I can still remember with perfect clarity the moment I read the news about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. I was out for a walk with my young daughter. I felt physically sick to my stomach and immediately began weeping, thinking of all those families that had just lost a little one like mine. It feels as though the past 10 to 15 years have been full of one tragedy after another—whether terrorist attacks or acts of violence, it’s hard to make sense of it all. But is there another way?
Some psychology research suggests that this rise in traumatic events can actually lead to a surprising reaction: gratitude.
Gratitude, of course, will not be our first response. It’s impossible not to go through pain, confusion and anger when you hear about these tragedies, and even more so if you experience it firsthand. This response is called Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), but there is also a second psychological concept called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). Post-Traumatic Growth happens in the season after the trauma, when some people start to feel thankful to be alive, thankful that the trauma wasn’t even worse, and grateful for the chance to learn more about themselves.
In a fascinating study, researchers Julie Vieselmeyer and colleagues followed up with 359 students and faculty that were present on campus or somewhere nearby during the Seattle Pacific University shooting of 2014. They wanted to discover whether gratitude can actually protect someone from the detrimental effects of witnessing trauma.
Participants took a survey four months after the shooting occurred. Researchers asked them questions about how close (physically and emotionally) they were to the shooting, and the kinds of post-trauma symptoms they experienced in the months following the event. More interestingly, the participants’ general personality traits of gratitude and resilience were also tested. Resilience was defined as the ability to be flexible during periods of instability and to successfully confront adversity. In other studies, faith has been found to play a role in resilience in disasters.
The results of the study showed that the individuals who already had higher levels of gratitude before the shooting were better able to turn their post-traumatic stress into growth. This is actually quite profound. It suggests that if we can help ourselves and others feel more grateful on a daily basis, we can actually prime ourselves to handle the trauma that life will inevitably bring.
How Do We Cultivate Gratitude?
Keeping a thankfulness journal (like the one Ann Voskamp describes in One Thousand Gifts) is one essential tool for building gratitude, studies show. In an earlier study by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, [JD1] participants were asked to keep a journal every day. One group was given these instructions: “We want to focus for a moment on benefits or gifts that you have received in your life. These gifts could be simple everyday pleasures, people in your life, personal strengths or talents, moments of natural beauty, or gestures of kindness from others. We might not normally think about these things as gifts, but that is how we want you to think about them. Take a moment to really savor or relish these gifts, think about their value, and then write them down every night before going to sleep.”
The second group was asked to write the things that frustrated them about their day or the ways they were worse off than someone else. Not surprisingly, the first group reported feeling healthier, having a more positive mood, exercising more and feeling better about their lives in general.
Gratitude as Therapy
Vieselmeyer and colleagues felt that their study at Seattle Pacific University also has important implications for therapy, writing, “Furthermore, findings indicate that mental health professionals should also consider posttrauma interventions targeted at enhancing gratitude, thus helping trauma exposed individuals adopt a new, more adaptive perspective regarding their experience, further leading to PTG and positive outcomes in spite of trauma.”
Building gratitude is often an overlooked component of therapy. When you visit a counselor, much time may be spent reliving difficult pieces of your past, in the hopes that understanding your past traumas may lead to greater peace in the present. While there is definitely merit in this approach, at some point it becomes necessary to move into the present and learn how to recognize the small daily gifts.
University of California, Davis professor Robert E. Emmons studies gratitude as a therapeutic intervention. He writes, “Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting positive effects in a person’s life. It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function, promote happiness and well-being, and spur acts of helpfulness, generosity, and cooperation.”
Emmons defines gratitude as such: “Feelings of gratitude are anchored in two essential pieces of information processed by an individual: (a) an affirming of goodness or ‘good things’ in one’s life and (b) the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside ourselves.” So gratitude is recognizing that our life is a gift, no matter our circumstances and realizing that this goodness does not come from our efforts alone.
The Church’s Role in Building Gratitude
Outside of our own personal journaling habits or time spent in therapy, the church as a whole could also play a part in building a greater communal sense of thankfulness. Think of the times when we greet each other before or after church. Imagine if people asked each other what they were grateful for during week instead of “How was your week?” or “How was work?”
What if this shift toward gratitude didn’t just stop at the borders of the church? Could it start to infect our interactions with everyone we encounter—maybe even changing the tone of our greater communities?
Tragedies and trauma will always be a part of our world. While it’s sometimes tempting to feel that the state of our world has gotten worse in recent history, reading the Old Testament makes it clear that depravity, mass murders, war, and strife have been prevalent since the very beginning. The question is, will we let this reality make us bitter and reclusive, or can we grow through adversity, learning to be thankful for God’s gifts—big and small?
Athena Dickau received her Masters in Counseling from Western Seminary, and worked for many years as a child and family therapist with Cascadia Behavioral Health in Portland, OR. She now lives and works on the beautiful Oregon coast with her husband and two sweet daughters.