Dr. Shawn Achor, a Harvard psychologist and professor, suggests that we can train our brains to become more grateful by setting aside just five minutes a day for practicing gratitude. He cites a one-week study in which people were asked to take five minutes a day, at the same time every day, to write down three things for which they were thankful. They didn’t have to be big things, but they had to be concrete and specific, such as, “I’m thankful for the delicious Thai take-out dinner I had last night.” Or, “I’m thankful that my daughter gave me a hug.” The participants simply expressed thanks for three specific things at the same time every day.
At the end of one month, the researchers followed up and found that those who practiced gratitude—including those who stopped the exercise after one week—were happier and less depressed. Remarkably, after three months, the participants who had been part of the one-week experiment were still more joyful and content. Incredibly, after the six-month mark, they were still happier, less anxious, and less depressed. The researchers hypothesized that the simple practice of writing down three thanksgivings a day over the course of a week primed the participants’ minds to search for the good in their lives.
This seems like it used to be easier to do, doesn’t it? I’m thinking about things like our country. We are more of a melting pot today than perhaps at any other time in our history. We have two distinctly different political parties. We have radically dissimilar views on how to live, how to love, how to learn, how to lead. And yet for hundreds of years, despite our wide contrasts, we still live free. This has led most of us for most of our lives to be thankful. And we’d sing about it… highlighting our “spacious skies”, “amber waves of grains,” and this glorious lyrics that seems to be fading rather fast: “Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.” Can we be thankful for our mercy?
Write it Down
What if we all wrote it down? What if we wrote three things, things for which we are thankful in this country? Maybe I can’t change the growing distance in the world, but what if I could begin by changing me? My thankfulness. My attitude of mercy. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”* and the journey of a deeper gratitude begins with a single moment of thankfulness. And then, another. And then, another.
St. Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…” (1 Thess. 5:16– 18). Words to live by. I’d like you to journey with me for a moment to a most sacred moment. Go with me to the middle of the sea. The winds are whipping. The waves are crashing. And Peter steps out of the boat in the midst of a great storm just to be near Jesus. And for a few glorious moments, there he was, walking on the water. I’d like to pick up the story in a very familiar place: “When (Peter) saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’”
I’m thankful for these moments. I don’t like sinking. Neither do you. Failure to stay on top of life when the wind blows is discouraging at best, terrifying at worst. But as we walk out in godly confidence, as we come to those leaps of faith—like Peter—“Lord, save me,” our grateful hearts will see that there’s no greater place to be than passionately counting on the Lord to step in when the world crashes down.
Here’s how this moment ends: “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of (Peter)” (Matt. 14:30–31). Is there ever—dear children of God—any greater place to be than in the hands of Jesus?
Filled With Good Things
A friend tells the story of his then-six-year-old son Liam. They were visiting a market, and Liam was standing near his mother who was making a purchase. There was a giant jar of candy sitting next to the register, so the shopkeeper told Liam to help himself to a handful. Liam hid behind mother and played shy. Which was odd, because this simply was not in his character.
“Don’t you like candy?” the shopkeeper asked.
“Yes” Liam replied… rather sheepishly.
“Well, go ahead and take some.”
He didn’t. So as Liam’s mom was leaving, the shop owner reached into the jar, pulled out a handful of goodies, and stuck them in Liam’s coat. When they left the shop, his mother asked, “Why didn’t you take the candy yourself?” Liam answered, “Because his hand is much bigger than mine.”
Now hear this wonderful verse in Psalm 104:28 about the size of our God’s blessings: “When you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”
Many of you gather around your family tables and say a prayer, inviting the Lord to bless and to be with… and you begin, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest…” So, if you wouldn’t mind, I would like you to see in your mind’s eye the Lord as a guest at your table, but this time He is opening His hand. And as you look, you see that His hand is filled with good things.
Now, what are the first three things you see?
Whatever it is, big or small, give thanks to the Lord for the blessings that come your way from His mighty big hands. Write it down. Repeat it. Rejoice in it. And maybe if you do practice this attitude of gratitude long enough… it may just very well change your life.
*quote by Lao Tzu
Photo (c) Who is Like the Lord/Lightstock