“The Power of Gratitude”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 18, 2018: Thanksgiving Sunday
You could very easily call Joel Wong and Joshua Brown the experts on gratitude. Joel Wong is a professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University, where he specializes in positive psychology. Joshua Brown teaches at the same university, and his lectures and research focus on functional neuroimaging, higher cognitive function, and computational neural modeling. In 2016 the two set out to study whether or not gratitude could be beneficial for people who struggle with mental health concerns. The inspiration for this study came to Wong and Brown, obviously, because of the intersection on their two fields. But they were also motivated by the rise in managed health care, with it demands for cost-efficiency and brevity from care providers. Mental health care is one of the more difficult fields of medicine to measure by standard testing, so Wong and Brown set out to find other interventions that might be helpful to professionals feeling pinched by insurance providers.
The question Wong and Brown set out to answer is this: Is gratitude beneficial for people who struggle with mental health concerns? And, if so, how? Their research focused on 300 college students who were seeking mental health counseling at various universities in the United States. Of the 300, more than two-thirds of the students reported clinically low levels of mental health. Most of the study participants also reported that their mental health was affected by depression and anxiety.
The participants were separated for the study into three groups. The participants in group one received counseling and were instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each day for three weeks. The participants in group two also received counseling and were instructed to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences for same amount of time. Each participant in group three received counseling like those in groups one and two but they did not have to complete any writing assignments.
The initial findings from the study are just as you might expect. When group one was compared to groups two and three, those who wrote letters of gratitude every day for three weeks reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their initial writing exercise ended. This was tremendously different from what Wong and Brown found in groups two and three. This suggests that expressing gratitude can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. It also suggests that combining psychological counseling with expressions of gratitude carries a greater benefit than counseling alone.
That’s good research and it brought to light great results. If you want to experience better mental health, simply weave gratitude into your daily living. Wong and Brown were not quite satisfied, though, so they starting digging a little deeper to find the ‘why’—why does expressing gratitude aid in mental health? What gives gratitude so much power?
They first found that gratitude is so powerful because it unshackles us from toxic emotions. It does this by turning our focus from ‘me’ to ‘us.’ Wong and Brown found that the participants writing letters of gratitude not only used more positive words, they also used more ‘we’ words. They interpreted this to mean that better mental health is produced when we shift from thinking about resentment and envy—inside things—and begin thinking about community and unity—outside things. When you write about how grateful you are to others, or about how much other people have blessed your life, it becomes significantly harder to focus on your inner negative emotions and feelings.
Next, they found that gratitude is so powerful because it is beneficial to mental health even if that gratitude isn’t shared. Wong and Brown told participants that they weren’t required to send their letters to their intended recipient. In fact, only 23% of participants who wrote gratitude letters even sent them. But those who didn’t send their letter enjoyed the benefits of experiencing gratitude nonetheless. The mere act of writing a letter of gratitude, even if you don’t send it, can help you appreciate and value the people and experiences in your life. Score one for shy folks and people who aren’t too confident in their writing skills.
Third—and this is the one that I don’t really care for—Wong and Brown found that the mental health benefits of gratitude did not emerge immediately. Instead, the results came to light gradually, over time. After the three-week study, all 300 participants reported about the same or just slightly improved mental health. It was not until four weeks and twelve weeks after the study that the participants in group one really began to feel the effects of expressing gratitude. Now, this might sound bad at first, but it’s not. I had a chance to read Wong and Brown’s study report this week. What I found was that at the beginning of the study they wanted to understand what effect expressing gratitude might have on folks with mental health concerns. By the end, though, they realized that a better way to ask the initial question would be to replace ‘expressing’ with ‘practicing.’ Like sports, like a musical instrument, like Christian discipleship, the results are never immediate and gratitude is most powerful when it becomes a regular practice.
Finally Wong and Brown found that gratitude is so powerful because it has lasting effects on the physical composition of the brain. Several months after all the study participants had been in counseling, they took a few participants from groups one and three, and put them through an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity while each did some sort of ‘pay it forward’ task. In that task, the individuals were given small amounts of money by a nice person, called the ‘benefactor.’ This benefactor only asked that they pass the money on to someone if they felt grateful. The study participants then decided how much of the money, if any, to pass on to a local charity. Then, while the activity was taking place, Wong and Brown asked each participant to rate how grateful they felt toward the benefactor, how much they wanted to help the charitable cause, as well as how guilty they would feel if they didn’t help.
What they found is that when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinctly different than brain activity related to guilt. More specifically, they found that when people who are more grateful gave more money to a cause, they showed greater sensitivity in the media prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. Wong and Brown were stunned later on to find that the participants who wrote letters of gratitude showed greater activity across the entire brain when they were put through the fMRI scanner. These results suggest that gratitude might be an important part in maintaining not only good mental health but also good physical brain health, as well.
At this point you might be wondering why this matters, especially since we are sitting in a church and not in a research laboratory. Well, my friends, I think this medical research strikes right at the heart of the gospel. This research is about how to positively rewire our brains; it is about how to live better lives. In the words we have heard today from The Sermon on The Mount Jesus is talking to his disciples about the same things. Our minds, he points, out are naturally and instinctually weighed down with worry and anxiety and grief and pain and who knows what else. The effect is that we turn in on ourselves, locked in a prison of self-centeredness. In that prison it’s all about me, my needs, my wants, my resentment and envy and hate. However, Jesus teaches us later on in The Sermon on The Mount that God’s Kingdom has very little to do with you and me individually and everything to do with ‘us.’ The Kingdom, Jesus says, is about mercy and justice and peace and reconciliation, none of which can happen if we’re only concerned with ourselves. So what does Jesus suggest in order to break free from the prison of self-centeredness? What does Jesus suggest in order for us to become more faithful followers of his way? Gratitude. Simple, honest gratitude. If God provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will God provide for us who are worth so much more?
So, let’s start right now. Let’s start rewiring our brains with gratitude right this minute. Let’s start on a more faithful path following Jesus, and let’s start living the full and abundant life Jesus desires for us. I’ll go first, and if you like what I have to say, lay your Presbyterianism aside and give me a big ole’ amen.
I’m grateful to be alive. Amen?
I’m grateful that God woke me up this morning with the breath of life and will guide each of my footsteps until my head hits the pillow tonight. Amen?
I’m grateful that because of the work of so many people, this building we are in is safe, warm, clean, and filled with powerful and important memories. Amen?
I’m grateful that last week I was able to walk into my polling place and participate in our democracy without the threat of death, suppression, or retribution. Amen?
I’m grateful for all the men and women, seen and unseen, whose work provides for my safety, the food on my table, the clothes on my back, and the shelter over my head. Amen?
I’m grateful that in a few days I will be able to sit down with my family to count my blessings, and that God has given me a clear and simple calling to share those blessings with everyone I meet. Amen?
I’m grateful that because God is so good and generous I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to be afraid of who I am. I don’t have to be afraid of where I’m going after this life. I don’t have to be afraid of people who look, think, or believe differently than I do. Amen?
I’m grateful to take part in a Christian tradition where my head and my heart are of equal concern to God, where I don’t have to leave my true self at the door, or my questions or needs or doubts, either. Amen?
I’m grateful that I know each and every one of you, and that your faith and your discipleship and your generosity and goodness inspires me every day to be the person God created me to be. Amen?
I’m grateful for those who stand on another shore, whose life and faith keeps us encouraged and energized to work for God until we meet again. Amen?
I’m grateful for God. Amen?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps the greatest thing we can take away from Joel Wong and Joshua Brown’s research is that gratitude should not just be an expression. It shouldn’t be just a season either. Let’s make gratitude a practice, one that we work at each and every day we are alive. The science, and the Gospel, tells us that if we do, we will be changed. And I think it’ll change the things around us, too. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t even worry about today. Rejoice and give thanks to God. God will take care of the rest. Amen.