Public Praise and Gratitude: A Lifetime of Thanksgiving

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My precious daughter has been on the countdown to Thanksgiving for almost 40 days. She started the Thanksgiving Clock on her phone over two months ago, and every day since, she has faithfully recorded the countdown on the whiteboard in her room: 32 days ‘til Thanksgiving! Just 21 days ‘til Thanksgiving! As a parent, my heart rejoices to see how much this 13-year-old girl loves our family holiday traditions.

In our home, Thanksgiving means an opportunity to spend the whole day cooking, talking, and enjoying time together with no pressure from the clock. It’s a time for nurturing relationships, reflecting on the triumphs and challenges of the past year, and taking a momentary pause from the busyness of life. It’s a day of two teenagers expressing thankfulness for one another’s friendship. There are few moments in life more moving.

From a cultural perspective, it’s truly remarkable that our country, often so fraught with selfishness and secularism, still sets aside an entire day devoted to the decidedly Judeo-Christian construct of gratitude. But is it enough as an annual event? How do we turn that beautiful practice of Thanksgiving into a lifestyle?

In my latest book, The Multigenerational Marketplace, I share eight core communication competencies for creating a culture of value and engagement in the workplace. One of these, Competency #4, focuses on the socio-emotional, physical, and spiritual impact of gratitude. The excerpt below is taken from Chapter 7: Think Gratefully; Praise Publically.

Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, is considered to be the world’s top scientific expert in the field of gratitude studies. In his book Thanks (2008), he says that gratitude, which he defines as an acknowledgement or awareness of the good in our lives, has been shown to increase energy, to promote better sleep, and to increase happiness. “Gratitude is a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness,” Emmons says, and it “can measurably change people’s lives.”

Dr. Glenn Fox (2017), a neuroscientist at the Brain and Creativity Institute of the University of Southern California, has found that gratitude can improve sleep, enhance relationships, promote health, and increase happiness. In his studies, he worked with USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History, watching hundreds of hours of testimonies from Holocaust survivors recounting the generosity of fellow prisoners. He turned these stories into “imagine if” scenarios and retold them to study participants, measuring their brain responses with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Upon hearing the gratitude-inspiring stories, participants’ brains lit up in the medial prefrontal cortex, the zone connected to empathy, emotion regulation, and stress relief.

Michelle Gielan, former CBS Anchor and the founder of Transformative Journalism, has shown that positivity in the news can radically change the gratitude lens of the culture. Gratitude fosters trust—and this too dramatically impacts the brain. When we train ourselves to think about the good things first, we train our minds to value the good. It’s a principle of firsts.

Dr. Shawn Achor, a Harvard professor and the author of The Happiness Advantage, has shown that simply conditioning ourselves to practice gratitude through thoughtful emails or even journal entries literally changes the brain. Through his studies, he has found that ongoing acts of gratitude actually rewire our brain.

Scripture suggests the same profound biosocial process. The Greek word for this transformation, metamorphoo (Strong’s Greek Lexicon G3339) appears in Romans 12:2: “Be transformed (metamorphoo) by the renewing of your mind.” The visual example is akin to a caterpillar undergoing the metamorphosis to becoming a butterfly. It’s a reconditioning of our brains, and it really does change the way we think!

Philippians 4:8 reminds us of the importance of what we think on: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” When we train ourselves to look for the good in others, we more readily see it. Conversely, when we train our minds to look for negative traits, we see those more readily. This concept, known as confirmation bias, causes us to interpret all new evidence we are faced with through the lens of what we already believe. The bias—our preexisting hypothesis—becomes a cycle we are unable to break free from…unless we change how we think and what we think about.

How do we keep Thanksgiving alive? We begin to train ourselves to think gratefully and praise publically. The concept of public praise may be new to some; however, the need for praise is well documented in both the human and animal kingdoms (one study showed that dogs even prefer praise to treats!). Public praise means that we promote, encourage, and acknowledge the work of another person in front of supervisors, friends, family, or peers. At its foundation, public praise is rooted in gratitude. In order to discover and believe the best in others, we need to foster an attitude of thankfulness about who they are and what they bring to the table.

Everyone needs recognition to varying degrees, but what that recognition does to the brain of both the giver and the receiver is truly remarkable. As Proverbs 11:27 notes, “Whoever seeks good finds favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. In the book of Matthew 6:22, we see the same principle. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” If we begin to look at others through the light of gratitude and generosity with both our words and our actions, our relationships will be powerfully and positively transformed.

This willingness to praise and reward comes from an attitude of gratitude, so the first step is exercising our gratitude muscle. Then, we can create trust and connectivity through positive interactions with others through email, text, FB, letters, or simple interpersonal interactions. When we offer sincere praise to another person, we do more than simply function as corporate cheerleaders; we actually activate the reward center of the human brain. The neural reward center floods the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates movement, emotion, motivation, and pleasure. In fact, a 2012 study by Chinese researchers found that people who showed more gratitude to others experienced less depression. In fact, the correlation was clear: the more gratitude they expressed, the less depression they experienced.

Gratitude was God’s idea. Psalm 100:4 exhorts us to enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Colossians 2:7 tells us we should abound in thanksgiving, and 1 Timothy 2:1 says that in addition to prayer and intercession, we should make thanksgiving for all people. This expression of gratitude changes our lens, our worldview, which influences our actions. Belief determines behavior. As Cicero observed, gratitude is not only the most important of virtues but the parent of all other virtues.

How do we keep this treasured holiday alive all year? We begin by strengthening our gratitude core, developing that gratitude muscle, and creating a culture of peer praise in our homes, our churches, and our workplaces Why not try it out right now? Before you close your laptop or put down your phone, send a quick note of encouragement to someone within your realm of influence. In these small but meaningful ways, we can keep Thanksgiving alive in our homes and in our hearts, not just for a day, but for a lifetime.


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