Robert Emmons is a professor and psychologist at UC Davis who has led multiple research projects on gratitude. For example, he led one study in which people were placed in three groups and asked to write sentences based on their experiences each week.
- The first group wrote down what they were thankful for
- The second group wrote about their frustrations
- The third group simply wrote about events in their lives
After ten weeks, the researchers determined that those who wrote down what they were thankful for were happier and more optimistic than the other groups. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor than the frustrated group.
The benefit of writing down what you are grateful for is essentially common knowledge, and because scientists and researchers continually uncover this truth, there has been a surge in gratitude journaling. There are more than 10,000 gratitude journals at Amazon. But are they working?
Are gratitude journals making us more grateful and joyful? According to one researcher, it depends on what is being written in them. Robert Emmons, the gratitude guru, concluded there are two stages to gratitude:
Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. So, it emerges from two stages of information processing—affirming and recognizing. Gratitude is the recognition that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift. It is a response to all that has been given.
If we are writing down that we are “so thankful for what we have accomplished or earned” then gratitude will not increase. If we think we have good things in this life because of our own goodness or grit, our joy won’t increase. Gratitude depends on recognizing when we have received a gift.
With that definition, Christians should be the most grateful people because we believe we are only owed death for our rebellion against God. We recognize that everything we have has been given to us by Him. The apostle Paul asked, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). By God’s grace given to us in Jesus we have received mercy, forgiveness, hope, a new identity, community, eternal life, the fruit of His Spirit, the promise of a day when everything will be made right and new, His presence, the joy of knowing Jesus…and the list could go on and on.
The apostle Paul asked Christians living in Galatia, “What has happened to your blessedness?” (Galatians 4:15). Another translation: “Where is the joyful and grateful spirit you felt then?” The apostle Paul was perplexed that people who received God’s grace were declining in gratitude. When we are not grateful, we have likely forgotten all we have received. We have received Jesus. Everything else is rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Him.