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A Tour of Gratitude in Development: Spiritual Reflections for Thriving

Giacomo Bono (with Response by Jeffrey Froh)

Psychologists discuss the importance of gratitude toward God and others for living a flourishing life.

Assistant Professor of Psychology
August 2, 2019

From the moment we are born, we humans never stay still. Three fundamental human needs keep us moving from cradle to grave: 1) establishing competence and mastery in our environment, 2) securing social belonging and community, and 3) having the autonomy to choose how we live our lives. Though still nascent, the rapidly growing science on gratitude indicates that gratitude is more than just being polite or feeling satisfied with life; it seems to indicate that gratitude is intimately supportive of each of these fundamental human needs. But beyond that, a look at the psychosocial challenges humans face throughout the different periods of the lifespan also suggests that gratitude may be particularly valuable for helping humans cope with the adversities encountered throughout life. In this essay I consider some of the scientific findings on gratitude to describe how gratitude develops across the lifespan and to prescribe ways adults can practice gratitude in daily life to grow stronger mentally and spiritually. Throughout, I incorporate Bible scriptures to show how this scientific view of gratitude is also consistent with Christian principles. Before turning to gratitude, though, it’s worth considering some of the research on the importance of social connection for humans, since gratitude—the scientific consensus shows—is primarily geared toward creating and maintaining strong and supportive social ties.

The Need for Belonging

The predominant view of the behavioral psychologists in the 1950s was that newborns’ emotional attachment to caregivers only served to associate the caregiving that they receive with the satisfaction of their biological needs. That is, we become attached to parents and caregivers for the sustenance that they provide us day in and day out. However, psychologist Harry Harlow was not convinced and set out to prove this notion wrong. Conducting research with rhesus monkeys, Harlow paired newborn monkeys with two artificial surrogate mothers that were similar in shape and size to adult monkeys—one that was made of cold, hard wire mesh that provided milk or another that was made of warm, soft terry cloth but that did not provide milk. It turned out that the infant monkeys had virtually no contact with the cold wire “mother” that provided nourishment but maintained lots of contact with the comforting cloth “mother,” even though that cloth surrogate provided no nourishment. This classic study taught us that emotional attachment with caregivers serves to maintain social connection, which is critical for mammals and especially humans.

Research since then has found that human children who are separated from caregivers show higher levels of the stress hormone of cortisol and that prolonged exposure to such separation distress can produce long-lasting deficits in cognitive and social functioning. Recent research by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA and other social neuroscientists adds to this picture. First, research showed that the human brain reads the pain of social separation similarly to the experience of physical pain. And second, humans’ brains naturally default to thinking about social interactions with others. Thus, it seems humans are truly wired to connect socially and to make use of social relationships. It makes sense then that social isolation has been linked to almost every mental health illness and many physical illnesses too. Quite simply, lack of supportive social ties limits our potential, and the earlier this fundamental need is satisfied the better. With this reason alone we begin to see the value of gratitude for humans. Receiving love and care, in the form of sensitive and responsive caregiving, especially at the onset of life, is the first step toward growing gratitude. Many scholars can attest to the singular value of having a secure base with an adult at home, in the community, or at school if we are to develop resilience.

Loving Connection to God and People

The Bible is clear about the primacy of love for God and how this supports loving community with people. Without a foundation of love, people remain fundamentally limited in the kind of spiritual attachment they can cultivate with God. This is addressed in the book of 1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” This calls us to be aware that loving communion with God is the foundation that allows us to know how to treat others with love. The importance of cultivating a deep emotional connection with God for developing resilience is then emphasized in Ephesians 2:19-22: “Whenever you feel unloved, unimportant or insecure, remember to whom you belong.” This passage teaches us that when we need it most, we can always draw strength from having cultivated a loving connection with God, through his son, Jesus.

Together these two scriptures suggest that having a secure attachment with God, just like with social attachments in life, takes regular devotion and that doing so shows us how to, in turn, trust and love others. But thriving only begins with attachment to a secure base. In the first two years of life, a healthy attachment helps us learn the psychosocial lesson of trusting others in order to grow hope. Alternatively, we can withdraw from and cope less effectively with life during this period. So this is only the beginning of our emotional development in infancy, and it is achieved through mutuality with caregivers. But for our spiritual journey as adults, it is achieved through mutuality with God by following the teachings of Jesus. The love experienced through this spiritual relationship becomes the working model with which we approach and respond to social relationships in life.

Growing Gratitude through the Good

To continue to develop optimally we must cope effectively with the new challenges life brings. Curious interaction with the world propels us to use what we know to do things or to try new strategies when we get stuck. Famous developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, saw this constant movement—of using and adjusting our understanding of the world to always master new objects and environments—as the main force driving cognitive development. Deep down, humans are problem solvers, always moving from one challenge to the next. So with hope achieved, we enter the toddler years and can start establishing competence. The psychosocial challenge of this period is to develop our own will. Adults help us do this by tuning into our needs, satisfying our curiosities, valuing our preferences, and generously supporting our language development so that we can take pride in imitating others and begin establishing our autonomy. These actions set the next supportive layer for developing gratitude.

“In suffering we can discover the true value of some of the relationships in our life and experience a deep, renewing gratitude”

Then during the elementary school years, as we start identifying with peers and become accustomed to team play, we further develop our own competencies via these social interactions. The psychosocial challenges during this time are to take initiative and become industrious. By establishing valued hobbies and activities we learn to appreciate the help of others, and such experiences enable us to finally experience and express genuine gratitude. But what are some corresponding lessons from the Bible that help us develop spiritually? In Galatians 5:22-23 we read the following: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” When we are united in love with God and have a relationship with his son Jesus, we share the gift of this spiritual union with others. This is a state of gratitude that empowers us to be good to others and discover the gifts in others, and such experiences bring us in communion with one another in God’s kingdom. And using such fruits of the Spirit with children—by learning about their goals and challenges and by encouraging them toward gratefulness—can also be gratifying for adults because it helps children reduce pathological turns of inhibition and inertia during this period in development.

Growing Gratitude through the Bad

Of course, life involves constant change and challenge; so inevitably we encounter events that are not in our control or experience doubt and anxiety. However, rather than fear or avoid such sentiments, we can face them graciously.

In 2 Timothy 1:7 we read: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” We should not be afraid because, though we might not be able to control events now, we can remind ourselves that God is with us and trust that we will eventually make the best of things.  However, suffering and loss are common in life, and at times we can worry that there is no light at the end of the tunnel or, worse, that life is unraveling. Trusting in the people in your life during such challenging times can help. In suffering we can discover the true value of some of the relationships in our life and experience a deep, renewing gratitude.

And yet, while reaching out to loved ones can help, at other times it can help to not ruminate about the future and focus on just getting by. Matthew 6:34 says the following: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” God gave us the gift of life to enjoy daily and to rejoice in His love for us. We sometimes overburden ourselves by thinking too far ahead about consequences that may not even happen. Gratitude naturally dissolves our worries and keeps us focused on doing and being our best. Indeed, monk and interfaith scholar, Brother David Steindl-Rast, has said that “Gratefulness makes you fearless—you trust life!”

With Gratitude and Dedication, Purpose Follows

The benefits of practicing gratitude through the good turns, bad turns, and every turn in between helps build up a habit of focusing on the people and things that matter most to us. And this may be the biggest benefit of all that gratitude give us in life: purpose. After all, the drive to establish purpose is akin to the overall spiritual quest of discovering what we are on this earth to do. Here, too, Philippians 4:13 reminds us of the importance of being purposeful: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” In our relationship with God we find the courage to fulfill through our daily life our purpose to be joyful and spread joy to others. Of course, developing purpose is a lengthy pursuit. The psychosocial challenges that we confront during adolescence and early adulthood set us on a course for this, especially if we continue to practice gratitude.

During early adolescence, between ages 12 and 18, we strive to achieve fidelity to others, and idealism runs high. But these ideals are the contours of our passion. And we temper these passions by identifying and using our character strengths and by gravitating towards friends who support us in longer term goals for ourselves and friends who value our strengths. This can be challenging in the distracting commercial culture we find ourselves in; Proverbs 23:4 reminds us of this trap: “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, Cease from your consideration of it.” But we also know that practicing gratitude helps diffuse materialism too. One of the main reasons for this, research shows, is that gratitude satisfies our fundamental human needs—of belonging, mastery, and autonomy—which makes us less motivated to seek satisfaction through material pursuits. The more realistic our social comparisons and expectations for ourselves are, the more open we become to taking advantage of the advice of mentors, teachers, coaches, exemplary friends, pastors, or other adults who want to help us improve and succeed. Again, adults can find significant gratification by encouraging youth to be realistic and to stay rooted to their higher aspirations and plans for getting there so that adolescents avoid pathological turns toward dissociation and repudiation.

Nonetheless, every person is born with a potential for growing purpose if they remain authentic, creative, and persistent. And with patience and continued gratitude into adulthood, our chances increase greatly. Proverbs 20:5 reminds us that establishing purpose is a long but achievable quest: “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”

But how do we get to the peace and satisfaction of finding a calling? Romans 8:28 provides us with further guidance: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This passage not only reminds us to acknowledge God’s intent for us and be grateful to Him, but it also suggests that finding a calling requires discovering the best ways we can help others and serve the greater good. While the experience and practice of gratitude alone energizes us to engage in virtuous civic behaviors, more work is required. Through role experimentation and fidelity to our deepest values during the college years, we resolve the psychosocial challenge of achieving a strong individual identity. And this helps us progress to a more fulfilling career after college—one that is likely to be consistent with our strengths, experiences, and values. But even as successful adults with a good career in place, we still may not have found a calling. And isn’t this, after all, what we are all seeking? At least, this is what I am trying to get to in some small way with this essay… So where do we go from here?

Concluding Thoughts: Gratitude and Agape Deliver Purpose

The psychosocial challenge of early adulthood is to achieve intimacy in the broadest sense—that is, with a partner, friends, colleagues, etc. Raising children is a good way to find purpose, but not for everyone. The same could be said for being committed to the workplace or a church community. Often people can find purpose through work or church, but again not always. The truth is that finding purpose usually is a much more personal affair that might take longer than expected, even if the institutions we’re part of—family, church, work—provide ample opportunities. Prerequisites for successfully achieved intimacy are obtaining mutuality with peers and discovering how to practice love more broadly with everyone, including strangers. This more radical form of love is what the ancient Greeks called Agape (although it appears as mettā or “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism too). It is this form of love and unconditional caring during middle adulthood that finally brings us to generativity—that is, contributing something of value to society or to the future. And it is this return to love and caring that God calls us to fulfill, albeit this time to more personal and universal forms of love and caring, forms that are creatively and gratefully cultivated across a lifetime to make a splash that is all our own.

Response from Jeffrey Froh

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15)

In my previous essay entitled, “Gratitude: Good for our Mind and Soul,” I discussed gratitude’s role in psychological and spiritual well-being, noting that grateful people tend to be happier, more satisfied with their lives, less depressed, and more religious and spiritual compared to their less grateful counterparts. I’ve read my colleague, Giacomo Bono’s, essay entitled,A Tour of Gratitude in Development: Spiritual Reflections for Thriving,” which emphasizes gratitude’s role in spiritual development across the lifespan, and I’ll now respond to his many wonderful points.

The first point of agreement I want to discuss is Giacomo’s assertion that, “we can always draw strength from having cultivated a loving connection with God, through his son, Jesus.” One of the things I most love about God is his radical simplicity. If you were to ask a large crowd of people, “Raise your hand if you want more complexity in your life?,” they’d likely chuckle and keep their hands down. But we live in a culture that worships complexity. The more complex something is, the more it seems to be valued. Indeed, keeping things simple is a lost art, and it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s a culturally reinforced trait. Jesus, however, was a radical. He turned the world upside down with his teachings. In the old testament, we were supposed to treat people with “an eye for an eye.” In the gospels, what did Jesus preach? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31). Talk about radical! In addition to this commandment, the other one that Jesus said, “There is no commandment greater than these” is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). So what does Jesus want from us? He wants us to love each other, and He wants us to love Him and make building a relationship with Him a priority. And if we do this, we’ll have a reservoir of strength and energy to weather any storm and flourish.

“The only way we’re going to find our purpose is to rid ourselves of all unnecessary distractions… and spend time in the classroom of silence”

In this sense, I agree with Giacomo. But he later goes on to say,

[Our emotional development in infancy] is achieved through mutuality with caregivers. But for our spiritual journey as adults, it is achieved through mutuality with God by following the teachings of Jesus. The love experienced through this spiritual relationship becomes the working model with which we approach and respond to social relationships in life.

Yes, perhaps infants can’t express to us verbally that they love Jesus or that He loves them. But I do think on some level that because of the Holy Spirit they know deep in their hearts that they’re children of God and that their spiritual father in heaven is looking down at them smiling in their splendor.

Also, I don’t think it’s just adults who have successful spiritual journeys because of intimate relationships with Jesus, nor is it just adults who use their relationship with God as a model for their other social relationships. For example, my son, James (9 years old), and daughter, Julianne (6 years old), have strengthened their relationship with Jesus substantially over the past few years. Their quantum religious development is explained by several factors: 1) weekly church attendance, 2) active participation in the mass (James is an altar server, and Julianne collects the money and brings the offerings to the altar), 3) daily prayers hitting the four main types of prayer (i.e., adoration, contrition, petition, and thanksgiving), 4) weekly prayer with the rosary, 5) reading the Sunday gospel together as a family before mass so we’re prepared for the service, 6) monthly confession (for my son), and 7) regular volunteer work, such as when we recently planted a bunch of flowers to beautify the grounds.

These religious acts have brought my children closer to Jesus, and they have made them more aware of how much He loves them. For example, I recently asked my children, “Would you forgive someone if you knew they were going to mess up or hurt you again?” Confused, they looked at me and gave a quick, “No.” I said, “Well that’s how much Jesus loves you. He knows we’re probably going to make a mistake, maybe even the same mistake, again. And he loves us anyway.” I think that they’re starting to get it and that the way Jesus loves them is providing the blueprint for how they should treat others. Recently, one of my daughter’s friends kept saying to her, “You’re not the boss of me, you can’t tell me what to do,” when my daughter was asserting herself telling her friend to stop being so pushy. Soon after, Julianne’s friend apologized. When I spoke with her about it, I said, “I’m very proud of you for forgiving Melissa. That was very kind of you.” She said, “That’s what Jesus does with people, so I figured I should too.” Therefore, to say that only adults benefit socially from building a relationship with God is, I think, selling children a bit short.

I particularly agreed with Giacomo’s statement, “In our relationship with God we find the courage to fulfill through our daily life our purpose to be joyful and spread joy to others.” One of our biggest challenges and goals as humans is to find our purpose in life. We’re all put here for a reason, whether that’s to work with children with learning difficulties, raise a family, or become a pastor. But the only way we’re going to find our purpose is to rid ourselves of all unnecessary distractions (i.e., shut off your cell phone) and spend time in the classroom of silence and ask God probably the most important question we can ask him: “God, what is it that you want me to do?” That one question is a game changer. Starting about 6 months ago, I began visiting my church during the week (when no one else was there) to say a few prayers, and then to sit in silence staring at the tabernacle trying to hear God’s answer to that question. It’s tough to block out all of the noise in my head. But when I can, I clearly hear God say, “Your main purpose is to be the best husband and father you can be.” I can’t even begin to describe the clarity and peace this response has given me. I don’t think this practice is something that we should reserve for adults. In fact, with children and teens so plugged into technology these days, they need time in the classroom of silence way more than we do. So let’s make it a priority and bring a kid down to our local church to get some one-on-one time with Jesus. When they ask, “What are we going to do?,” simply say, “We’re just going to be.”

In conclusion, I think Giacomo hits many good points. I especially liked how he highlighted the importance of us having gratitude toward God and how gratitude will help us build a strong relationship with Him. In my previous essay, I mentioned how grateful teens were more likely to say grace at dinner. Perhaps this is a good time for parents to model for their children prayers of thanksgiving for God’s love and grace. All in all, I think Giacomo and I agree on the main issues that parents should consider: positive relationships matter, especially for youth; God is the foundation of all of the love in our life; and with Jesus in our corner, we can get through any difficulty. If parents are able to make these ideas central to raising children, I think our next generation will be filled with gratitude and fully aware of God’s never ending love.