Why does gratitude bring so much joy to some and not others? It’s because few people understand what gratitude is. Can you define the word “gratitude” without using a synonym like “thankfulness”? Gratitude will make anxiety a thing of the past in your life—but only if you grasp the meaning.
We might have expected Philippians 4:6 to say, “Present your requests with faith.” Instead, it’s “Present your requests with thanksgiving.”
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
Faith is crucial, but without gratitude, it’s not enough. Anxiety is mainly an emotional problem, and it calls for an emotional cure. Gratitude touches not only your thoughts, words, and attitudes but also your emotions.
You cannot feel anxiety and gratitude at the same time for the same issue. One will drive out the other.
Research confirms this. In one study, subjects were asked to make a list of things for which they were thankful. After making the list, they reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy than the control group. They were also less stressed and depressed and were more likely to help others.
The effect of gratitude on your body is the opposite of what anxiety does to you. It reverses the effects of stress hormones. The pleasure centers of your brain light up and release pleasure hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. Your brain dishes out all kinds of neurological candy whenever you feel thankful.
And it’s good for you. According to the Mayo Clinic Health System, “Feeling thankful can improve sleep, mood, and immunity” and “decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain and risk of disease.”
Robert Emmons has written extensively on the benefits of gratitude. His studies have shown that thankfulness has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life as any other trait. More than even positive thinking, hope, or compassion. Grateful people experience higher levels of joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism. Gratitude prevents harmful attitudes such as envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness and increases one’s ability to handle everyday stress, to be resilient in the face of trauma-induced stress, and to recover from illness.
Students who received text reminders about gratitude reported sharper academic focus in class and greater ability to remain resilient when confronted with obstacles to learning.
In one study, people were asked to keep a gratitude journal. The result was they reported 25% higher levels of happiness than the control group. They also gained thirty minutes more sleep per night and exercised 33% more each week than those not journaling. People with hypertension achieved up to a 10% reduction in systolic blood pressure. They also had increased energy, alertness, and enthusiasm. They had a better sense of closure for traumatic memories, increased cardiac health, more satisfying relationships, and a greater sense of purpose.
If there were a pill that could do this, everyone would take it.
What Is Gratitude?
Gratitude is extremely healthy for your body, but all the physical and emotional benefits are the tip of the iceberg of the real value. Far more important are the spiritual rewards.
But to receive those, it’s crucial to understand what gratitude is. The studies on gratitude reflect averages, but in each study, there were subjects in the “gratitude” group that did not get the results. For example, gratitude journals work wonders for most people, but for some, they do nothing. If gratitude is really a miracle cure, why are the results so hit and miss?
It’s because not everyone who says, “Thank you” is truly grateful.
For such a commonplace experience, gratitude is surprisingly difficult to define. Dictionaries often provide a circular definition (gratitude is thankfulness, and thankfulness is gratitude). But without an understanding of what gratitude is, it’s no surprise that results would be hit and miss.
There is an entire chapter in the Bible designed to teach us about gratitude. Psalm 100 describes itself as a psalm for giving thanks.
“A psalm. For giving thanks. Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. … Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever” (Psalms 100:1-5).
That psalm shows three crucial components to gratitude. It is relational, emotional, and verbal.
The target of the psalmist’s gratitude is not the gift. It’s the Giver. The whole psalm is about giving thanks to the Lord.
Picture a family around a Thanksgiving table, taking turns expressing gratitude. “I’m thankful for my family.” “I’m thankful for my health.” “I’m thankful for my home.” Those are incomplete sentences. “Thankful for” is meaningless without “thankful to.”
Many people think they are being thankful when they acknowledge positive realities in their life. When they say, “I’m thankful for my family,” all they really mean is, “I like having my family.”
It’s healthy to think about the parts of your life you enjoy. But is it gratitude? Would you consider a child thankful if he grabbed a gift from your hands and enjoyed it with his back to you, never acknowledging you as the giver?
Remember when Jesus healed the ten lepers?
“As they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. … Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?’” (Luke 17:14-17)?
The implication is the other nine were not grateful. No doubt they thoroughly enjoyed not being lepers anymore. And they knew it was Jesus who gave them that gift. But until they do what leper number one did, it’s not gratitude. Gratitude is a personal, relational interaction.
“I’m thankful for good health.” “I’m thankful for my job.” Those are incomplete sentences. The question is, thankful to whom? If you can’t answer that, you aren’t thankful.
Grateful to the Universe?
There are Christian books on gratitude that say things like, “I’m in the Christian tradition, so I direct my thanksgiving to God. But if you’re not religious, it’s just as effective to say thanks to the universe or to nature.”
That’s nonsense. The universe doesn’t love you, and nature is not capable of personal interaction. Anyone who thinks he is grateful to a non-personal entity does not understand the meaning of gratitude.
And giving the creation credit for what God has done provokes God’s wrath.
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth … For they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him … They worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:18-25).
Ingratitude to God is mankind’s most fundamental sin, and it is at its worst when it gives the creation the credit for what God has done.
Suppose you heard I was in need, so you gave me your car as a gift. Imagine I called you the next day and said, “I love the car! I’m thankful to myself for it.” Would you consider me a grateful person? No. You would think I’d lost my mind. I’m not thankful for the gift unless I’m thankful to you for the gift.
More than Words
For most of the research studies on gratitude, the only criterion for someone being thankful was simply saying the words. Subjects were considered grateful if they kept a gratitude journal, wrote thank you notes, or expressed thanks verbally).
But is that all there is to gratitude? When we teach our kids to be polite, we train them to say the words, “thank you.” But if your child unwraps a present, mumbles “thanks,” tosses it aside, and walks away, do you consider him grateful? No.
When do you consider a child grateful? How about when you give a gift, he sees what it is, and he runs to give you the tightest hug he can muster? The genuineness of his gratitude is measured not by the number of his words or the enjoyment of the gift, but by the tightness of his hug. Gratitude is always relational. No hug, no gratitude.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a literal hug. But it does have to be the emotional equivalent. Gratitude is personal and relational or it’s not gratitude.
The Love Behind the Gift
The reason gratitude must be relational is that the object of gratitude is not the gift, it’s the love or kindness that motivated the gift.
Let’s go back to our thanksgiving psalm.
“Give thanks to him and praise his name. For … his love endures forever” (Psalms 100:4-5).
That is one of twenty times in five different Old Testament books where we read the phrase, “Give thanks to the LORD. His love endures forever.” The object of gratitude is not the gift. It’s the love expressed in the gift.
If I gave you a car, but you found out I didn’t want to give it and was forced against my will, would you be thankful to me? What if you discovered I only gave it because I dislike you and hoped the car would cause you trouble? The object of gratitude is not the gift. It is the love or kindness expressed by the gift.
Don’t Be Distracted by the Gift
Imagine a little girl giving her daddy the tightest hug she can manage. You can even see the muscles in her little arms straining as she embraces him with all her might. At her feet is a gift from him she had just opened.
Beautiful scene, right? But why is she so happy? Sure, she got a gift—one gift. But how many wonderful things did she not receive? Billions. So if she lacks billions of wonderful gifts, why is she happy and not miserable?
It’s because her attention is on what she received, not on what she didn’t receive. Gratitude is receptivity and responsiveness to the giver’s love. That involves a kind of submissiveness to the way the giver chooses to express love.
If you move into a new home and your neighbor brings you a plate of cookies, to enjoy the gesture, you must submit to the way they wanted to express their kindness. They chose cookies. If you can’t appreciate it because you have your heart set on brownies, you’ll miss the joy of receiving their kindness. But if you accept the giver’s way of expressing kindness, the gift can make your day, even if you hate cookies.
If you ignore the giver and fixate on the gift, you’ll inevitably compare it to other gifts you might have liked more. This generates a greedy heart that can’t be satisfied because it’s always looking at what it doesn’t have instead of what it does have. Greed will make you miserable no matter how much God gives you, because there are always countless things you have not received.
Focusing on what has been given exposes you to God’s love. Focusing on what you haven’t received makes you feel unloved.
Adam and Eve
This points us back to the very origin of human sin. Wasn’t the first temptation to focus on deprivation and disregard abundance? The forbidden tree was in the middle of the garden, which means Adam and Eve had to walk past all the countless trees they were free to eat from to get to the one that hadn’t been given to them. When ingratitude invades your heart, it won’t matter how many blessings God showers on you. You’ll only be able to see the ones he didn’t give, which makes happiness impossible.
The serpent tempted Eve by turning her attention to what God hadn’t given her and suggesting it was because God didn’t want her to have something good. He was calling into question God’s love. Once that’s in doubt, we’re vulnerable to every kind of spiritual attack.
If Eve had turned her attention to all the other trees in the garden that she had been given, God’s favor would have been undeniable. Instead, she fixed her tunnel vision on what was forbidden, and became vulnerable to deception.
The second component of gratitude that’s obvious in Psalm 100 is that it is emotional. Notice how much emotive language permeates the psalm.
“A psalm. For giving thanks. Shout for joy … Worship … with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. … Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” (Psalms 100:1-5).
This isn’t only in Psalm 100. Wherever thanksgiving appears in Scripture, it’s always in contexts of joy. Gratitude goes beyond mere acknowledgment of God’s love to enjoyment of his love.
If someone expresses love to you through a gift, the most significant thing they gave you wasn’t the gift. It was the love. If that love means nothing to you, you’re not grateful.
This is why counting your blessings or keeping a gratitude journal may or may not bring you joy. The joy comes not from merely knowing about God’s love, but from enjoying it.
Ingratitude is emotional deadness to the giver. Gratitude is emotional responsiveness to the giver. You can count your blessings until you’re blue in the face, but if you haven’t had a personal interaction between you and God involving your emotions, you’re not grateful.
Gratitude is more than words, but it’s not less than words. It is not enough merely to enjoy God’s love. Gratitude is responsiveness to love. And the most basic way to respond is with words. This is why the terms “gratitude” and “thanksgiving” are so closely related. It matters what you say.
Notice the emphasis on the verbal response in Psalm 100.
“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth…. come before him with joyful songs. … Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name” (Psalms 100:1-4).
Complaining is Forbidden
The opposite of thanksgiving is complaining. And complaining is sin.
Philippians 2:14 Do everything without complaining or arguing.
There are times when it is necessary to speak about hardships. But when it comes from a griping, muttering, negative attitude, that’s complaining. And it infuriates God. The Lord once killed 14,700 Israelites for the sin of complaining (1 Corinthians 10:10). It infuriates him because complaining is the voice of ingratitude, which is one of mankind’s most fundamental evils (Romans 1:21).
God generously provides us with a car, and what happens? Someone cuts us off or we hit a traffic jam and we’re miserable. People in India are born and die on the same sidewalk. God puts us in large, comfortable, lavish homes and we grumble about cabinet space. We eat like kings and grouse about the waiter being slow to refill our drink. God gave us eternal life, and we complain about a stuck zipper. What do we think we deserve? Paradise? God promised that too. But we moan about too many commercials on TV.
Words Move the Heart
Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). Grateful or grumbling words come out of your mouth because of grateful or grumbling attitudes.
But it works in the other direction as well. What comes out of your mouth amplifies and strengthens what’s in your heart. If something painful happens, it may spark a little fire of discontent. Speaking about it (complaining) pours gasoline on the flames. But when there is a glimmer of gratitude, expressing that with words of thanks to the giver strengthens that gratitude.
The mental energy required in formulating and speaking or writing words of thanks forces your attention onto God’s kindness. And the more time spent doing that, the greater your joy.
Maybe you were told growing up, “If you can’t think of anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” But that’s not the solution. If you can’t think of anything good to say, think harder.
Godliness Training Exercises
- Every day, use words to express your gratitude to God, whether verbally or in writing.
- Be alert for instances where you might naturally miss a gesture of God’s love because you had your heart set on brownies when God gave cookies. Compile a list over the course of three days. And make an effort to enjoy the love expressed by those cookies.
- We often don’t even notice our own complaining. Ask the people around you what you tend to complain about. It may help to ask them to point it out each time it happens.
- Based on your complaining, make a list of areas of ingratitude in your heart. Give some thought to how you could replace those pockets of ingratitude with thankfulness.
- Keep reviewing the verses you have memorized so far and add Matthew 6:30-31.
For the video of this session, click here.
 Cited by Tamar Chansky in Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, Part 4, Shortcuts at the 8:08:12 mark.
 The Neural Basis of Human Social Values: Evidence from Functional MRI, Zahn, 2008.
 Robert A. Emmons, Gratitude Works! Audiobook, ch.1, The Challenge of Gratitude.
 Wilson, J. T. (2016). Brightening the Mind: The Impact of Practicing Gratitude on Focus and Resilience in Learning. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 16(4), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v16i4.19998.
 1 Chronicles 16:34, 41; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3,6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psalms 106:1; 107:1,8,15,21,31; 118:1,29; 136:1-3, 26; Jeremiah 33:11.