Tips  on spiritual growth, emotional health, and relational healing.


Gratitude: Your Hidden Superpower

Nov 15, 2016

If you were stuck on a deserted island, what would you take with you?

Do you remember this icebreaker question? I’m not sure whether it was in school or church youth group, but I remember countless conversations around this question. Beyond the boring answers from unimaginiaitve people (a satellite phone/radio to call for help or a knife to cut up wood and make a raft), it was fun to hear what other people would bring. The responses we gave tended to reveal a lot about us. We all have the items we deem indispensable.

Gratitude windex bottle spraying

Speaking of indispensable, have you ever seen the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding? (Little known fact – it’s the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time.) The movie centers around Tula, a young Greek woman looking to find her way amidst her overbearing Greek family. One of my favorite characters in the film is Tula’s father, Gus. Gus is a Windex evangelist. He believes Windex cures all ailments, makes everything better and he carries a bottle with him everywhere. He’s always spraying people unexpectedly and without appreciation. I think about Gus when I finally break down and scrub the bathroom mirrors in our home.

My wife has a little Gus in her, except she is a coconut oil evangelist. She uses it in cooking and baking. We use coconut oil to treat burns in our family. She encourages me to use it in our hair when we run out of hair product unexpectedly. She’ll even swish with it to clean or whiten her teeth. While I was sick last winter, she encouraged me to gargle with it. That was where I drew the line – I gagged the first time. There can be too much of a good thing!

But coconut oil and windex aren’t the only things which have many purposes, powerful effects and seem indispensable. I’ve also discovered the indispensable and incredible power of gratitude. It’s like a hidden superpower in all of us.

Gratitude: Don’t Leave Home Without It

Gratitude goes far beyond just the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving) and the notes you write after open all your wedding presents. In recent years, I’ve been studying how gratitude can empower us to change the way we view our circumstances. As someone once said, gratitude doesn’t change your circumstances; gratitude changes the way you perceive your circumstances.

I first discovered the power of gratitude when I read Tim Sanders’ book, Today We are Rich: Harnessing the Power of Total Confidence. In the book, Sanders shares how his grandmother taught him to view gratitude as a muscle which only gets stronger the more consistently it is exercised.

I stumbled on this book at the perfect time. In the fall of 2011, I was very unhappy in my job. I had an overwhelming workload and wasn’t managing myself well. I was pushing myself to the point of exhaustion, hoarding too much responsibility and punishing others in the process. The organization I was a part of felt stuck and I had watched other friends leave under less than ideal circumstances. I began applying for other positions out to my frustration, hoping to find a better spot for me before I became sidelined by my bitterness, cynicism or a feeling of burnout. When those prospects dried up and it seemed like I was going to be where I was for a while, I dug back into Sanders’ book and began practicing gratitude on a daily basis. And this one habit has led to incredible change.

My experience matched the scientific research I later discovered. Did you know research has proven the power of gratitude to transform us and the way we experience life?

Gratitude Increases Our Happiness and Decreases Depression

In a study done by Positive Psychology, “a group of adults aged 35–54 were given a nightly task of writing down three things that went well for them that day, including an explanation of why. The following three months showed their degrees of happiness continued to rise, and their feelings of depression continued to decline.”

Gratitude Improves Our Health and Leads to More Exercise

Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis, and Mike McCullough, at the University of Miami, studied the power of gratitude. They randomly assigned participants one of three tasks.

“Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.”

Gratitude Increases Our Empathy and Connection to Others

Dr. Emmons conducted another study on gratitude where subjects were encouraged to engage in a daily gratitude practice (such as listing things for they were thankful.)

“This daily practice led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly journaling in the first study. But the results showed another benefit: Participants in the gratitude group also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others, or more technically, their “pro-social” motivation.”

Gratitude Transforms the Lives of People Battling Chronic Illness

While these three examples are encouraging, I wondered if gratitude only worked with light and momentary challenges. What about people battling serious illness which had no cures?

Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude group reported more hours of sleep each night, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening. The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control group.”

Gratitude Changes the Lives of People Who Matter Most to Us

But it wasn’t just the people battling the illness who felt the effects of gratitude. According to the researchers, “spouses of the participants in the gratitude (group) reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control (group).” Your gratitude can not only change your life; it can change the life of your spouse. If you’re married, you know your spouse’s well-being directly impacts your own.

The Remarkable Power of Gratitude

Isn’t this remarkable?! Taking time to give thanks on a daily basis changes the way we see the world, the way we feel, the motivation we have to make healthy choices, and the experience of people who are closest to us. I mean, coconut oil and Windex have nothing when it comes to the power of gratitude.

Is it any wonder why the Apostle Paul encouraged this habit in his letter to the Thessalonian church? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Paul didn’t have all this research we do now,, but he knew giving thanks at all times and in all circumstances was God’s intention for us. I believe each of us has been created by God, in God’s image. God hard-wired us to be responsive to the power of gratitude and thanskgiving.

As follower of Jesus and a pastor, I also believe gratitude reminds us of our limited power in this life. (I know some of you aren’t people of faith, so thanks for understanding the insperability of my faith when it comes to this subject). I believe gratitude resets our perspective to see the work of God in our world. As I recently told the church I lead, one of the reasons we’re called to give thanks in difficult seasons is so we remind ourselves of God’s power. When we give thanks amidst adversity and witness God move in miraculous ways, we will see it was God’s work which delivered us, not merely our own. Gratitude ensures we give God the credit for our freedom, not ourselves. Gratitude enables us to fight an overgrown ego and unwarranted hubris.

gratitude coffee cup camp fire

Putting the Power of Gratitude Into Practice

Ultimately, though, gratitude won’t change us if it is a seasonal experience, limited to the end of Thanksgiving. If we pack up gratitude by the time December rolls around, only to collect dust for 11 months a year, we’re missing out!

So, how can we harness this incredible power in our daily lives? How do we begin exercising our gratitude muscle so it changes us, our experiences, the lives of the people around us and our perception of God’s movement in the world?

As we learned in the research, gratitude is most powerful when it becomes a daily practice. Here’s some ideas to get you started.

1. Take a short-term “gratitude challenge.”

I’ve found that a short burst of sustained gratitude gives a taste of what gratitude does to our perspective and it helps us see how reachable this practice is for us. As I write this post, my church is in the middle of a 30 day #GratitudeMuscle Challenge. We’re going to have a list of 90 things at the end of this month. I’ve been excited to not only see members of our staff and volunteers take part in this activity, but also a long-time member of our church who is battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s diseas) and confined to bed. Pick a number – 7, 14, 21 or 30 days – and practice gratitude each of those days. I recommend 3 things as a base, but you can always do more!

2. Begin a gratitude journal or jar.

Collecting and compiling the records of these daily gratitude moments is the key here. There are days where we feel grateful for nothing in our lives. We all have those days where we feel more like the proverbial statue and not the pigeon. Life seems to be dumping on us and we don’t appreciate it. On those days, have a list of gratitude items in journal gives us a shot of perspective. I know of one person who records one moment of joy each day and puts them in a jar on note cards. Then on a bad day, this person can pull out a handful of cards and recall the joy they’ve lost sight of in the present.

3. Write thank you notes consistently.

I’m doing my best to restore the lost art of thank you note writing. I’m sure there’s an app for this but it doesn’t compare. I keep a large container of plain, yet fun-colored stationary in my office along with a wide variety of my favorite pens so I can write notes each week. Beyond political ads, bills and junk mail, it’s so refreshing to get a note of appreciation from an actual person.

If you want to take this to another level, write a thank you note to someone, take it to them and read it in their presence. Depending on the person and what you write, it might be a good idea to bring Kleenex too. I’ve done this a couple times and found it to be an unforgettable experience.

4. Plan gratitude moments in advance.

This may sound crazy, but you don’t have to only practice gratitude looking backwards. You can also plan gratitude moments looking forward. Listen to Laura Vanderkam’s perspective on gratitude and her practice.

“I am a bit of a contrarian, so I’ll admit that as everyone jumps on the gratitude bandwagon, it makes me want to jump off. People drastically over-simplify the research on the topic…Still, even the not-so-Pollyanna-ish can get into the idea of counting blessings, as long as you rethink the mechanism by which it works. To me, gratitude is not just about recognizing the good in the world. It is about understanding that you have the power to make good happen. Just create a list of things you really enjoy doing, and that don’t require a whole lot of advance planning. Then, as you’re planning your weeks, think about when you might put in the good stuff strategically. Looking at a rough Monday? That’s a good night for happy hour with friends. Going to be stuck at the office late Thursday? Bring your workout clothes and go to that yoga class you sometimes take over lunch.”

Laura’s simple suggestion to schedule the things which produce gratitude in our lives is one way to manage around moments and seasons of adversity. I found her idea to be unorthodox, yet exciting. As we become more self-aware and identify patterns via our gratitude practice, we can proactively increase our gratitude.

We Have More Power Than We Realize

We will not all have good days today or good weeks this week. While the song may read “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” we don’t all experience life like a holiday movie scene. And if we do, it’s often more like Christmas Vacation than the end of a Hallmark movie.

But regardless of what comes in our days, gratitude can change our perspective of our circumstances. Perspective, as many of us have learned, is everything.

How About You?

What do you think about gratitude? Do you have a gratitude practice? I’d love to hear from you!

You can always reach me directly at I do my best to reply to all messages from readers like you. And if you enjoyed this post, please sign up for my email list below and forward this post to someone you know who needs to read it.


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