We are wired to remember negative experiences more easily than positive ones. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude to overcome this negativity bias. In all things, give thanks!
How would your life be different if you made a commitment to genuine gratitude? This month we’ll explore the mental, academic, physical, and spiritual benefits of cultivating an attitude of gratitude.
Struggling With the Big Question
“Why?” the words left my mouth in a brittle whisper as I tromped through the snow-covered field. The dirty grey snow, worn thin from the warm winds of April allowed my boots to sink down to the muddy clods of dirt beneath my feet. No word of answer split the night sky.
“Why, God?” I asked again. My heart felt like bursting from all the confusions and questions roiling around. I stomped my feet in anger and shook my fists at the bright stars. God didn’t see fit to yell an answer back at me.
“Why does Pedro have cancer? Our girls are too young to lose their father. Why do his relatives feel the need to manage his illness? I don’t like the decisions they want to make for us. Why, why, why?” My voice rose to almost hysterical screaming. I knew no one would hear me in this lonely field, far from houses and buildings.
Stomping and storming through the field, I let the sobs escape my tight control. Minutes passed. An hour slipped by, and my rage started to subside.
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” the wind whispered in my ear. The words from a memory verse learned in childhood almost seemed to taunt me.
“Give thanks?” I laughed with derision. “That’s all you have for me, God?”
“Give thanks in ALL circumstances.” The words came back stronger this time, with an emphasis on the word ‘all.’
I shook my head. My heart didn’t feel like giving thanks. Angry emotions wanted to snap and bite and devour any semblance of peace the physical exertion had given me.
“Give thanks in all circumstances.”
I hung my head, resisting the call to thanksgiving. Nothing but the facts came to mind.
Nothing to Give Thanks For
My 34-year-old healthy husband suddenly had a cancer diagnosis. Our daughters, ages eight and 9, needed their father. We had entered a whirlwind of testing, diagnosis, procedures, travel, helpful relatives, and strong opinions. Everyone else’s opinions and plans buried my opinions in a tsunami wave. I felt helpless, hopeless, and out of control.
And God wanted me to give thanks.
I looked up at the stars. They shone like diamonds on a black-velvet expanse. The snowy caps of mountains glimmered in the distance under the sliver of light from the moon.
I might not have anything in my current circumstances to give thanks for, but I could have an attitude of gratitude about the scene above me. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered. “Thank you for the stars, the inky sky, and the mountains.”
I took in a deep breath and looked around me. Somehow, I had ended up in the treed area at the end of the field—the place our oldest daughter called the Enchanted Cow Forest. A giggled escaped and I looked heavenward again. “And thank you for the Enchanted Cow Forest. Thank you for our daughters and their zany sense of humor.”
The giggle and the act of thanking God for a stand of trees with a silly name seemed to unleash an attitude of gratitude within me. I looked at my watch and discovered I’d been outside much longer than I thought.
Heading back across the field toward home, I continued to give thanks for both the mundane and the magnificent. God understood my angst, and he knew the antidote. Give thanks.
The Science Behind Negativity Bias
Researchers have discovered humans seem hardwired to dwell on negative thoughts. We remember one negative event more easily than dozens of positive events. According to Catherine Moore, a psychologist who writes about negativity bias for PositivePsychology.com, researchers have shown how humans remember negative events far longer than positive events.
Thinking about negative things does serve a purpose, though. We use negative experiences to learn and grow and avoid similar negative experiences in the future. Unfortunately, we can also fall into a rut of only thinking about negative things—whether small inconveniences or serious disasters—and letting those negative thoughts crowd out genuine gratitude.
Rick Hanson Ph. D, a neuropsychologist, senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center, and author explains how stress works in our brains in a Ted Talk on YouTube.
According to Dr. Hanson, the experience of stress releases cortisol. The cortisol makes its way up to the brain and stimulates our warning system in the amygdala. Cortisol also kills neurons in the hippocampus—the organ in charge of calming our amygdala and reducing our stress. Chronic stress can rewire our brains and make us more sensitive to stress.
We all have a negativity bias, but if left unchecked, it can cause a weakness in the brain (to seek out more negativity). According to Dr. Hanson, the brain is very good at learning from bad experiences but very bad at learning from good experiences.
Hacks to Develop an Attitude of Gratitude
According to Dr. Hanson, positive inner traits are built from within. “If you want to have a more loving heart, practice more moments of compassion for others.” Likewise, if you want to have an attitude of gratitude, you’ll need to practice having gratitude. These hacks will help you develop your attitude of gratitude.
1. Give Thanks
Take time every day to express gratitude. Say thank you, and serve it up with a smile, when someone does something kind for you. Appreciate others and let them know you appreciate them.
The words ‘give thanks’ show up 52 times in the New King James Version of the Bible. Look up a reference to ‘give thanks’ once a week for the next year. Copy it down, meditate on it, and list specific things you want to give thanks to God for.
2. Learn to HEAL
According to Dr. Hanson, “passing mental states become lasting neural traits.” If we pass time focusing on good things, we will, over time, form a habit of combating negativity bias in our lives. Dr. Hanson suggests using the acronym HEAL to spend 10-20 seconds of taking in the good.
H—have a good experience (activate it). When you have a good experience, pause and acknowledge it. This activates the brain to start taking in the good.
E—enrich the experience (help install it in your brain). Spend time thinking about the experience and celebrating it.
A—absorb it (acknowledge). Acknowledge how the experience affects you. Do you feel valued, loved, happy, surprised, grateful, or secure?
L—link it. Dr. Hanson suggests you try to link the positive experience with something negative in the moment. For example, someone compliments you about a job well done. Go through the first three steps, and then briefly think of a negative experience.
Perhaps someone at some point in your life berated you for not meeting their expectations. Hold on to the good feelings generated by the positive experience and allow it to space to heal a negative experience. It may take up to five positive experiences to counteract one negative experience, but by repeatedly taking the good into your life and linking the good feelings with the negative experience, you will form new neural pathways.
The more we take in the good, the more we’re able to heal the bad. It’s not as if we will change ourselves overnight. Rather, all the little good things will build and help heal the bad things.
3. Give Thanks in ALL Circumstances
God gets a bad rap because we keep trying to make him over in our image. We attribute our values, preferences, and quirks to the God of the universe. The devil loves it when we do this. He easily convinces us not to trust in God’s character, but to feel disappointment, despair, and disrespect when God doesn’t ‘show up for us’ in the way we imagined he should.God gets a bad rap because we try to make him over in our image. #givegratitude #selfcare Click To Tweet
God doesn’t owe us answers, prosperity, or abundance. While tromping around that field in anguish all those years ago, God didn’t answer my why?. He told me to give thanks. God asked me to have an attitude of gratitude. Not for cancer (although now I can see a larger purpose in the catastrophe), but for anything.
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.1 Thessalonians 5:18 NIV
I don’t think God expects us to thank him for the pain when we stub our toe, break a leg, or receive a grave diagnosis. He just expects us to give thanks for whatever we can feel gratitude for at that moment. And in doing so, we unconsciously activate Dr. Hanson’s HEAL acronym.
4. Take Every Thought Captive
“The mind can change the brain to change the mind,” according to Dr. Hanson. When we follow the apostle Paul’s advice to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:50 NIV), we start building a habit of having an attitude of gratitude.
God offers salvation and grace as free gifts, but we have a responsibility to do the hard work of forming new habits. Habits that allow us to offer forgiveness, grace, and love to ourselves and to those who have wronged us.
Work in Progress
I am a work in progress. From my fist-shaking late-night encounter with God in a Montana field 20 years ago to today, I am making progress. The more I give thanks, no matter what the circumstances, the easier it becomes to have an attitude of gratitude. And the spiritual benefits of an attitude of gratitude often surprise me.
I find it easier to love those who don’t look, act, and think just like me. My table has more room and I criticize others less. I understand how God wants us to rest in a relationship with him, not strive to keep rules. This understanding releases me from trying to act as God’s hall monitor (something he never asked me to do).
How will you let an attitude of gratitude enhance your spiritual life this season?