Exercise your gratitude muscle

Gratitude works a bit like your muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger and more capable it becomes. A photo illustration of the Rev. Gary Henderson by Ronny Perry, United Methodist Communications.
Gratitude works a bit like your muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger and more capable it becomes. A photo illustration of the Rev. Gary Henderson by Ronny Perry, United Methodist Communications.

What are you grateful for?

Some days it is extremely easy to answer that question. Other days, it’s a struggle. After all, many real life circumstances leave us feeling more drained than thankful.

We know that gratitude is good. We feel compelled to realize gratitude. Scripture tells us we should feel constant gratitude. Is that possible? How do we cultivate gratitude when experiencing rough circumstances?

Taking a moment to remember that for which we're grateful is a great way to exercise our gratitude muscle. Photo by Ryan Dunn. 

Taking a moment to remember that for which we're grateful is a wonderful way to exercise your gratitude muscle. Photo by Ryan Dunn.

The gratitude muscle

Gratitude works a bit like your bicep muscle. The more you work it out, the stronger and more capable it becomes. So let’s identify gratitude’s impact and how we can strengthen the gratitude muscle.

Research shows that expressing gratitude is linked to better sleep. College students who displayed more gratitude reported being less stressed, less depressed and felt less isolated at the end of their first terms. Grateful individuals experience more positive emotions, more satisfaction and report fewer negative emotions like anxiety and envy.

The Bible boasts at least 100 verses about gratitude. Perhaps the most popular is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

It is notable the verse does not say we should feel grateful for all circumstances. Instead it suggests we express grateful through all circumstances. This recognizes there are circumstances we face—perhaps right now—that are less than savory. This verse and others like it remind us there are still things for which we can be grateful.

During anxious or cumbersome times are when we look at gratitude akin with working out a muscle. When new to working out, we cannot lift the heaviest weights. Instead, we have to train our way up, starting with lighter weights and working the muscle until we have the strength to lift something heavier. The more we work the muscle, the easier the movement and lifting becomes.

Prayers of Thanksgiving

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.

It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

United Methodist Book of Worship #556

O Supreme Lord of the Universe,
You fill and sustain everything around us.

With the touch of your hand you turned chaos into order, darkness into light.

Unknown energies you hid in the heart of matter.

From you burst forth the splendor of the sun and the mild radiance of the moon.

Stars and planets without number you set in ordered movement.

You are the source of the fire’s heat and the wind’s might, of the water’s coolness and the earth’s stability.

Deep and wonderful are the mysteries of your creation. Amen.

For the Beauty of the Earth (hymn by Folliot Sandford Pierpoint)

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies.

Lord of all to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

Gratitude works similarly: the more we lightly practice gratitude, the easier and more generous it becomes. Like loosening a dam, there might be a trickle of gratitude in the beginning. But soon we will experience an increasing flood of gracious feelings.

Gratitude exercises

Tradition provides for us a number of exercises that serve as gratitude workouts.

Keep a Journal: Perhaps the most accessible practice for many of us is simply to write down a list of things for which we are grateful every day. Some use special journals for recording their gratitude. Others simply use sticky notes stuck up in prominent areas.

The act of recording is the source of grateful reflection. The pressure applied to self to fill the page (or note) forces us to consider the numerous blessings we encounter in life.

Offer a Daily Prayer of Thanks: When we are unable to form our own words, we can borrow from those who have come before us. Their words become our words. Their thoughts stir our own thoughts. Do a few “reps” by uttering one of these traditional prayers of thanksgiving listed to the right.

Practice Mindfulness: For centuries, contemplative Christians cultivated a sense of gratitude through deliberate, meditative practices. Perhaps one of the practices most vital in establishing an awareness of gratitude is known as the Ignatian Examen.

The Examen includes five steps:

  1. Become aware of God’s presence. Practitioners sometimes light a candle as a physical reminder. More often, they simply pray an invitation to God to help them become aware of God’s presence.
  2. Give thanks. Sometimes direct questions are useful: “What moments are you most grateful for today?”
  3. Pay attention to emotions. Again, there are questions to guide this step: “When did you feel most alive today? What moments drained life from you?”
  4. Face shortcomings. When might you have missed the mark this day? When did you fail to show love?
  5. Look forward to tomorrow. How might you show love tomorrow? What are your hopes the next day?

For more on the Examen and similar practices, visit IgnatianSpirituality.com.

Gratitude does not come easily or naturally in many instances. May these practices provide reminders of all for which we can be grateful.

*Ryan Dunn is the Minister of Online Engagement for the Rethink Church team at United Methodist Communications. Contact him via email.

This story was published November 9, 2020.