Count Your Blessings

I hope you are having a restful Thanksgiving weekend.

During this holiday it's hard not to reflect on what you are thankful for. And it puts me in mind about that bit of wisdom I heard when I was a child, to take the time to "count your blessings." In my church growing up we even sang a song about this:

When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Count your blessings name them one by one.
Count your blessings see what God hath done.
Count your blessings name them one by one.
Count your many blessings see what God hath done.
This admonition can seem trite and simplistic. Life's pretty hard. Do we really think counting our blessings is going to help?

Interestingly, psychological science suggests that it will help. In a 2003 article--Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life--in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough tested the count your blessings recommendation.

For example, in the first of three studies Emmons and McCullough randomly assigned participants into one of three groups: Gratitude, Hassles, and Events. Each group was to reflect, each week for ten weeks, upon certain aspects of their lives. In the Gratitude group the reflection prompt was:
There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.
In the study...
...[e]xamples of gratitude-inducing experiences listed by participants were as follows: “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “to God for giving me determination,” “for wonderful parents,” “to the Lord for just another day,” and “to the Rolling Stones.”
The Hassles group was given this prompt:
Hassles are irritants—things that annoy or bother you. They occur in various domains of life, including relationships, work, school, housing, finances, health, and so forth. Think back over today and, on the lines below, list up to five hassles that occurred in your life.
Examples of hassles included:
“hard to find parking,” “messy kitchen no one will clean,” “finances depleting quickly,” “having a horrible test in health psychology,” “stupid people driving,” and “doing a favor for friend who didn't appreciate it.”
The final group, the Events condition, served as a control:
What were some of the events or circumstances that affected you in the past week? Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below the five events that had an impact on you.
Examples of events included:
“talked to a doctor about medical school,” “learned CPR,” “cleaned out my shoe closet,” “flew back to Sacramento,” and “attended Whole Earth Festival.”
Following the groups over the ten weeks Emmons and McCullough found that those in the gratitude condition, those counting their blessings, were significantly happier and healthier than their counterparts.

More, in a second study following up this first experiment Emmons and McCullough went on to assess prosocial behaviors. They found that not only were the participants in the gratitude condition happier and healthier they were more likely to offer emotional support to others and more likely to have helped someone with a problem.

So it seems that simply counting your blessings can have a profound effect on your life, making you happier, healthier, and more compassionate. Not a bad trade for such a simple intervention.

These findings are just a small part of a growing literature on gratitude. And it's a part of a scientific consensus that is emerging from the happiness research. Specifically, if you had to name one trait, one psychological feature, that predicts joy and happiness what would you choose? If the psychological science is any guide the answer seems clear: Gratitude. The happiest people in the world are marked by gratitude. They find life to be a blessing, they receive it as a gift.

Why is gratitude so powerful in creating joy? Well, one of the biggest obstacles to joy is what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is driven by habituation. Specifically, we tend to get used to our surroundings. Something that was once novel, shiny, or new eventually elicits a ho-hum response. We habituate to our cars, clothing, jobs, homes, friends, and family. Gifts that once gave us joy move into being stuff and stuff eventually turns into junk. So we consume more. We seek out the next new shiny thing. We get on the hedonic treadmill and start the race toward happiness. And, for a moment, we get a bit of joy. We get a step ahead. But habituation kicks in and pushes us back. Gift becomes stuff. Ho-hum sets in again. So we run and run but never get any happier.

But gratitude seems to crack this cycle. Why? Gratitude is the exact opposite of habituation. Where habituation causes us to look over or past the blessings we have in life, gratitude re-presents these things and relationships as gifts, keeping them ever new in our hearts and affections. You don't habituate to things you are grateful for. Things don't get old when you count you blessings. So while habituation turns gifts into junk gratitude reverses the process. It turns junk back into gift. Gratitude allows you to jump off the hedonic treadmill and actually make some real progress into joy.

And speaking of gratitude, joy, gift, worship and getting off the hedonic treadmill...Advent starts tomorrow...

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3 thoughts on “Count Your Blessings”

  1. If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

    --Meister Eckhart

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