The benefits of gratitude have been well established in psychological research. Gratitude can best be understood as expressing an appreciation for what one has, rather than what one wants. The experts have found developing a practice of gratitude can positively impact well-being and happiness.
In order to gain these benefits, experts have recommended keeping a gratitude journal. Within the journal, an individual is to reflect upon his or her day and list the people or things they are grateful for. A recent study took this a few steps further by having participants not only keep an interpersonal gratitude journal but, also expressing that gratitude. Rather than merely writing about their feelings of gratitude for others, they expressed their feelings of gratitude to the person. When compared to the other two groups in the study (individuals who either kept a gratitude journal or kept a journal about their daily activity) the individuals who wrote about gratitude and expressed it experienced greater amounts of positive effects. This included having more positive affect balance, which means they had more positive emotions than negative emotions. They also experienced a reduction in depression scores. Thus, if you really want to experience the positive emotional benefits of gratitude don't just keep those feelings to yourself, express it to those you are grateful for!
The positive effects that comes from being grateful for what we have and the people in our lives shouldn't come as a surprise. The Bible is full of reminders to be grateful, thankful, and content with our circumstances. If there are so many benefits from expressing gratitude and the Bible encourages us to be content, then why aren’t more of us doing this? I think the answer is simple, it’s hard to do! We live in a world of instant gratification and constantly long for what is coming next. We base our contentment on circumstances and hopes for what is coming, rather than being content in the present. Although contentment is God’s design for us, it can often feel challenging to live this out. What better verse to encourage us in this area than Paul's declaration that he has learned to be content in all circumstances.
"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:11-13).
This verse should give us hope because Paul just told us he has learned to be content, thus we can learn and practice this skill in our own lives. It is hard to imagine being content within Paul's circumstances of being in jails, ship wrecked, and often isolated from his church community. Yet, he points us to Christ as his strength and the one who sustains him. When we focus on contentment or gratitude, it puts us in a position to rely on Christ because it is not our natural reaction to be grateful or content. Through Christ's sustaining strength, and a decision to choose contentment and practice it through journaling and expressing it, we can learn to be content no matter the circumstances. Thanks be to God that we do not have to rely on our own power!