The lifesaving power of gratitude (or, why you should write that thank you note)

The lifesaving power of gratitude (or, why you should write that thank you note)

The lifesaving power of gratitude (or, why you should write that thank you note)

An attitude of gratitude may relieve stress, which in turn may lead to better health. michaelhelm/Shutterstock.com
Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

Gratitude may be more beneficial than we commonly suppose. One recent study asked subjects to write a note of thanks to someone and then estimate how surprised and happy the recipient would feel – an impact that they consistently underestimated. Another study assessed the health benefits of writing thank you notes. The researchers found that writing as few as three weekly thank you notes over the course of three weeks improved life satisfaction, increased happy feelings and reduced symptoms of depression.

While this research into gratitude is relatively new, the principles involved are anything but. Students of mine in a political philosophy course at Indiana University are reading Daniel Defoe’s 300-year-old “Robinson Crusoe,” often regarded as the first novel published in English. Marooned alone on an unknown island with no apparent prospect of rescue or escape, Crusoe has much to lament. But instead of giving in to despair, he makes a list of things for which he is grateful, including the fact that he is the shipwreck’s sole survivor and has been able to salvage many useful items from the wreckage.

Defoe’s masterpiece, which is often ranked as one of the world’s greatest novels, provides a portrait of gratitude in action that is as timely and relevant today as it has ever been. It is also one with which contemporary psychology and medicine are just beginning to catch up. Simply put, for most of us, it is far more helpful to focus on the things in life for which we can express gratitude than those that incline us toward resentment and lamentation.

The benefits of gratitude

When we focus on the things we regret, such as failed relationships, family disputes, and setbacks in career and finance, we tend to become more regretful. Conversely, when we focus on the things we are grateful for, a greater sense of happiness tends to pervade our lives. And while no one would argue for cultivating a false sense of blessedness, there is mounting evidence that counting our blessings is one of the best habits we can develop to promote mental and physical health.

A teenager in Malaysia gives thanks. Young Swee Ming/Shutterstock.com

Gratitude has long enjoyed a privileged position in many of the world’s faith traditions. For example, the Biblical Book of Psalms counsels gratitude that is both enduring and complete, saying, “I will give thanks to you forever” and “with my whole heart.” Martin Luther writes of gratitude as the heart of the Gospel, portraying it as not merely an attitude but a virtue to be put into practice. The Quran recommends gratitude, saying “Whoever gives thanks benefits his own soul.”

Recent scientific studies support these ancient teachings. Individuals who regularly engage in gratitude exercises, such as counting their blessings or expressing gratitude to others, exhibit increased satisfaction with relationships and fewer symptoms of physical illness. And the benefits are not only psychological and physical. They may also be moral – those who practice gratitude also view their lives less materialistically and suffer from less envy.

Why gratitude is good for you

There are multiple explanations for such benefits of gratefulness. One is the fact that expressing gratitude encourages others to continue being generous, thus promoting a virtuous cycle of goodness in relationships. Similarly, grateful people may be more likely to reciprocate with acts of kindness of their own. Broadly speaking, a community in which people feel grateful to one another is likely to be a more pleasant place to live than one characterized by mutual suspicion and resentment.

The beneficial effects of gratitude may extend even further. For example, when many people feel good about what someone else has done for them, they experience a sense of being lifted up, with a corresponding enhancement of their regard for humanity. Some are inspired to attempt to become better people themselves, doing more to help bring out the best in others and bringing more goodness into the world around them.

Gratitude also tends to strengthen a sense of connection with others. When people want to do good things that inspire gratitude, the level of dedication in relationships tends to grow and relationships seem to last longer. And when people feel more connected, they are more likely to choose to spend their time with one another and demonstrate their feelings of affection in daily acts.

Of course, acts of kindness can also foster discomfort. For example, if people feel they are not worthy of kindness or suspect that some ulterior motive lies behind it, the benefits of gratitude will not be realized. Likewise, receiving a kindness can give rise to a sense of indebtedness, leaving beneficiaries feeling that they must now pay back whatever good they have received. Gratitude can flourish only if people are secure enough in themselves and sufficiently trusting to allow it to do so.

Another obstacle to gratitude is often called a sense of entitlement. Instead of experiencing a benefaction as a good turn, people sometimes regard it as a mere payment of what they are owed, for which no one deserves any moral credit. While seeing that justice is done is important, supplanting all opportunities for genuine feelings and expressions of generosity can also produce a more impersonal and fragmented community.

Practicing gratitude

There are a number of practical steps anyone can take to promote a sense of gratitude. One is simply spending time on a regular basis thinking about someone who has made a difference, or perhaps writing a thank you note or expressing such gratitude in person. Others are found in ancient religious disciplines, such as meditating on benefactions received from another person or actually praying for the health and happiness of a benefactor.

In addition to benefactions received, it is also possible to focus on opportunities to do good oneself, whether those acted on in the past or hoped for in the future. Some people are most grateful not for what others have done for them but for chances they enjoyed to help others. To envision gratitude at its best, imagine a person hoping and perhaps even praying for an opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life.

An island that may resemble the one on which Robinson Crusoe was marooned. Nikos38/Shutterstock.com

In regularly reflecting on the things in his life he is grateful for, Defoe’s Crusoe believes that he becomes a far better person than he would have been had he remained in the society from which he originally set out on his voyage:

“I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me, even that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition, than I should have been a liberty of society, and all the pleasures of the world… It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days.”

Reflecting on generosity and gratitude, the great basketball coach John Wooden once offered two counsels to his players and students. First, he said, “It is impossible to have a perfect day unless you have done something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” In saying this, Wooden sought to promote purely generous acts, as opposed to those performed with an expectation of recompense. Second, he said, “Give thanks for your blessings every day.”

Some faith traditions incorporate such practices into the rhythm of daily life. For example, adherents of some religions offer prayers of thanksgiving every morning before rising and every night before lying down to sleep. Others offer thanks throughout the day, such as before meals. Other less frequent special events, such as births, deaths and marriages, may also be heralded by such prayers.

When Defoe depicted Robinson Crusoe making thanksgiving a daily part of his island life, he was anticipating findings in social science and medicine that would not appear for hundreds of years. Yet he was also reflecting the wisdom of religious and philosophical traditions that extend back thousands of years. Gratitude is one of the healthiest and most nourishing of all states of mind, and those who adopt it as a habit are enriching not only their own lives but also the lives of those around them.The Conversation

Richard Gunderman, Chancellor's Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Journey: An Interview with Dr. Tony Evans & Priscilla Shirer

The Journey: An Interview with Dr. Tony Evans & Priscilla Shirer

Dr. Tony Evans is one of the most influential pastors and theologians in the United States and his daughter Priscilla Shirer is one of the most well-known authors and speakers. UrbanFaith sat down with them to discuss their documentary Journey with Jesus and their book Divine Disruption written as a family holding onto faith in the midst of grief.

What Americans hear about social justice at church – and what they do about it

What Americans hear about social justice at church – and what they do about it

What Americans hear about social justice at church – and what they do about it

Politics, social justice and faith come together each week in many religious leaders’ sermons. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
R. Khari Brown, Wayne State University and Ronald Brown, Wayne State University

On June 5, 2020, it had been just over a week since a white Minnesota police officer, Derek Chauvin, killed George Floyd, an unarmed, African American man. Protests were underway outside Central United Methodist Church, an interracial church in downtown Detroit with a long history of activism on civil rights, peace, immigrant rights and poverty issues.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the church was no longer holding in-person worship services. But anyone walking into its sanctuary that day would have seen long red flags behind the pastor’s lectern, displaying the words “peace” and “love.” A banner reading “Michigan Says No! To War” hung alongside pictures of civil rights icons Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as labor-rights activist Cesar Chavez. In line with her church’s activist tradition, senior pastor Jill Hardt Zundell stood outside the building and preached about her church’s commitment to eradicating anti-Black racism to her congregants and all that passed by.

In our sociology and political science research, we have both studied how race, religion and politics are intimately connected in the United States. Our recent book, “Race and the Power of Sermons on American Politics” – written with psychologist James S. Jackson – uses 44 national and regional surveys conducted between 1941 and 2019 to examine racial differences in who hears messages about social justice at church. We also examined how hearing those types of sermons correlates with support for policies aimed at reducing social inequality and with political activism.

For centuries, many Americans have envisioned that their country has a special relationship with God – that their nation is “a city on a hill” with special blessings and responsibilities. Beliefs that America is exceptional have inspired views across the political spectrum.

Many congregations that emphasize social justice embrace this idea of a “covenant” between the United States and the creator. They interpret it to mean Americans must create opportunity and inclusion for all – based in the belief that all people are equally valued by God.

Politics in the pews

In our book, we find that, depending upon the issue, between half and two-thirds of Americans support religious leaders taking public positions on racism, poverty, war and immigration. Roughly a third report attending worship settings where their clergy or friends discuss these issues and the importance of politically acting on one’s beliefs.

African Americans and Hispanic Americans tend to be more supportive of religious leaders speaking out against racism and attempting to influence poverty and immigration policy. On the whole, African Americans are the most likely to support religious leaders expressing political views on specific issues, from poverty and homelessness to peace, as we examine in our book.

Black Americans are also more likely to attend worship settings where clergy and other members encourage them to connect their faith to social justice work. For example, according to a July 2020 Pew Research Center poll, 67% of African American worshippers reported hearing sermons in support of Black Lives Matter, relative to 47% of Hispanics and 36% of whites.

Race also affects the relationship between hearing such sermons and supporting related policies. When statistically accounting for religious affiliation, political party and demographic characteristics, attending these types of congregations more strongly associates with white Americans supporting progressive policy positions than it does for Black Americans and Hispanics.

White worshippers who hear sermons about race and poverty, for example, are more likely to oppose spending cuts to welfare programs than those who hear no such messages at their place of worship.

This is not the case for African Americans and Hispanics, however, who are as likely to oppose social welfare spending cuts regardless of where they worship. In other words, while hearing sermons about social justice issues informs or at least aligns with white progressive policy attitudes, this alignment is not as strong for Blacks and Hispanics.

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Clergy of predominantly white worship spaces are often more politically liberal than their congregants. Historically, this has translated into members pushing back when clergy take public positions that are more progressive than their congregation’s.

This may explain why white parishioners who chose to attend congregations where they hear social justice-themed sermons tend to be more politically progressive, or more open to sermons challenging previous views, than are other white parishioners.

From words to action

However, when it comes to the connection between hearing sermons and taking political action, race doesn’t matter as much. That is, when taking into account religious affiliation, party affiliation and social demographics, people who hear social justice-themed sermons in their places of worship are more likely than other Americans to engage in political activism, regardless of their race.

For example, during the months following Floyd’s murder, Black, white and Hispanic congregants who heard sermons about race and policing were more likely than others to have protested for any purpose in the past 12 months, according to data from the 2020 National Politics Study. More specifically, white Americans who attended houses of worship where they heard those types of sermons were more than twice as likely to participate in a protest as other white worshippers. Black and Hispanic attendees were almost twice as likely to protest, compared to those attending houses of worship where they did not hear sermons about race and policing.

The difference between people who attend houses of worship with a social-justice focus and people who did not attend religious services at all is even more striking. White Americans who heard such messages at religious services were almost four times more likely to protest than white Americans who did not attend services; Black and Hispanic Americans were almost three times as likely.

Today, many Americans are pessimistic about inequality, political divisions and ethnic conflict. Yet, as these surveys show, social justice-minded congregations inspire members to work for policies that support their vision of the public good.The Conversation

R. Khari Brown, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Wayne State University, Wayne State University and Ronald Brown, Associate Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

King Richard: An Interview with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton

King Richard: An Interview with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton

King Richard is a film honoring the legacy of Richard Williams, father of Tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams which is in theaters everywhere and on HBO Max this Friday, November 19.

The film tells the story of Richard and the Williams family’s remarkable journey from the rough environment of Compton, CA to the fame and fortune of professional tennis stardom. King Richard is the Williams family’s tremendous story of faith, perseverance, and triumph that is truly inspiring. The cast was phenomenal and I left the theater wanting to put into action the value for planning, humility, and passion that the family exemplified.

UrbanFaith sat down with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who play Venus and Serena to discuss the experience of bringing the lives of these legends to the big screen alongside Will Smith.

The full interview is above!

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

 

 

Americans are in a mental health crisis – especially African Americans. Can churches help?

Americans are in a mental health crisis – especially African Americans. Can churches help?

Americans are in a mental health crisis – especially African Americans. Can churches help?

The 160-year-old John Wesley AME Zion Church is one of the few predominantly African American churches that still exists in downtown Washington, D.C. Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Brad R. Fulton, Indiana University

Centuries of systemic racism and everyday discrimination in the U.S. have left a major mental health burden on African American communities, and the past few years have dealt especially heavy blows.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that Black Americans are twice as likely to die of COVID-19, compared with white Americans. Their communities have also been hit disproportionately by job losses, food insecurity and homelessness as a result of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, racial injustice and high-profile police killings of Black men have amplified stress. During the summer of 2020, amid both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, a CDC survey found that 15% of Black respondents had “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days,” compared with 8% of white respondents.

For a variety of reasons, many African Americans face barriers to mental health care. But as a sociologist who focuses on community-based organizations, I find that strengthening relationships between churches and mental health providers can be one way to increase access to needed services. In research with my collaborators Eunice Wong and Kathryn Derose, I analyzed data on the prevalence of mental health care provision among religious congregations and found that many African American congregations offer such programs.

Need versus access

Roughly 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year. Yet fewer than half of adults with a mental health condition receive mental health services.

African Americans utilize mental health services at about one-half the rate of white Americans. In part, this underuse may stem from African Americans’ often fraught relationship with medical establishments in the U.S., given their histories of racial bias and malpractice against people of color. Part of the reason may also derive from stigma among some African Americans perceiving mental illness and seeking help as signs of weakness. Treatment “deserts” where mental health providers are scarce may also be a factor.

Students participate in an activity about mental health and suicide prevention at Uplift Hampton Preparatory School in Dallas.
Students participate in an activity about mental health and suicide prevention at Uplift Hampton Preparatory School in Dallas in 2018. AP Photo/Benny Snyder

Care at church

One often overlooked resource for mental health care, however, are churches. For the past decade, the National Congregations Study has documented the prevalence of mental health care provision among places of worship in the U.S. Based on data from the NCS’ 2018 survey, 26% of congregations provide mental health programming, and 37% of people who attend religious services attend one of these congregations. Such programming can include support groups, meetings and classes focused on addressing mental health concerns.

Previously, my co-researchers and I analyzed 2012 NCS data to better understand mental health resources within religious congregations. One of our goals was to identify factors that contribute to a congregation offering mental health care. These factors include having more members, employing staff for social service programs and providing health-focused programs. Other significant predictors include conducting community needs assessments, hosting speakers from social service organizations and being located in a predominantly African American community.

Based on the new 2018 survey, 45% percent of African American congregations offer some form of mental health service and nearly half of all African American churchgoers attend a congregation with such programs. These rates show an increase since 2012, and are roughly 50% greater than those among predominantly white congregations.

This research supports longstanding observations about African American congregations as critical sources of spiritual, emotional and social support for their communities. Many religious people see their spiritual health and mental health as intertwined, and research indicates that spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation, can also support mental health.

Strengthening support

Our research suggests that building collaborations between African American congregations and the mental health sector is a promising strategy to increase access to needed services. Given that 61% of African Americans say they attend worship services at least a few times a year, congregations may provide an accessible resource.

At times, pairing religion and mental health may prove harmful. Some congregations see mental health problems as a product of personal sin, for example, and stigmatize people suffering from mental illness.

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But congregations can also be helpful environments. When clinical treatment is supplemented with social support, the likelihood of successful outcomes is greater, and houses of worship often provide built-in social networks. People participating in a congregation-led grief recovery group, for example, can be involved in the congregation beyond their weekly meeting. In addition, some mental health professionals provide pro bono services for congregation-based programs.

Social worker Victor Armstrong, the director of North Carolina’s Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, asserts that African American faith leaders can play a “pivotal role” in mental wellness. He suggests shifting language to focus on “wellness” rather than “illness” in order to decrease stigma, among other recommendations.

Greater collaboration between congregations and mental health providers could help stem the growing mental health crisis, particularly within African American communities.The Conversation

Brad R. Fulton, Associate Professor, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Colin loved the church’: Powell recalled as Episcopalian at cathedral funeral

‘Colin loved the church’: Powell recalled as Episcopalian at cathedral funeral

 

(RNS) — Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, known as a four-star general and as a onetime secretary of defense, was remembered at his funeral at the Washington National Cathedral Friday (Nov. 5) as a man of the Episcopal faith.

Longtime colleague and friend Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under Powell, recalled how their regular 7 a.m. morning calls shifted to 9:30 on Sunday mornings, after his supervisor had returned from church.

“Colin loved the church: He loved the ceremony. He loved the liturgy. He loved the high hymns, which made him extremely happy,” said Armitage, who served with Powell in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, during the private ceremony that was livestreamed on YouTube.

“And he would answer the same way every Sunday. He said, ‘Oh yes, I was at church. And I want you to know I’m in the state of grace.’ And I would answer the same way every Sunday: ‘Colin, if you’re not in the state of grace, who among us is?’ And that was every day for almost 40 years, the same opening remarks.”

Powell, who died Oct. 18 from COVID-19 complications, was honored at a nearly two-hour private ceremony. Hundreds of people gathered under the cathedral’s neo-Gothic arches, including President Biden and two former presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and their wives, and former Secretary of State and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother Colin Luther Powell for burial,” said Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who met the general’s casket at the doors of the cathedral with Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

Some family members of Powell, 84, had key roles in the service that mixed the high church liturgy of the cathedral with the military precision of uniformed service members bearing Powell’s coffin and escorting his family.

His son, former Federal Communications Chairman Michael K. Powell, gave a tribute, along with Armitage and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who preceded Powell in that position. His daughter, Annemarie Powell Lyons, read from the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The Rev. Stuart A. Kenworthy drew on that Scripture as he spoke of Powell’s faith.

“Colin knew his God through all his years,” said Kenworthy in his homily, a role the former Army National Guard chaplain also played at the 2016 funeral of former first lady Nancy Reagan. “His faith was of first importance, and his life was marked by those words of the Prophet Micah.”

He also encouraged those remembering Powell to embrace their Christian faith.

“God raised Jesus so that you and I might share in his resurrection, and if you turn to him and accept him in faith, he will come into you and raise you into that new and eternal life now,” Kenworthy preached. “Just as he has for your beloved Colin, who now stands upon another shore and in a greater light, with that multitude of saints that no mortal can number.”

Prior to the homily, the Rev. Joshua D. Walters, rector of the Powell family’s church in McLean, Virginia, read words of Jesus from the Gospel of John: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

Congregants, masked during the continuing pandemic, stood to sing the hymns “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “Precious Lord.” Soloist Wintley Phipps sang “How Great Thou Art.”

In an earlier statement issued after Powell’s death, Curry noted Powell was a lifelong Episcopalian.

“I pray for his family and all his many loved ones, and I give thanks for his model of integrity, faithful service to our nation and his witness to the impact of a quiet, dignified faith in public life,” the presiding bishop said at the time. “He cared about people deeply. He served his country and humanity nobly. He loved his family and his God unswervingly.”

Though not generally known for his ties to religion, Powell was noted for comments he once made about then-Senator Obama’s faith.

Obama, in a statement released on the day of Powell’s death, spoke of his deep appreciation of Powell’s endorsement of his presidential candidacy when the general had been affiliated with past Republican administrations.

“At a time when conspiracy theories were swirling, with some questioning my faith, General Powell took the opportunity to get to the heart of the matter in a way only he could,” said Obama in the statement, referring to rumors that he was a Muslim.

At the time, Powell said, “The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian.”

But then Powell added a follow-up: “But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”

Powell also was among the top picks of likely voters who were religious and considering potential vice presidents when the then-senator was seeking the presidency in 2008.

But Armitage and other speakers mostly put politics aside as they recalled the man who was their friend, family member or colleague.

The former deputy secretary of state noted he and Powell had different preferences for hymns. Armitage recited the final verse of “Rough Side of the Mountain,” which speaks of standing “before God’s throne” when the race of life has concluded.

“Be real quiet,” Armitage told the congregation. “Listen real carefully. And you might hear our savior say, ‘Colin, welcome home. And here’s your starry crown.'”