Melanie was going through a time of serious stress. Amidst family and financial problems, she still had to find the energy to go to work and take care of her children and household chores. And it all increasingly seemed just too much of a burden.
Her friends noticed the change in her demeanor. Once talkative, funny and creative, she grew withdrawn and discouraged. Normally cheerful, she became impatient and began grumbling at the people and circumstances in her life.
She wanted to change — but how? She needed a first step, a starting place.
One day Melanie heard on the radio that taking the time each night to write down three good things that happened to her that day, and being thankful for those things, could make a positive difference. If only it were that easy, she thought. But at this point she was desperate enough to give it a try. At least it couldn’t hurt, she reasoned.
"True life satisfaction involves filling our minds with constructive, healthy emotions and attitudes."
After a week, she was amazed. After a month, she was convinced. Something as simple as taking the time to think about good things that had happened in her life each day instead of letting her mind replay negative and frustrating things had changed her focus. And pausing to give thanks for those things reoriented her thinking and priorities in positive ways.
"It changed my life," Melanie said.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, considerable research confirms the simple truth: gratitude is one of the most, if not the most, significant attitude, directly connected to happiness and life satisfaction.
Ironically, our fast-paced, busy lives often leave us with little time to contemplate the good things we can be grateful for. The next task, the next chore, or the next deadline, always seems to demand our immediate attention. Owing to a culture that defines happiness as "more," there is little wonder that we see an upswing in mental health issues and depression in our affluent Western societies. In such a frenzied quest for the "perfect" job, house, car, television, stereo — even wife and family — we will always find disappointment, because we will soon crave more or better.
Gratitude is the antidote to the anxiety and frustration of life in the "give me more" culture. True life satisfaction involves filling our minds with constructive, healthy emotions and attitudes. The Bible, of course, has always affirmed gratitude as central to a whole life. Thankfulness is a fundamental response to the grace of God for and in us. But, sadly, even Christian churches can unwittingly add to life’s discouragements through legalism, judgmentalism, and unrealistic expectations.
Paul wrote that it is God’s will for us in Christ to "always give thanks" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Not that we necessarily give thanks for every circumstance, but in every circumstance. This is another way of describing what Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the French Jesuit, called the "sacrament of the present moment" — that is, recognizing that every moment is special and sacred because of the presence of God.
Instead of pushing on for the ever elusive "more," instead of rushing off to the next project, instead of waiting to be grateful until things finally turn out as we wish, we could choose to simply pause right now, in the present, and give thanks for what God has already given us in Christ.
Just take a moment to think about what you have to be grateful for. Need a hint? Consider something you can express gratitude to God for in these three areas: 1) your family and friends, 2) your school or work life, and 3) your local congregation. You might also want to try a gratitude journal, like Melanie did, in which you list three good things in your life each day that you can give thanks to God for.
This is a great place to start. But it is just a beginning, an introduction into a life-long journey of gratitude through the life-transforming presence of the risen Christ. And as we continue in faith to participate in and share the life and love of God, our whole life as a Christian becomes an expression of thanks to our gracious God. And that’s a really good thing.
John McLean is the National Director of Grace Communion International in Australia. He delivered lectures at the recent national conference of the Christian Management Association, and is working with the National Church Life Survey on the development of leadership resources.