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  • Reverend James Squire

Gratitude Is Where Psychology, Theology, And Ethics Meet

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Gratitude is the hallmark and characteristic of people who live to benefit others. Their attitude and actions create true happiness. Gratitude is where theology and psychology meet.

A grateful heart is the beginning of a true religious experience. In my career I have experienced this phenomenon over and over in connecting to others, young and old alike. The chapel experience at EA is a place where people are reminded of this important aspect of creating meaning, happiness, and purpose in our lives. You will see this as a theme in a sampling of chapel addresses included in this book. Gratitude is the source of giving. It is important to recognize this aspect of theology.

Gratitude plays a large role in psychology. Students at Penn, who take the Positive Psychology course, do at least two assignments focusing on gratitude as the central tenet of being happy and creating a sense of purpose and a commitment to something important beyond one’s self.

The first assignment is the gratitude letter. Students write a letter to someone who they are grateful for in their life and describe what has created this gratitude. The student must hand deliver the letter to the person and wait as the person reads it. It is an emotional experience for both the giver and the person who is receiving the letter. This is a perfect example of “you only get to keep what you are willing to give away.” I always tell people to keep these letters and reread them when they are having a bad day to be reminded of their goodness.

Although it did not take the form of a gratitude letter, I saw this over and over again in the Ethics course I taught. At the beginning of the course, the students go through an exercise to identify the core personal value that guides much of their decisions. They also have an assignment to identify the core interpersonal value that reflects what is most important in their relationships with others. Where the personal core value and the interpersonal core value intersect is a powerful force in how they make decisions.

In my Ethics course I indicated that I did not want them to reveal their core personal value. It was just for their eyes. I also indicated that I would be the only one to read their essay on their core interpersonal value. When I graded their essays and returned the paper to them, I made a point to encourage them to guard the privacy of these very personal papers. There were certain essays that were a powerful statement about the students’ parents as a guiding factor. At times I would include in my comments that they should consider showing the essay to the person who has affected them the most. It was always a suggestion not a requirement.

An Early Morning Visit

This activity became as moving an experience as the gratitude letter was in the course at Penn. One example will demonstrate this. I arrived at my office one morning and was in the process of unlocking the door when I heard, “Good morning, Reverend Squire”, coming from someone in the conference room across from my office. I must have jumped a foot off the ground as I wasn’t expecting anyone to be there. The woman was crying. Tears streaked her face. I was contemplating what problem could have put this parent in such a state of despair. I was wrong. She had tears of joy. She was a parent of one of my Ethics students. The student had written her essay on how her mother was the greatest influence in her life and how grateful she was for all her mother did for her. She showed me the essay that she had clutched in her hand and proceeded to say, “I felt like dirt under her feet. I never knew how deeply she appreciated me.” I learned that daughter and mother embraced and cried together. “Now I feel as though we have a much better relationship. It is the nicest thing that ever happened to me.”

I have literally taught thousands of students and I always asked a question of them in class, requesting they raise hands to answer in the affirmative. I asked them: “How many of you feel that the greatest influence on shaping your values has been your parents or a parenting figure such as a grandfather?” Every hand goes up affirming that parents are, for better or worse, the value makers of their children.

I asked another question resulting in all hands raised, “How many of you spend too much time avoiding the emotions of guilt, vulnerability, and rejection?” All hands went up. Does that surprise you?

The second gratitude exercise practiced in the Penn Positive Psychology course has been documented with scientific research to support its efficacy. The exercise entails writing on paper what you are grateful for that occurred that day and focusing on those things or events before bed.. This is seen as an exercise that promotes sleep better than other approaches including medications. I would add that offering a prayer of thanksgiving for those positive occurrences enhances the exercise.

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