The Gratefulness Factor

Luke 17:11-19 [NRSV]

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

gratefulThe adjective grateful means “thankful.” Gratefulness is an abstract noun formed by adding the suffix -ness to grateful and therefore means the state of being thankful.

Being grateful is a practice that all of us should take seriously. Why? Because gratefulness positively affects our brain function, according to a variety of studies out of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.[1] 

When you are grateful, your brain floods with reward chemicals. When your brain is experiencing gratitude focused on a specific person, i.e. thanking someone for how they have treated you, your brain fills with pleasure chemicals. It’s like eating chocolate—your reward center is activated and so your brain learns to crave that feeling again and again.

Secondly, when you are grateful, your anxiety and depression symptoms may lessen. Research shows that even something simple like keeping a daily gratitude journal has interesting effects on people suffering from anxiety and depression. Those who are anxious sleep better; those who are depressed experience more positive changes; their depressive symptoms rate better on regular mood tests. Gratefulness challenges and upsets the negative thought cycle that can send us into anxiety and depression.

Third, a grateful brain means that your hypothalamus is working better. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating all sorts of bodily functions, including hunger, sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and how the body grows. In 2009 studies using MRIs of brains showed that the limbic system [of which the hypothalamus is a part] is activated when we feel gratitude. Gratefulness actually makes our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly.

Furthermore, when you’re grateful, you are more resistant to stress. Your body and brain, in a state of gratefulness, have the ability to bounce back from stressful events like trauma, homelessness, grief, or job loss.

I mentioned earlier that gratefulness helps you sleep better, and this factor contributes to you experiencing more positive emotions overall. When you are grateful, suggest some psychologists, your prefrontal cortex where memories are formed is being trained to retain positive information and reject negative info over time. Makes me think that practicing gratitude just might lead to increased happiness, right?

Absolutely, says David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar who gave a Ted Talk all about the link between gratitude and happiness.

Since 1953, Brother David has been a monk of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York, dividing his time between hermitic contemplation, writing and lecturing. He’s the co-founder of gratefulness.org, supporting ANG*L (A Network for Grateful Living). I invite you to listen to his Ted Talk or to check out his webpage. Some really good stuff there. To sum up some of his Ted Talk, Mr. Steindl-Rast says that “there are many things for which we cannot be grateful, but there is no moment for which we cannot be grateful, because in every moment, even difficult ones, we have the opportunity to do something.” He makes it clear that gratitude is not realizing that people are worse off than you. So pointing to be people going through tough times or those in horrific situations and feeling lucky or better off is NOT gratefulness. Instead, being grateful requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your life—not comparing your life to another’s. So you can be grateful by appreciating even the simplest things in your life. And you can be grateful when you show appreciation for another person, which is openly expressing gratitude. Finally, Steindl-Rast says that being grateful occurs when something valuable to us is freely given. We do not earn it; rather, it is a gift.

davidgratefulGratefulness is the theme of the Luke story about a Samaritan leper giving thanks. I absolutely love this story, because I think it speaks to people on a universal level and you don’t even have to be a religious person to be blessed by it. There are obvious clues in this story as to how this thankful person was seen by others. He was a leper, so he was untouchable and lived on the margins of society. And, he was a Samaritan, so he was hated for his nationality, ethnicity, and religious tradition. But Jesus of Nazareth didn’t care about those things. Jesus chose to heal this Samaritan leper; he made him clean, along with nine others. The now-healed Samaritan leper realized his new situation. He shouted out with joy. He turned back, approached Jesus, got on his knees, and he said thank you. And then Jesus sent him out—on a new path of gratefulness, a new life.

I think the story speaks for itself. Practicing gratefulness can change our lives for the better. So to close, how can we be grateful like the Samaritan leper?

  1. We have to stop and give full attention to the moment we are in. This means letting go of those future and past-focused thoughts.
  2. We need to look at our lives right now and ask: What am I grateful for in this moment? What opportunity is life presenting me, for which I can be grateful? Keep it simple. Consider your senses, the weather, your ability to learn something, a pet, food, a friend, your body, or nature. Think of each of these things as a gift as opposed to a given.
  3. Practice this gratefulness thinking especially in times of transition or when you feel particularly vulnerable to stress.
  4. For some, keeping a record of gratefulness is a very meaningful and powerful thing. Consider writing down your gratefulness in a gratitude journal.
  5. Lastly, express your gratitude to others. There are many ways to do that: short FB messages, a kind email, a phone call, even a text! Taking a risk to acknowledge someone’s kindness, patience, or character is powerful.

So find ways to start or to keep practicing gratefulness. Make grateful living your way. Become aware that every moment is a gift—you have not earned it or bought it. You don’t know if there will be another moment given to you. So this very moment is an opportunity and gift. What are you grateful for?

[1] Alex Korb Ph.D. PreFrontal Nudity: The Grateful Brain, The neuroscience of giving thanks, Posted Nov 20, 2012.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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