GratitudeHeart “Thankful—for What?"

I’ve heard that question (or a similar one) many times during my tenure as a professional counselor. The question was usually a response to my inquiry about an individual’s sense of gratitude in the midst of depression or unhappiness. Most people who struggle with depression also struggle with thankfulness. In their painful darkness they cannot see the positive aspects of life; they tend to see the negatives—their mistakes, their messes, and their misery. For these strugglers there is seemingly nothing for which to be thankful. My therapy goal is to encourage the depressed person to shift his perspective in a positive direction through increased gratitude. The rationale? Simply this:  gratitude is a powerful antidote for depressed moods and unhappy hearts.  Admittedly, gratitude by itself is probably not a cure-all, but the practice of gratitude is one useful tool in the treatment of depression—and unhappiness in general. My experiences as a therapist and in living my own life continue to reinforce an important truth: a grateful heart is a joyful heart!
“Be thankful for what you have!” These words still touch my heart, and it seems almost yesterday when my mother was reminding us children to be thankful. Her reminders were probably prompted by grumbling on my part about something I wanted but didn’t have or couldn’t get. Like most kids I was more interested in getting what I wanted than I was in being grateful for what I already had. My mother certainly understood my frustration since she had grown up during the Great Depression and was accustomed to doing without many things she would have enjoyed. She not only believed in the concept of gratitude but practiced it on a daily basis. Her lifestyle provided the example and the encouragement for my current beliefs and practices regarding gratitude. Thank you, Mom, for encouraging me to travel through life on the Gratitude Highway.

What about you? To what extent was gratitude a part of your developmental years? What kind of parental examples did you have in regard to gratitude? By the time you reached adulthood what were your personal beliefs and practices about gratitude? What is your current belief system and lifestyle in terms of gratitude? What would you like to change about the way you currently practice gratitude? As you consider future years how important is it to you to travel through life on the Gratitude Highway? These questions are very relevant simply because our quality of life is affected significantly by the absence or presence of gratitude.

Fortunately, many people in our culture associate gratitude with the Thanksgiving holiday season. During that season they give special attention to their blessings, and they tend to be more expressive of their thankfulness. Gratitude gets a major boost during this special holiday. Unfortunately, too many people limit their sense of gratitude to the Thanksgiving season. During the remainder of the year they tend to live by a “business as usual” philosophy in which gratitude is a neglected or forgotten trait. However, since gratitude is important to our health and happiness we would do well to be thankful throughout the entire year. We know that we are growing in gratitude when Thanksgiving is no longer just a day in life but rather a way of life.


For most of us the word “benefits” has the power to grab our attention. Let’s admit it—we like benefits! So, it should be of great interest to each of us that there are important benefits associated with personal gratitude. Let’s explore these benefits in three areas of life:  health, relationships, and spirituality.

Health Benefits . . .

Research* is revealing more and more that the practice of gratitude is positively correlated to better health, improved sleep, and positive attitudes. Grateful people tend to be optimistic, compassionate, and willing to share what they have with other people. These research findings should not be a surprise to any of us. Common sense and daily observation make us aware that ungrateful people tend to be dissatisfied, discontented, and discouraged. They tend to grumble and complain about what they do not have. Their pessimistic outlook on life prevents them from experiencing meaningful joy and peace. The person who declares “I’m not happy” is probably an individual who would also have to admit “I’m not thankful.” The failure to practice gratitude on a daily basis is an ongoing invitation to increased problems with personal health. Conversely, the practice of gratitude promotes a sense of contentment which in turn promotes personal happiness. Clearly, gratitude promotes better physical and emotional health.

Relationship Benefits . . .
Human relationships are stronger when gratitude is present; predictably, they are weaker when gratitude is absent. Any relationship will struggle when an individual discloses ‘I don’t feel appreciated” or “I feel taken for granted.” Both statements reflect the scarcity or total absence of gratitude. Predictably, if the words “Thank you” are missing in our personal vocabulary there is a high probability that “feeling appreciated” will be missing in our relationships. Relationships are stronger and healthier when each person feels thankful and expresses that thankfulness in positive ways. Several phrases are key components to healthy relationships: “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” and “Thank you.” The value of that last phrase (“Thank you”) cannot be overstated. It’s highly unlikely that our actions will be hateful when our hearts are grateful. Without a doubt our human relationships are happier and healthier when both individuals practice gratitude.

Spiritual Benefits . . .

Many individuals acknowledge that they either totally reject the existence of a Creator or a Supreme Being or else they confess uncertainty and doubt. For these individuals spirituality is limited by their lack of faith or hindered by their skepticism. The growth of gratitude could lead to increased spirituality, and increased spirituality could promote the practice of thankfulness. Christians are encouraged by numerous Scriptures to practice gratitude on a daily basis. For example, the apostle Paul encouraged the Colossian Christians (and each one of us) to express our gratitude by “giving thanks to God” (Col. 3:17 NIV). The same inspired writer commands us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thess. 5:18 NIV). Gratitude can emerge from the recognition that daily survival requires resources beyond our control, such as air to breathe and the continuation of life itself. When we try to comprehend the miracle of birth, the fragility of life, and the meaning of our existence on earth we will probably become more aware that there is a spiritual dimension. Gratitude encourages us to look above and beyond our human limitations to see that our blessings are ultimately the gift of a Supreme God who has created us and who wants to have a spiritual relationship with us. Believers in God understand that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights’ (James 1:17 NIV). Gratitude for God’s gifts to humanity promotes this spiritual connection with our Creator.  


When does gratitude start in the human life cycle? How many babies are born with an already-installed “gratitude software program”? Do children tend to be naturally thankful for what they receive? Is gratitude an inherited trait that some children receive and other children do not? Is gratitude one of those character traits that has to be developed over the course of childhood and adolescence—and perhaps even into the years of adulthood? These are interesting questions to ponder. My understanding is that mature gratitude results from a cultivation process over many years of effort. The good news is that we do have the ability to grow in the amount of gratitude we experience and express. This process of gratitude growth is certainly worthy of our consideration, particularly so as we strive to cultivate gratitude during our adult years.GratitudePillRx

In adulthood the growth process begins with a desire and a commitment to improve in gratitude. Then we start working on personal awareness. Being “thankful” begins with being “thinkful.” We think about gratitude and look specifically for items (that is, blessings or gifts) that we value and appreciate, whether those items were in the past or perhaps in the present. We think about each item and acknowledge that it is indeed a positive blessing in our lives, and we say in our minds, “I’m grateful for that item.” Next, we say “Thank you” in our minds to the individual or people or God who provided the blessing for us. Finally, we express a verbal or written “Thank you” to the giver of the gift. This growth process involves two key components:  experience and expression. First, we train ourselves to experience a sense of inner thankfulness; secondly, we train ourselves to express outwardly our gratitude in a clear and appropriate manner. Through this training process our thinking grows from an occasional thought into a mental mindset, and our gratitude progresses from an occasional act into a pattern of behavior. Essentially, we cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” that motivates us to live a lifestyle of gratitude.

Imitation and creativity both can be used in our growth efforts. We can imitate the techniques that other people have used who are more advanced than we are in gratitude development. We can also use our individual creativity to figure out new techniques that will promote the experience and expression of gratitude. Let’s explore several methods through which our practice of gratitude can be increased.

Parental Example and Instruction . . .

During their early years children learn about gratitude primarily from parental example and instruction. Regretfully, too many children reach adulthood without having received this important training. These untrained children tend to become adults who are self-centered and self-serving. These selfish adults are often dissatisfied with what they have and are frequently wanting more and more. They do not appreciate the blessings they do receive in life, and their discontentment promotes a lifestyle of ingratitude. Conversely, children who are trained to be grateful enter into adulthood with a positive appreciation for their blessings, and they are more likely to be focused on helping other people rather than serving themselves.

Parents can use various methods for gratitude training. The best method is personal example. The children hear their parents as they say “Thank you” to each other or to the children for assistance provided or for good deeds completed. The parental modeling of gratitude is essential for the effective training in the children. Other techniques can be used in creative ways, perhaps even fun ways, to promote gratitude. For example, mealtime can be a good time to ask each person at the table to tell about something for which he is thankful. Or, a specific family member can be identified as the Receiver for that occasion and every other family member tells the Receiver “Thank You” for something done recently by the Receiver. The role of Receiver can be rotated with each mealtime. A variation could be the use of a “Thanks Ball.” At a family gathering a parent can take a tennis ball (or similar ball) and hold it while saying “Thank you” to another family member for something done. Then the parent tosses the “Thanks Ball” to another family member who has to say “Thank you” to another family member. The ball is tossed around until everyone has had the opportunity of expressing gratitude for something done or received.

In addition to learning to express a verbal “thank you” children can be trained to be grateful through the use of “Thank you” notes, whether the notes are sent by postal mail, email, or related forms of electronic messaging. The instruction given to the children is essentially “every gift you receive deserves a thank you.” Through this training process children learn that the expression of gratitude is an integral part of receiving gifts from relatives or friends.

Personal Expression and Improvement . . .

Once we reach adulthood we begin making important personal choices about our practice of gratitude. We might choose to maintain what we developed in childhood, or we could choose to increase our ability to experience and express gratitude. As adults we can recall and apply the positive instruction and influence about gratitude that we received during our childhood years. When we were children we might have ignored or rejected the concept of gratitude, even though our parents tried to instill that trait within us. Now, as adults, we begin looking at life differently than we did as children, and we start seeing things as blessings that as children we took for granted. Our new perspective allows us to feel a genuine sense of thankfulness. Once grown we can recall the instructions and examples of gratitude given by our parents, and the long-ignored training is now applied and incorporated into our adult lifestyle. Even if gratitude training was absent in our childhood years we can still achieve significant growth in adulthood. Essentially, we can learn to be grateful.

It is indeed good news is that you and I as adults can grow in our gratitude. Our growth can be stimulated and nurtured through a wide range of practical or creative techniques.

(1) Prayer:  For many people the usage of daily prayers is an effective method for increasing gratitude. Prayer is too often the practice of asking God for what we want or need, or for fussing at God over what we don’t have. Many people minimize their sense of thankfulness toward God by taking too much credit for their own efforts. A classic example of this tendency is the prayer given by Charlie Anderson in the movie “Shenandoah” released in 1965. Anderson, played by James Stewart, struggled to keep his family together following the deGratitudeShenandoahath of his wife and as the Civil War continued to threaten the family’s security. As the movie opens the family gathers for dinner and Anderson leads them in prayer with the following words: “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat, amen.” Anderson’s prayer illustrates a mindset of self-reliance and independence that could hinder the development of gratitude, particularly toward God. Recognition of our daily dependence upon God will enable us to acknowledge the blessings we have received from him and to express our thankfulness for those gifts. In our prayers we can thank God for the daily necessities he provides and for the people in our lives whom we appreciate. We can express thanks for the spiritual blessings that are available to us. Through these types of prayers our personal gratitude is both expressed and expanded.

(2) Gratitude Journal:  The usage of a Gratitude Journal is another method for gratitude growth. Purchase a ready-made journal or make a loose-leaf notebook and think of it as your Gratitude Journal. On a daily basis or as frequently as possible write down in the journal one or more things for which you feel grateful. The items can be listed in a brief format or they can be described in detail. The process of writing the items down on paper helps to reinforce our sense of awareness and appreciation. Months or even years later we can experience joy by reading these journal entries and celebrating the sense of gratitude we felt during the writing process.
(3) Gratitude Jar:  Another method for gratitude growth is the usage of a Gratitude Jar. Find a suitable jar and label it as your Gratitude Jar. Keep some slips of paper and a pen nearby. When you are feeling thankful for something GratitudeJarwrite a few words on a slip of paper and place the paper inside the Gratitude Jar. The jar captures your item and keeps it safe for you. At the end of each month or year you can empty the jar and read through the slips of paper. This practice will remind you of the items for which you were thankful throughout that period of time. This recall activity will provide a bonus benefit from the original expression of gratitude. You could also use the Gratitude Jar method as a family activity. All family members would be encouraged to add expressions of gratitude to the jar. The slips of paper could be removed and read at the end of each month or at whatever occasion the family prefers. The increased level of gratitude will promote positive interaction among family members and will strengthen the family unit as a whole.

(4) Gratitude Cards:  One of the most time-tested effective means of expressing gratitude has been the usage of “Thank You” cards and notes. In our contemporary society many people send “Thank You” cards and notes throuGratitudeThankyouCardgh Internet applications or social media (Facebook, etc.). As useful as online resources might be there is still something special about going to the mailbox and finding there a hard-version “Thank You” card from someone who appreciated something we did for them. A hand-written note of thanks promotes the receiver’s sense of “feeling appreciated,” and the note might be treasured and preserved for the remainder of the receiver’s life. Whatever the delivery system might be, the practice of sending gratitude cards is a great way to promote gratitude growth.

(5) Gratitude Reminders:  Another method for promoting gratitude is to use reminders in the form of written notes or physical items that encourage us to look for blessings and to be thankful for them. For example, we could keep a note on our office desk phone that reminds us to be thankful for incoming phone calls. We could also keep an object in our cars to remind us before we get home to enter the house with a thankful heart and to look for specific things at home for which we can feel and express gratitude toward other family members. This attitude of gratitude can make our arrival at home a positive experience for everyone present. Whatever we choose to use in terms of notes or symbols our basic goal is to keep in mind a central thought:  “Remember:  Be Thankful!”

Committing to Growth . . .

Gratitude growth is possible for each one of us, regardless of past failures or current patterns. Learn from your past and try to imagine how much better your life will be when you are experiencing and expressing gratitude on a regular basis. If you feel doubtful about your potential for growth remember that your “heart size” does not have to limit the size of your gratitude. In his stories about Winnie the Pooh the well-known writer A.A. Milne described little Piglet with the words “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.” So, be encouraged. Make a personal commitment to the growth of gratitude. Then translate that commitment into meaningful action as often as possible. Your heart might not increase in size but your gratitude will definitely get bigger.




GratitudeHighwayText.pngAs we travel through life we have many important choices to make that will determine our level of health and happiness. One critical choice involves the issue of gratitude. Will I choose to travel on the Grumbling Highway or on the Gratitude Highway? A grumbling lifestyle will result in a journey characterized by dissatisfaction with life and disconnection from people. Conversely, a gratitude lifestyle will promote individual and relationship health and happiness. Without doubt, a journey on the Gratitude Highway is the better choice for each of us.

How would you assess your current GQ—that is, your personal Gratitude Quotient? Is your GQ on the low side, indicating an insufficient level of thankfulness? If so, are you willing to embrace the value of gratitude and to commit yourself to the growth of gratitude in your personal life and in your human relationships? Your choice to grow in gratitude will enrich your daily living and will make you a positive blessing to the people around you. A high GQ would reveal that you’ve been practicing gratitude on a regular basis.  My encouragement to you is to continue your efforts and to enjoy the benefits as you travel along the Gratitude Highway. Regardless of the circumstances we might encounter during our journey let’s always remember: “A grateful heart is a joyful heart!”

                                                                                (Mental Health #1320)

                                                                  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

*Research:  One of the leading current researchers is Robert Emmons, Ph.D. from the University of California (Davis). Several of his publications are listed below.

Emmons, Robert A. and McCullough, E. (2004). “The Psychology of Gratitude.”  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Emmons, Robert A. (2013). “Gratitude Works:  A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.”  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Emmons, Robert A. (2008) “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.” Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company.



VIDEO:  To watch a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses “The Benefits of Gratitude” please click on the image to the right or click here.


(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)





9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill