaela Conley “One of the most well-known practices uncovered from this research is known as the Three Blessings exercise,” said Jain. “Each night before going to bed you write down three good things (ordinary or extraordinary) that happened to you during the day. Studies reveal those who continue this exercise for one week straight can increase their happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for up to a six-month period.”

Always something to be thankful for

If identifying things for which we can be thankful proves a difficult task Joyce Meyer is not alone among Christian writers when she proposes that ….. “Praise makes all of the difference. Living life with a heart of gratitude for who God is and what He has done for us lifts our burdens and causes us to see everything in a different light. Each moment that we’re given is a precious gift from God. We can choose to have a thankful attitude and live each moment full of joy…simply because God is good.

No matter what the circumstance, the wide range of benefits that come with gratitude are available to anyone who practises being thankful. It’s also true for those on the receiving end. Even those in the midst of adversities ….. those with cancer, people with chronic illness or chronic pain, those in recovery from addiction and those unemployed or suffering whatever else ‘life throws at them’. So, having a thankful heart and mindset all the time is more than just adhering to the Word, it is actually good for us and those around us, here and now

… just sayin’

Since posting this content I was reminded of the Australian National Day of Thanks. Originally called the National Day of Thanksgiving it was renamed to National Day of Thanks in 2015 – see thanks.org.au

being thankful
Bibliography –

ThankfulnessYou can download an A5 booklet in pdf form containing this post “… what’s with being thankful?”
Click on the image of the cover (left)
[The free Adobe Acrobat Reader can print these A5 pages into a booklet on half-fold A4 paper]

Do you know anyone who doesn't express thanks? What are they like?

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