If your mother ever told you to be grateful, thank your lucky stars! You had a smart mama!
Research over the past few decades has strongly supported the association between gratitude and better psychological functioning. Higher levels of gratitude seem to be associated with increased self-esteem, greater happiness, and higher life-satisfaction. People with higher levels of gratitude appear to have lower levels of anxiety and depression. In short, developing gratitude may be one of the best investments we can make in our lives. Of course, it's easy to become grateful when life is easy and full of good experiences. The real dilemma is how to develop gratitude when life is difficult and stressful. A recently published study in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (2016, Vol. 8, pp.134-140) entitled Maintaining a Grateful Disposition in the Face of Distress: The Role of Religious Coping, addressed this very question, with intriguing results.
A group of researchers from McLean Hospital/ Harvard Medical school, Columbia University, and the Center for Anxiety in New York City thought that general religiosity ( e.g., belief in God, frequency of prayer, etc.) seems to facilitate an increase in our level of gratitude via an important psychological process called "benefit detection". For example, a person who is spiritual might believe that God is intentionally bringing about certain events in his or her life so that a very important lesson can be learned from the experience. That person might believe the pain of an illness or life crisis can be transformed into a vehicle for drawing him or her closer to their spiritual core. This type of spiritual cognitive re-framing frequently occurs in those who have a religious world view, and could assist an individual in developing gratitude even in the face of very distressing reality.
In order to test this notion, the researchers surveyed hundreds of adults and found that gratitude and religious involvement were associated with greater positive mood and lower negative mood. Also, their results seemed to suggest that behaviors like prayer might enable the development of a grateful disposition. In later research, they found that increased stress and depression were associated with decreased gratitude. And additional scrutiny revealed a fascinating finding: the effect of general religiousness on gratitude during a period of depression and stress seemed to be explained by the use of religious coping strategies (e.g. seeking a stronger connection with God).
The key aspect of these findings is that religious coping may elicit gratitude even during particularly difficult times. Re-framing an experience through thoughtful prayer can transform a negative event by highlighting the meaning behind it. There is a meaning and a purpose for which we can be grateful: I didn't get fired; I was freed to pursue my dream. I didn't just get cancer; I got a graduate-level crash course on what's important in my life.
The researchers suggested that the associations between religious beliefs and practice (e.g. prayer), and such human strengths as inspiration, meaning in life, and hope, need to be studied more thoroughly. But as we read about their study, it's intriguing to think about the larger implications. The basis of our happiness, our strength, and our hope for the future is contained in our worldview, our sense of who we are, what life is all about, and why we have to go through what we go through.
For the spiritual person, one is not a piece of flotsam on the sea of life, being unpredictably tossed around by overwhelming forces acting capriciously. Rather, one is a spiritual being, fulfilling a spiritual quest during which one is tested and instructed by both positive and negative experiences. A spiritual worldview conveys a meaning and purpose which seems to bring out the best in us. Thank your mother...and be grateful.