With anxiety and depression on the rise, researchers have been studying various evidence-based coping skills to help people improve their mental health. Yet some of these techniques are as old as the Bible. Let’s specifically look at the concept of gratitude.
Gratitude – or, as the Bible typically calls it, thanksgiving – is an evidence-based practice that has strong roots in the Scriptures. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:18 states, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Psalm 77 provides a powerful example of pouring out our honest feelings to God and then remembering what God has done for us in our struggles. The passage demonstrates both authenticity and thankfulness.
When life hits us hard, being thankful may not be easy, which is no doubt why the ESV translation uses the term “sacrifice of thanksgiving” in Psalm 50:14, Psalm 116:17, and Leviticus 22:29. However, even when gratitude requires an act of sacrifice, purposefully being thankful is a transformational discipline that benefits our mental health.
Can’t sleep? Try being thankful.
Let’s start with sleep. Do you ever have trouble falling asleep? When you lay down at night, or wake up in the middle of the night, try listing out all the things for which you are thankful.
This doesn’t have to be big, life-altering expressions of gratitude. When you can’t sleep, start simply with things like, “I’m thankful for my cozy bed. I’m thankful for this soft pillow. I’m thankful for these warm blankets. I’m thankful for the people in my life. I’m thankful for the dinner I had last night.” You get the idea. The next time you can’t sleep, give it a try.
Several secular studies have verified the positive health benefits of gratitude journals, which help provide perspective, stress management, and self-reflection.
One of the many research projects on gratitude’s positive impact included a study of nurses who were struggling with burnout. The nurses who used a gratitude journal at least twice a week showed improvement in both their mental health as well as a reduction in the physical aspects of stress, such as blood pressure.
In summary, the report stated, “In a study involving healthcare practitioners, the use of gratitude journals as little as twice per week has resulted in lower reported stress levels and depressive symptoms after 1 month and were maintained at the 3-month follow-up after intervention.”
Another secular study among college students who met clinical criteria for depression and suicidal ideation discovered that when the students specifically focused on gratitude it directly correlated with a reduction of their levels of depression and suicidal thoughts.
The research project concluded, “The linkage between gratitude and suicide risk appears to be predicated on the beneficial association of gratitude to negative mood and interpersonal functioning.”
A third study was done with single mothers who were negatively impacted by COVID-19 in the areas of economics, social and mental health.
“Single mothers (who are typically both primary caregivers and wage earners for their families) may be especially vulnerable to stress and mental health problems during this crisis. Gratitude is strongly linked to positive emotions as well as mental health and has been shown to be amendable in interventions but has rarely been assessed in regard to parent well-being. … Our findings suggest that fostering gratitude in single mothers could have benefits for their mental health and well-being.”
Why is gratitude a health benefit?
A research-based psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Amen’s website explains the health benefits of gratitude:
“Research suggests that focusing on gratitude helps to calm the deep limbic areas and enhance the other judgment centers of your brain. People who express gratitude on a regular basis are healthier, more optimistic, make better progress toward their goals, have a greater sense of well-being, and are more helpful to others.”
What if it’s hard to be thankful?
Some days it doesn’t feel like there’s much to be thankful for. On those days, consider using Habakkuk 3:17-19 as a guide.
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT
How would you re-write this? Here’s one option: “Even though finances are tight, and we can’t eat out as often as we’d like; even though my kids struggle in school and it feels like there is no hope; even though we battle sickness and pain, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me surefooted as a deer, able to walk on this difficult path in front of me, step-by-step.”
Now it’s your turn. How would you rewrite Habakkuk 3:17-19?
Even though ___________________________________________________
And even though _________________________________________________
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He ____________________ (provides for me, strengthens me, comforts me, protects me, etc.) to walk this path before me.
Pray with thanksgiving.
Philippians 4:6-7 is another key verse on thanksgiving, especially in relationship to being anxious and receiving God’s peace: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
God doesn’t tell us not to be anxious without telling us how to not be anxious – and that is “with thanksgiving.” We pray and petition God with thanksgiving. And then what is the result? He offers us his inexplicable peace. And what does that peace do? It guards our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.
Of course, sometimes we need to process traumas, grief, and frustration to fully live a life of gratitude and peace. If that’s where you’re at, please consider reaching out to one of the counselors at California Christian Counseling.
National Library of Medicine: Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19073292/
Kelly Cumella, “Gratitude journals can improve nurses’ mental well-being,” Nursing, Vol. 52, No. 12, December 2022, pp. 58-61.
Andrea R. Kaniuka, Jessica Kelliher Rabon, Byron D. Brooks, Fuschia Sirois, Evan Kleiman, and Jameson K. Hirsch; “Gratitude and Suicide Risk among College Students: Substantiating the Protective Benefits of Being Thankful”; Journal of American College Health 69, no. 6 (August 2021): 660–67.
Zoe E. Taylor, Keisha Bailey, Fabiola Herrera, Nayantara Nair, and Abrianna Adams. “Strengths of the Heart: Stressors, Gratitude, and Mental Health in Single Mothers during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Journal of Family Psychology 36, no. 3 (April 2022): 346–57.
“Journaling”, Courtesy of Pexels, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Coffee”, Courtesy of Ylanite, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Praying”, Courtesy of Ric Rodrigues, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Praying at Dawn”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License