Forced Gratitude: Research Shows, even Insincere Gratitude can Help
Have you noticed: No matter how good our lives are going, there’s always something in our lives to whine about. Especially around holidays, people with no family whine about it; yet, people WITH family whine about it. And all this goes to show, we all need the discipline of thanksgiving this time of year.
So, if you’re feeling anxious today… I have a fascinating little trick for you that can change everything.
As a kid, I used to think that thanksgiving was a silly holiday… a day requiring insincere gratitude and traumatic family meals.
For starters, does anyone in the world actually like cranberry sauce or mincemeat pie? Of course not…or we’d be eating it all year long…(and some weirdo is thinking, “that sounds amazing.”
Don’t get me wrong: if the pilgrims could taste green bean casserole, they would say to themselves, “it’s all been worth it.” But why not Turkey Fajita’s or something?
As for family, thankfully, I happen to have level-headed relatives… But I know many people who dread seeing family this time of year. So, to help you out, I want to share a fascinating piece of advice that just might change the way you see your relatives, even thanksgiving.
A while back, I found a fascinating study on human emotions. In the October 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a study revealed that if a person “gave thanks” or said positive things out loud about a person or situation, it tended to subtly alter their emotions towards it. To be statistically precise, test subjects were 17% more likely to declare a person as likeable if, on an earlier occasion, they were forced to make the declaration over a specific person.*
They had test subjects look at pictures of random people. They were told to declare positive or negative things about specific individuals. And later on in the study, they were asked to rate their feelings towards the people in the pictures (the same ones they were shown on an earlier occasion). On average, the individuals experience a 17% boost in positive feelings towards the people they were forced to declare positive things over, suggesting that both positive self-talk and forced gratitude still has a profound affect on us.
In some ways, this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the Bible’s said all along: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Prov. 18:21). Thus, the Apostle Paul told us, “Be filled with the Spirit…giving thanks always for all things to God.” (Eph. 5:18,20)
But what’s interesting to me about the study I just mentioned is that, it proves our emotions tend to follow our declarations – even when they start out as obligatory or insincere. As you’d imagine, this could be the very thing that transforms your troubled relationships.
So this thanksgiving, take a little time out to journal about all the things going good in your life. In the end, blessings have to be savored in order to truly be enjoyed. But ALSO try giving thanks for some of the people who irritate you. Take a few minutes to write or talk about their redemptive qualities. By the end, you’ll noticed a change in your heart. Even more, you’ll start to see some of those frustrating people the way God see them. I’ve had some of my greatest spiritual insights after doing little “thanksgiving meditations” like this. So check out the blog link here, (or see prompts below) and allow God to speak to you.
In the end, gratitude is a preserving agent in our jobs, marriages, and families. I’m not saying that you’ll suddenly love butternut squash. And your uncle Mike’s political opinions might still repulse you. But, you just might sit back on Thanksgiving night with a smile on your face and say: “God, thank you for all of this.”
* This study came from the October 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes
HOW TO DO A “THANKSGIVING MEDITATION”
Instructions: Journal about all the wonderful things in your life. Blessings must be savored to be enjoyed. It’s easy to always be worrying about our next big pursuit. This is a detailed thank-you note to God. Here are some ideas to journal about….
THANK GOD FOR…
- FOR MATERIAL BLESSINGS OR OPPORTUNITIES: Make a list of all the material or financial blessings you’ve received over the past several months. Think back on everything: Christmas, Birthdays, furniture, clothing, free/cheap vacations. It might even be a thrift store discovery or a crazy deal off of craigslist. Or just think about the fact that the average person on the planet makes around $1.50 an hour…or roughly $400 / month! Over 1 billion live on less than 1 U.S. dollar per day. Thank God for the opportunities you have been provided with. (And by the way, you can calculate how wealthy you are compared to the world here: https://shorturl.at/zHMUZ which will make you feel super grateful!)
- SPIRITUAL BREAKTHROUGHS: What has God worked into your life? Thank God for the new insights he’s given to you. Even thank him for the pain! And why? Because, like I show in my book Broken Escalators, people who go through great hardships and pain often rate themselves as happier than the general population. Ironically, there’s a significant amount of joy, wisdom and appreciation that can only come through hardship. So acknowledge this. And, even if your circumstances aren’t comfortable yet, thank him for the promises he given to you or will soon fulfill. Even a prophetic word about the future can be a form of spiritual currency that you can give thanks for!
- FOR YOUR JOB: It’s easy to think about the irritating aspects of our jobs. And every job, no matter how amazing, has a portion of it that simply gets old. As the saying goes, “every dream house has new square footage to clean.” And every promotion at work also comes with new irritating responsibilities. So, meditate on the positives, whatever they might be: The benefits, the social interactions, the resume building moments, the flexible scheduling. Think about the ministry opportunities, or the opportunities to expand your skills. And if all of these feel stagnant, just think about the fact that, you HAVE a job! There are dozens of countries where one out of three skilled laborers can’t even get a job. And there are tens of millions of people who, despite having advanced degrees, can’t even do anything related to it due to economic problems or compulsory military service. I.e., give yourself perspective. And let God speak to you about the “opportunities” within your current difficulties.
- FOR ACCESS TO HEAVEN: Remember that heaven is not an endless boring worship service. Rather, God is creating a new heaven and new earth… complete with cities, architecture, jobs, art, culture. Planet earth was just the beginning in God’s mind. In heaven you will have the ultimate job…filled with meaning, purpose and unimaginable resources. Imagine Star Trek mixed with Minecraft. It’s going to be similar to now, except, you’ll have a resurrected body with special abilities – especially the ability to dream big dreams! We will be rewarded for every single deed here on earth. Imagine if I told you that, in this life, “you will only have 3 years of success and then you’ll die a tragic death.” Most of us would feel depressed by such news. And yet, I just described the greatest life that has ever been lived, that of our savior Jesus Christ. And does he regret any of it? Of course not. And why? Because he knew how to think eternally. Therefore, “set your minds on things above” (Col 3:2). Stop thinking that this life is all there is. Rather, this life is simply an opportunity to amplify our eternal rewards. Indeed, our knowledge of the “age to come” gives us infinite advantages to get ahead! You’ve essentially won the lottery! Now go journal about it!
- FOR YOUR FAMILY /FRIENDS: Meditate on anything praiseworthy about them. Think about their redemptive characteristics. Imagine what they would look like as a fully devoted follower of Christ. If God was to affirm their potential, what would he say about them? God is giving you the grace to interact with them, serve them, and experience his grace through them. So, what can you learn about God’s grace shining through them (1 Peter 4:10)? Some of you may want to start with the basics: 17,000 kids under five die every day of preventable things. “So, Lord, I thank-you that I even have a family. Thank you that I still have a chance to influence my family. Thank you that, even if my family can’t currently provide for my needs, you’ve given me the ability to become adopted into a church family who can help me. At any given moment, God is always giving us divine relationships. So, acknowledge them.
- FOR YOUR CHURCH FAMILY: What “breakthroughs” or cool things that have occurred in your church community over this last year? Have there been any new ministries that have been started or rebooted? The church is one of the greatest opportunities we’ve been given to store up treasure in heaven. It’s like a stock market of ministries that can result in eternal dividends. Indeed, serving others is what liberates us from the tyranny of our overly magnified needs. So, what ministry opportunities can you thank God for right now? Take time to acknowledge where your church is stretching your capacity right now.
- If God were to tell you: “Here are two or three “circumstantial gifts” I’ve given to you right now, that I want you to enjoy,” what might they be? A circumstantial gift might be a friend, an opportunity, a temporary blessing (like an exciting weekend, or a gorgeous day).
- Create a “Trophy Case” in your Phone’s Photo Album: A while back, my friend Larry Brey (from Elevation Church) was thumbing through an album of pics on his phone. Whenever he has a highlight moment in his life… a big event, or moment that fosters gratitude, he puts it into his “Trophy Case.” So, over the years, I’ve adopted this habit. Whenever someone sends me a thoughtful text, an encouraging note, I take a pic. And over time, this album becomes a testimony to God’s faithful provision: He has opportunities, mountain tops, and most importantly, people to share them with!
- Start a “10 Year Journal” – Every night, I log 4 sentences about each day. I started with a leather bound 10 yr journal. But I found it tedious to travel with. So, I now use a digital journal (see example here on Etsy) – which allows me to do it on my phone (and add pictures). Usually, I describe new people I’ve met, significant conversations I’ve had with my kids, or opportunities or accomplishments that happened that day (no matter how small). I keep it under 4 sentences so that it doesn’t become an unmanageable habit. But the brilliance of this habit is realized at the end of the year. Around New Years, I read through all of them to create a “highlight list.” I compile all the experiences and relationships God has given to me that year. I’m always shocked by how much God has actually done in my life each year. Almost all of the greatest miracles in my life started as insignificant footnotes. Every year, I look back and freak out over a few mundane entries… moments when a new hand-shake turned into a new best friend… moments when a small “Yes” led to a giant “opportunity.” Thus, the goal isn’t merely to celebrate “mountain-tops” but to acknowledge the mundane moments that got us there. God is always opening more doors than we realize!
Now, over time, you’ll become better at gratitude. It’s like a muscle that needs to be flexed. If you do this with any depth, you should be able write an entire page on each one of these areas. Again, this isn’t some superficial exercise; rather, this needs to be a transformational meditation.