December 1, 2022

The Power of Pausing in Gratitude

Gratitude affect happiness and wellbeing primarily through positive relationships. We finding that beliefs matters toward experiences and practices of gratitude.

“When I’m really impressed and feeling most grateful…It’s when I see that people are in sync with the way that things should be. That they’re living in love, that they’re living in beauty, that they’re living in grace…That’s the deepest gratitude. It’s when you see a life being lived well.”

44- year-old male, Eastern Orthodox Christian

“I think gratitude is truly and completely recognizing the gifts that we are presented with, not from people and all, but from our experiences in life, and showing respect by actually recognizing them and feeling thankfulness meekly, that what we’re given is nothing that we could have achieved ourselves, that the feeling for love, just recognizing when you have a eureka moment, you suddenly understand a situation, gratitude is just a deep feeling of recognition, respect, and thankfulness for an experience that was given to you.”

58- year- old female, spiritual, but not theistic

“So when that happens, I wanna pay it forward…, ‘I gotta do something nice for somebody else. I gotta keep this moving.’ And that’s kind of a compulsion [as] …I absorb all this feeling of well-being, then I wanna make sure I share that…”  

59 -year-old female, atheist

What have we learned about transcendent gratitude or gratitude God?

My research lab at the Thrive Center spent two years studying how people experience gratitude, generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The above quotes are examples of how individuals with diverse belief systems describe transcendent gratitude or gratitude to God.  We found that it’s one thing to thank a person for a meaningful gift, but it’s another thing entirely to experience gratitude when one recognizes a gift from beyond human agency. Common across religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions is thanking the source or force behind good gifts. As Christians, thanking God is part of our spiritual devotion and practices. In fact, for many of us, thanking God for our food is one of the first prayers we learned. I’ll bet you can say that prayer to yourself right now.

Pausing to say thanks, whether in prayer, singing, or jumping for joy, orients us toward the source, connecting us to the giver.  If we slow down to consciously appreciate and savor a gift, gratitude can serve as a signpost to what is meaningful in our lives. It points us in the right direction and this process can be transformative. A gratitude “pause” serves as an embodied reminder that deepens our relationship to the Giver, creating devotion and increasing awareness of good things. When we take time to reflect and thank the source, we are reminded that we are valued, that we are loved, and that we are richly blessed.  Moments of thanksgiving are like slowing down the car to enjoy a beautiful view.  They give us time to behold a gift. They help us to understand that we are worthy of gifts. Perhaps most importantly, they remind us of the Giver, the one who gives us life and all good things.

Being mindful of the gift, the giver, and who we are as the receiver are three powerful appraisals of gratitude. They are great for your brain! They are three positive hits that simultaneously activate and direct us. Grateful moments can broaden and build positive emotions that fuel us for the winding journey of life. If you are feeling exhausted by the rush and business of the day to day, give your brain a boost and spend a few moments considering the things for which you are grateful, and especially consider the source.

Why is it hard to feel gratitude?

Yet finding time for reflection can be very difficult. When I reflect on the many blessings I’ve received, I often think about my children. I have three beautiful, healthy children who have made my world rich and full of love.  However, when I think back to those years when they were very young, the times when I felt exhausted, and didn’t have a moment of privacy, feeling grateful was a bit more fleeting.  Honestly, I had less time to reflect. (I was living diaper to diaper!) Those moments were precious, but I couldn’t access much gratitude because I didn’t have space to pause and reflect.  Isn’t it like that?  We get going so quickly, and we don’t think to pause. We temporarily forget what is meaningful. Even our thanks to God can become cursory. If we are not careful, the holidays can become the “holi-daze” as we live life checking off one thing at a time.

Pausing to find meaning

Stop for a moment and consider what makes your life meaningful.  An interesting finding from our study is that the more people understand what is meaningful in their lives, the more they are able to experience transcendent gratitude.  Pausing to reflect on what matters and intentionally engaging practices for reflection and understanding help us to recognize gifts and feel thankful to the giver.  Moreover, the elevating emotions associated with recognizing a gift often compel people to pay goodness forward.  That prosocial behavior is at the heart of thriving, because we don’t thrive individually; we thrive in relationship with others. 

We offer you a simple framework to help you tap into gratitude. As you rush around in your day to day, we want to remind you to create space for gratitude. Giving thanks is a life-long practice; in fact it is a virtue. Gratitude helps us access what is right and good.  But like I said, it is a practice.  We have to be intentional about it and create space for it.  Evidence from neuroscience shows that our brains are altered by the quality of our attention.  We can actually broaden and build positive emotions as we attend to gratitude. 

Use the following guide as a reminder to pause and savor life’s gifts. 

Practicing the 5 A’s to Slow down and Offer Thanks

Become aware of the emotions you experience when you consider gifts you have received. Perhaps you feel the emotions of delight and joy; let them point you to an appreciation of these blessings. Recognize and feel those positive emotions in your body and let them fill you up. What emojis might accompany your reactions to those gifts?

From where does a gift come – in the immediate sense and in the ultimate sense? Become aware of what is underlying those feelings. Who provided the gift? For what are you grateful? Take a moment to say thank you to the source. What does this say about what or who matters to you?

Consider how you might align your life with what or who matters most. For example, with whom do you want to spend your time or become more deeply connected? What activities or situations might you want to pursue more of in the next year? What might your choices say about what you love?

Spend time in prayer, meditation, music, walking in nature, or paying gifts forward by helping someone in need. Pass along goodness to others. You might want to share kindness by giving to a food-bank or donating to your church or local non-profit.  Intentionally spend time with those who know and love you, letting them know how grateful you are for their presence in your life.

Was the practice helpful? Were you able to experience more joy and connection? You might want to call a friend and discuss insights, or keep a note in a journal.

Pamela Ebstyne King Executive Director, Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science


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