With the Thanksgiving season upon us, we thought it fitting to do some theological and psychological reflection on gratitude. Join us for this stimulating conversation with Rosemead Professor Dr. Stacy Eltiti, as we explore dimensions of gratitude that you might not have thought about before. It can be applied all year round, not just during the Thanksgiving holiday.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Stacy Eltiti is Associate Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. She has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Essex in the UK. Among her areas of expertise is the psychology of gratitude. She has written and presented widely in a variety of areas on the field of psychology.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture." I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology, here at Biola University. We're here the week before Thanksgiving with an expert from Biola University's Rosemead School of Psychology on the area of gratitude. Dr Stacy Eltiti is with us today. Thanks so much for being with us.

Stacy Eltiti: Well, thank you for having me.

Scott Rae: Stacy has a whole host of areas of expertise. She has a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Essex in England, and publications on a very broad scale. But one of the areas that she's done quite a lot of thinking about is this area of gratitude, and a psychology of gratitude. So I'm really interested; as we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, I thought it was appropriate to have some maybe deeper reflections on gratitude than what we might've thought about before.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: So Stacy, thanks for being with us. You know, you've been a professor for some time. I've done a lot of thinking about this area of gratitude and thankfulness. What motivated you, first of all, to start doing some of this professionally?

Stacy Eltiti: Well, my background is not in gratitude. Like you said, I have a wide range of interests and my early research actually had to do with the area of anxiety. So if you think of anxiety, it could be like the opposite of gratitude, where you're worrying about things going on in your life and you're focusing on the negative. And a lot of anxiety research deals with this idea of, if you're highly anxious, you actually focus your attention on threatening information in your environment. And by doing that, that just makes you more and more anxious. So some research is trying to figure out, how can we make people less anxious, or how can we shift their attention away from an angry face, or a negative word, onto something more positive? And you can actually do some attention retraining by having participants purposefully focus on positive images like the happy face, and that will decrease their anxiety. So by having individuals focus on what's good in their environment, that actually helps them deal with their anxiety better. And I think that relates into the gratitude, right? Gratitude is this whole focusing on what's good, what are good things happening in my life that I can focus on and then be grateful for?

Scott Rae: Okay, so your interest in gratitude really came about as more of a byproduct of doing something else?

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: So Stacy, as a psychologist, what is your background in psychology? How has that helped you understand this subject of gratitude, maybe in more depth, maybe with more significance than for the average person who thinks about this?

Stacy Eltiti: So there are a lot of ideas in psychology that have to do with gratitude and how we think about gratitude. One way of framing gratitude is to think of it as a positive emotion. And that fits in with Barbara Fredrickson's broaden and build theory of positive emotions. So according to that theory, when we engage in positive behaviors or positive moods and emotions, that actually increases the thoughts that we have or the behaviors that we can engage in and then build our resources, whether they're psychological, physical, or social.

And so gratitude is just one positive emotion of many. And under this framework, when you think about gratitude, this increases your prosocial behavior, and interestingly, not just your prosocial behavior towards a benefactor, but also towards yourself and others. So that would be the broadened part of the broaden and build theory. And then it builds relationships. So it strengthens whatever bonds you have with others, and you can apply this spiritually. So if you are thankful to God and you think about all of the wonderful blessings that you have in your life and the good things that He's done, that then is going to strengthen your relationship with God and build that relationship up.

Scott Rae: Okay. So what you're suggesting is that the more you cultivate gratitude as a habit, it impacts your relationships, it impacts your own soul, it impacts your relationship to God in some really deep and significant ways. Is it also the case where, neurologically, gratitude is one of those practices that can actually reshape how the brain works and helps, in that way, to help sort of ward off depression and anxiety?

Stacy Eltiti: Well, gratitude has been shown to be positively related with all sorts of good things in life. So it helps you physically, like it reduces your stress, it helps you mentally, like you said, people who are more grateful tend to be less depressed. We also mentioned the relationship aspect. It helps you professionally; you're a better colleague when you engage in gratitude. And interpersonally, people who are grateful tend to just be more humble and more self-aware and just kind people in general. So it has a whole host of benefits.

Scott Rae: Okay. Those are definitely the kind of people that I would like to be around.

Stacy Eltiti: For sure, yeah.

Scott Rae: It sort of stands to reason that you might like to be that kind of person yourself.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: So say a little bit more about how you connect the psychosocial aspects of gratitude with the biblical teaching on gratitude.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah, so it fits in nicely with what we're commanded to do as Christians. So if you think about, in the Bible, there's passages spread throughout the Old and New Testaments commanding us to be thankful; to focus on what's good, what's noble, like in Philippians, and to just have a thankful heart at all times, in all circumstances, for all things. So when we have a spirit of gratitude, that then helps us to orient ourselves, or maybe posture ourselves, in life. To notice those good things that are happening in our life and to be thankful for them.

Scott Rae: So if there are all of these benefits to gratitude, why do you think the Bible has to command us to do this as repeatedly as it does? There must be something about who we are as human beings that's not inclined toward gratitude. So that even in spite of all the benefits, the Bible still has to repeatedly pound that message home. Why do you think that's so?

Stacy Eltiti: I think it's not natural for us to think about what we're grateful for. You always have to teach our children to say thank you, right?

Scott Rae: Mm hmm.

Stacy Eltiti: They don't do it naturally. And there are just things in life that can become obstacles to expressing gratitude. So I think in today's society, I would say the number one obstacle is just busyness. So even if you want to be a grateful person, what is urgent, what's pressing? That email, that phone call; that always kind of takes all our mental space and our capacity and doesn't leave us much room to think and to reflect on how to be grateful for things in life.

Scott Rae: Okay, so this is just a matter of mainly, not entirely, but mainly just of creating that extra space and your own personal bandwidth to have time and energy to focus on this. I wonder if that's part of the re- I'm just thinking out here- that's one of the reasons why the Bible mandates the Sabbath.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm, yeah.

Scott Rae: So you have one day in seven where you're not supposed to be busy. You're supposed to be off the fast lane to cultivate, among other things, gratitude to the Lord.

Stacy Eltiti: And that would make sense; that unless you set time aside and you're proactively trying to engage in gratitude, that it doesn't come naturally to us.

Scott Rae: So what are some of the practices that you use to cultivate this in your life?

Stacy Eltiti: There are a few practices I like to do. Gratitude while I'm driving, so it's a time when I'm commuting to work and I'm alone in the car and I can just look around and think about, "Okay, what's going on? What can I be grateful for?" And I start by the present. So driving is a good opportunity where I can look on the other side of the freeway and say, "I'm glad I'm not in that traffic," or "Thank you for that sunset; that's beautiful." And often that's kind of a leaping point to start thinking about work, because I'm going to work, and then colleagues I'm thankful for, or students, or things going on in my day that I can look forward to and be really grateful for.

Scott Rae: All right. So why do you think our kids have so much trouble developing this? Because it's not that they don't have the bandwidth to do this, and you've already said they're not naturally inclined to do this, but I think most parents would say this takes a lot of work, to pound this into kids about the need to be grateful.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: Is there something about the teenage years that makes that particularly difficult?

Stacy Eltiti: I think part of it is just a self-awareness. In order to be grateful, it takes a capacity to reflect on what's going on and think about, "Okay, these are things in my life that I don't necessarily deserve, or gifts that have been given to me." And I know my children expect a lot. So they don't necessarily have that self-awareness to be like, "Oh, this is unexpected; this is an unusual gift that I've been given and I need to be grateful for it." Their level of awareness can be very small, so we have them incorporate gratitude into their prayer. And sometimes they'll be like, "Thank you that I could go to school today. And I'm like, "Honey, it's Sunday. You weren't at school." So just thinking and having the memory capacity, as well as, "Oh yeah, today I didn't actually do that."

Scott Rae: And I know there are people in our lives who see the cup as half full and others who see it as half empty, and there are just certain people that, for whatever the reason, they just have a hard time feeling grateful and expressing gratitude about a whole host of things. What do you say to that person whose temperament is just a little bit more like Eeyore? How do you deal with people like that?

Stacy Eltiti: So I think of gratitude as a way in which you're going to orient yourself towards life. And like you're saying, some people seem to be oriented towards noticing the bad things in life, or the stressors, or the down things. And part of it is we don't ignore that. When we have struggles, when we have difficult circumstances, if we're having a hard day, we recognize this is a tough day that we're having, and to acknowledge that for what it is. But I think part of that orienting is to also say, "Okay, this may be a rough day, but there are still going to be nuggets of gold in it; nuggets of things people did or said to me, or people around me that I can focus on and be grateful for." So not that I'm grateful for these challenges, but in the midst of these challenges, can't I find aspects or things going on in my life that I can really, truly be grateful for?

Scott Rae: That's a good way to put it. What are the nuggets of gold that you find in the glass, whether you see it as half empty or half full. My mom used to call those the various pockets of joy that she would have.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: They were just little small things, but they reoriented her towards the things that she wanted to actually have her life be focused on. Granted, there are some people who just are temperamentally like that. But there are others for whom life has thrown a lot of hard things at, and you look at their life and my first inclination is to say, "When is enough, enough?

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: And it's not like they have the same scenario as Job, or somebody else like that, but they've had a lot of tough stuff thrown at them. You know, the cancer survivor, the family that's lost a child; those unexplainable things. We trust that God is going to pull this all into a coherent whole. But this side of eternity, we don't have any idea how that works.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: That's a little bit of a different scenario than somebody who's temperamentally not inclined to be grateful. So especially around Thanksgiving, when we reflect on these things, we just are a little bit more reflective about life; what do you say to the person who's just had a lot of really tough stuff thrown at them?

Stacy Eltiti: That's a difficult situation because we know everybody's life is different. They have different challenges that they're facing, and sometimes there is no obvious answer as to why. Why is this happening in my life? God, why are you doing this at this point in time? And part of it is living with uncertainty is really hard. It's hard for us to not have answers to our questions. But that's part of what it means to live in this world. We're going to face difficulties and we're not going to always know what the answer is. Not now. Maybe in Heaven we'll know what the answer is, and God will reveal that.

Scott Rae: I like our chances in heaven. But you're right. The Bible is very clear that this side of eternity, there are some pretty significant "Why?" questions that hang over our head that are going to follow us into eternity, and I think those will be resolved.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: But that's hard; to be grateful for what you have when you just feel like you're under siege from a lot of difficult stuff.

Stacy Eltiti: It is. And that's where I think having a solid faith, knowing that this is a time of uncertainty, but the Bible tells me that in trials, this is a time of refinement. That I don't know why I'm going through this trial, but God is using this trial to refine me in some way, and to remember that.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Stacy Eltiti: And that's where the joy and the gratitude can come in. I know this is really difficult and I don't know why, but again, God will be using this to somehow strengthen my relationship with Him. Even in this difficult situation, He's still here with me, and He's sustaining me. He hasn't gone on vacation.

Scott Rae: Although you raise an interesting point, because the Bible is so clear that the main thing that we have to be grateful for is that our eternal destiny is secure; that we are saved by virtue of the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Yet for a lot of people, I think they have a hard time getting real traction with that as something to be grateful for, that really shapes their outlook and shapes how they view the world. Why do you think that's so?

Stacy Eltiti: I think it has to do with how we view the gospel. So for a long time, and I'm sure not alone, the gospel to me is for others, nonbelievers, right? It's a message; we go out and we're like, "Hey, you need to be saved. You need this message of salvation." But we don't really realize the gospel is for believers, as well. And Jerry Bridges, in his book "Respectable Sins," talks about how we should be preaching the gospel to ourselves daily. So having that daily reminder that we know Christ; we are saved. We're still sinners, we're not perfect, but even though we're not perfect, God still loves us.

Scott Rae: So maybe there's something to the biblical notion of regularly celebrating the Lord's supper.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm, yeah.

Scott Rae: I mean, in my church, we do this every week. But that tangible, visible reminder, and of course, you know, "Eucharist" actually means "Thanksgiving", of ultimately, foundationally, what we are to be thankful for. It makes sense that would be a practice that's in our interests for our wellbeing.

Stacy Eltiti: For sure. And to just remind ourselves that salvation cost God so much, but He was willing to give it. And when we were sinners, we're not perfect, and His love for us is so much greater than we can imagine.

Scott Rae: Well, I think oftentimes we hear gratitude encouraged, and the desire to have it cultivated almost in a way that comes across as, "Just stop whining about your circumstances and be grateful for something."

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: But I find that if that's the case, people just tend to kind of go through the motions on this instead of cultivating the real thing. So what advice would you have for families, for individuals who may spend Thanksgiving without being around a family, to make the Thanksgiving holiday one that's really meaningful? And meaningful not just because we're around family, but because it's focused on what the holiday is actually about, which was originally a thanksgiving to God for his abundant provision. What suggestions would you have for families on this?

Stacy Eltiti: So I like Thanksgiving because it's just a natural opportunity to try to cultivate more gratitude, and not just to do it on the day, but to think of it as a season of thanksgiving. So I think part of bringing meaning to it is to not just sit around the table and everybody says one thing you're grateful for. That's great, but it's very, in essence, shallow. And you can bring that to a deeper level very quickly by saying, "Okay, what are you grateful for and why? Why are you grateful for mom, or why are you grateful for school?" and to really flesh out the reasoning behind it. Because then when we hear the "Why?" behind it, then we learn more about that person, and what truly is it about this object or this person that they're thankful for?

So one way in which you could do it in a family, or if you're not with family, if you're far away, gratitude letters are great. And it doesn't have to be because somebody did something for you; it could just be, "I'm grateful for you, and this is why I'm grateful for you." And to just sit down and write a letter. And if you're away from somebody, just mail it to them as an expression of gratitude. If you want to do it in person, that is amazing. I don't know if you've ever been part of a gratitude tribute where somebody has written a gratitude letter and read it to the person, and that is just so impactful.

Scott Rae: That could be [inaudible 00:20:20].

Stacy Eltiti: So the person who's like, "Wow, you really think this about me?" And then you hear about, "Wow, this is how that person has impacted so many other people." So it's really meaningful.

Scott Rae: That's a rich tradition.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: That's a wonderful idea.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Maybe this Thanksgiving you write that to one person who's impacted you or who you have a special sense of gratitude for. And I really like the idea of, "I'm grateful for this" or "I'm grateful for you because" and then complete that sentence.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm, yeah.

Scott Rae: And understanding the "Why?" of that helps the person reflect more deeply about what exactly they're grateful for. I have a long-time friend who I've known since high school; we both came to faith around the same time, and she has had every conceivable curve ball thrown at her.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: Her dad basically abandoned them when she was a little girl; the reason her dad abandoned her was because her mom was a terrible alcoholic. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw her mom in something other than a bathrobe.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: And without a hangover was kind of unusual. When she married, her husband was infertile; they weren't able to have kids. They adopted a couple of children and had all sorts of issues around adoption. So they started a tradition called The No Thanksgiving where eventually it got around to gratitude.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: But that's certainly not where it started.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: And it was their way of being honest with God about what was going on in their lives. And I'm not sure that any description of gratitude really ever came out of those several Thanksgiving dinners for them. What do you think about that tradition?

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah, it's tough, like you said, when you have a background and you look at somebody's life and you're like, "What is it that you can really be grateful for here?" But I think there are things, and it doesn't have to be people, right? We're to be grateful for all things. So it takes a lot of effort to think through and to identify what are those things or those people that I'm grateful for? But the No Thanksgiving almost reminds me back to my anxiety research, where you're just orienting yourself to focus on the bad in your life, and that just doesn't lead you to a good place. It just makes you more anxious or more depressed. So by doing that, it may be honest, and like I said, when you have trials, it's not that you ignore them; we recognize that. But in the midst of those, what are other things going on in our life, in addition to these trials, that we can also be thankful for?

Scott Rae: And there were those things.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: They just weren't front and center at this. And I think there's a note of reality, because surely you're not suggesting that gratitude implies anything like a Pollyanna view of the world.

Stacy Eltiti: No.

Scott Rae: To be real, but also to be real with the things that you are grateful for.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: And I think developing those habits and practices is so important, because I look at the pace at which we run our lives... When is the last time I stopped and sort of took stock of what I'm grateful- I mean I'm embarrassed to say this, I can't remember the last time where I just focused on what I was grateful for. I don't remember the last time.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: And I don't view myself as a person who sees the glass as half empty.

Stacy Eltiti: Mm hmm.

Scott Rae: I think it's just really challenging, which tells me maybe that there's maybe more of a spiritual component to it; that there's an enemy who wants to see us sidetracked from the things that are in our own best interests.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: So Stacy, one last question for you. I really like the idea of the Thanksgiving letter and really like the idea of making sure people answer the question of why they're grateful for certain things.

Stacy Eltiti: Yeah.

Scott Rae: What else would you suggest that would help people have a more meaningful Thanksgiving?

Stacy Eltiti: I think just being conscious about what you're doing, right? So you need to set aside the time and be very purposeful in it. So, "Okay, this is how we're going to do it. This is how we're going to celebrate it." Taking that extra time to reflect and not just put people on the spot and say, "Okay, what are the top 10 things you're thankful for?" But, "Okay, I'm going to ask you this question and I want you to reflect on it, and spend some time, and come prepared to share what that is." And when people are thankful, to start having a discussion about it, and not being like, "Great, you shared yours. Now it's my turn," and trying to capture the floor.

Scott Rae: Oh yeah.

Stacy Eltiti: Sometimes we have that as well, where we're so eager to talk about ourselves that we're not listening to the other person.

Scott Rae: This is not a place for one-upmanship.

Stacy Eltiti: It isn't.

Scott Rae: I mean I could see it this Thanksgiving. I could see writing this letter to my wife.

Stacy Eltiti: That would be great.

Scott Rae: Reading it to her and having our sons just observe.

Stacy Eltiti: Exactly, yeah.

Scott Rae: Just seeing how that's done, so dads, get with the program. Well Stacy, thank you so much for hanging out with us for these few minutes and helping prepare us to really do right by celebrating Thanksgiving.

Stacy Eltiti: You're very welcome. Thanks again for the opportunity.

Scott Rae: All right. This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture." To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Stacy Eltiti, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Hey, thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.