Does Counting Your Blessings Really Help?

How often do you take time to reflect on the things you’re grateful for? Once a month? Once a week, at church, perhaps? Maybe you say “grace” at mealtime every day. But even prayers that do express gratefulness are often expressed by rote. Have you ever heard this prayer at Thanksgiving?


Last week I spoke of studies that showed a correlation between health and those who had an active faith. Now I’ve discovered that there is also experimental research showing that gratitude correlates with positive emotions such as happiness, pride, and hope, but experimental work — showing that gratitude causes these things — is scarcer.

Researchers and Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough figured it would be interesting to create an experiement to measure the effects of gratitude. They researched college students studying health psychology and divided the students into three groups. The first group listed five things they were grateful for each week. The second group listed five hassles or irritants from the past week. The final group simply wrote down five “events or circumstances” from the past week. This continued for ten weeks. What sort of things did they write?

Some students said they were grateful for “waking up this morning,” or “for wonderful parents,” or “the Lord for just another day.” Hassles were things like “hard to find parking,” “messy kitchen,” or “having a horrible test in health psychology.”

As you might expect, the students in the gratefulness group scored significantly higher than the hassles group on the gratefulness measure. But they also were more positive about the upcoming week and their life as a whole. But on the more rigorous measure of the positive, long term emotional effects of the exercise there was no significant difference between the groups.

Emmons and McCullough suspected the reason positive differences weren’t observed was that the respondents only reflected on things they were grateful for once a week. So they repeated the study on two different groups: a new batch health psychology students and adults with neuromuscular diseases. This time the students completed their questionnaires daily for 13 days and 21 days for the NMD patients. In each of these studies, there was a significant improvement in positive affect. The reason the researchers found was this: Just writing down the things you are grateful for each day appears to cause to improve your overall emotional outlook. In the NMD study, respondents in the gratitude group also reported getting significantly more sleep and feeling more refreshed when they woke up in the morning.

The researchers speculate that simply enumerating things you are grateful for might be a treatment for mild forms of depression. They certainly seem to have confirmed the worth of the “count your blessings” regularly. Perhaps simple gratitude is one of the keys to a healthier, happier life. It also confirms why the Christian faith continues to endure: because we have a God worthy of our gratitude.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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