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Can Gratitude Change Your Perspective?

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.


Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Art of Relationships. My name is Tim Muehlhoff.

Chris Grace: And I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff: We are so glad to be with you again. We love doing these series where we take a topic, and we just take time to unpack some of the complexities of it, and we've been on the topic of gratitude and contentment. I though I'd share with you two quotes from two different people. One is a guy named Chesterton. G. K. Chesterton was a towering Christian intellect and theologian, and he wrote "The test of all happiness is gratitude." Then compare that with Seneca, First Century Roman Philosopher, who called ingratitude an abomination.So this idea of gratitude and the inverse, ingratitude, and boy, that does rankle us, Chris. When someone we perceived is not grateful for what they have or what we've done, that really does rankle us.

Well, we've been talking a lot about this, and you have a useful questionnaire to help our listeners kinda place themselves on the gratitude scale. Why don't you walk us through these six different questions.

Chris Grace: Yeah, that's good. Let's do that. There's a little six-item questionnaire. The authors of this, a guy named Mike McCullough, Robert Emmons, and Jo-Ann Tsang put together this questionnaire. If you want, it was back in 2002. They published it in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It goes like this, and so our listeners if you want, you can take this real quickly. It goes these are the six items, and all you have to do is answer, and you can write these down however you want. It works like this: On a piece of paper just mark down numbers 1-6, and then answer these six questions. It's about how much do you agree with each statement.

Number one. You would say one, if you strongly disagree; two, if you disagree; three, if you slightly disagree. Most listeners are familiar with these Likert scales, four, is neutral, right; then five, you slightly agree; six, you agree; and seven, you strongly agree. So one is strongly disagree; seven is strongly agree, and four is in the neutral. Here it is.

1. I have so much in life to be thankful for. So if you agree, strongly agree, you'd put a six, seven is strong. May sense?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: All right. I have so much in life to be thankful for. Scale of 1-7.

2. If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list. Okay, 1-7.

3. When I look at the world, I don't see much to be grateful for. If you disagree with that, you'd put a one, because you have a lot to be grateful for, but if you agree with that, that you look at the world, and you don't see much to be grateful for, you'd put a 7, it means not much to be grateful for. All right.

4. I am grateful to a wide variety of people.

5. As I get older, I find myself more able to appreciate the people, events and situations that have been part of my life history.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's a good one. Wow.

Chris Grace: 6. Lone amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone. So 1, you strongly disagree with that, because you do feel grateful oftentimes, or 7, you strongly agree with that statement.

All right so now it's a real simple process. You just add up your scores. Each is worth 7 points. So the first one. I have so much in life to be thankful for. You're gonna add that up to between 1 and 7, and you give your points, and we're gonna add all these up with this exception. Number 3, you say when I look at the world, I don't see much to be grateful for, and if you strongly disagree with that and you put a 1, then what you're going to do is just give yourself a 7, because it's listed negatively, and we reverse score that. So number 3, whatever score you did, you just simply put the opposite.

It goes like this. If you put a 1, you give yourself 7 points. If you put a 2, you give yourself 6. If you had a 3, you give yourself 5. Does that make sense? And so 4 stays the same. And then the last question, same way. Number 6, long amounts of time can go by before I feel grateful to something or someone, same thing. You give yourself the opposite score, as far as points. So if you put a 1, you get 7. If you put a 2, you actually put down 6. If that all makes sense, then you just add up these scores. Each question is worth 7, and for question number 3 and question number 6, you reverse the score on those. Okay.

So now here are the results. So Tim, here they go. Ready? The results on the score, you can score anywhere between a 6 and a 42.

Tim Muehlhoff: Wow.

Chris Grace: All right. Because there are, of course, 6 questions, 7 points possible on each, 6 x 7 = 42. You get it. Here goes. The answers that people gave, and a sample of 1,200 adults scored this way, and there are a lot of different groups that were compared and looked at, but people that scored below a 25, were in the bottom quarter, was those who scored below a 35. If you scored between a 35 and a 37, you scored higher than 25% of the people who took it. All right? A 38-40 was you scored higher than 50% of individuals who took the survey. And at 41, you scored higher than 75% of all of these who took the survey, and finally, a 42, you scored among the top 10-13% of all the individuals who took this survey.

In this area of taking this survey, it give you kind of a quick way of looking how grateful do I feel at times, and so Tim, some of these questions, there's much to be thankful for. If you had a list of everything you felt grateful for, it'd be a long list. I'm grateful to a wide variety of people. What do you think when you here about a questionnaire like this?

Tim Muehlhoff: The one that really struck me was the one that said when I look back on my life, am I grateful for the events that have happened, because boy, you could see that going one of two ways. One, I'm grateful that I went through that hard time, because it kinda made me the person I am, or I'm bitter because of it. I can look back on disappointments I've had, tough times, and that really is your perception, and the decision to see the positive even within the negative.

Let me brag on one of my sons. My oldest son was a great basketball player. Did really, really well, but had knee issues that basically lost his junior year and senior year, because of knee issues. You can imagine the disappointment, legitimately so, right? But now he has just been accepted to Baylor Physical Therapy School. He's gonna pursue his Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and I once asked him "Why did you choose Physical Therapy?" And he said, "Well, because I look back at those struggles with my knee, and I think I can help people now. I think I know what it's like to go through it. I think it'll make me a better Physical Therapist." Now that wasn't magic that took a long time for a kid who loves basketball and lost his junior and senior year, but then to look back and say, but you know what? I think it's gonna make me a more compassionate Physical Therapist. That's huge in determining whether you're grateful or content. And life threw his a curve ball, right? But that's the kinda thing maybe we're looking at a little bit.

Chris Grace: So, Tim, you used an interesting word there. You said, "It's not magic." It's what then? It's something that he had to work through, process, pray about, just life circumstances.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.

Chris Grace: Why was he able to look back on that when some other people have a root of bitterness, or they look back on it as something like that, and they think "Why me? That's not fair."

Tim Muehlhoff: That's right.

Chris Grace: The idea of the cucumber again. People have grapes. How come I have this?

Tim Muehlhoff: That's right. That's right.

Chris Grace: We talked about that study earlier.

Tim Muehlhoff: I wanna say the influence of a father. Yeah, I wanna say it's a combination of things. One, I think time is important. So this is funny, and I've shared this publicly, so my son would be fine with it, but I remember asking him right after his senior year, I mean he has to get another knee operation, right? And I said to him, "What do you think God's trying to teach you in this moment?" And his answer was "Nothing." There wasn't enough time. I do think perspective comes with time. So now years, years later, having graduated from Biola and going onto Grad School, now I think there's enough distance from it to look back.

Let me share this story. My parents struggled in their marriage. They were married for 48 years, which is great, but they struggled, and it was hard. Now I look back at that and I think it's made more sympathetic when I write about marriage, speak about marriage, and it's caused me to appreciate the good times, right? I don't know if I would have said that in high school. That's why I said it's process, and not magic.\

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: And the worst thing we can do to Christians is to say, "But you should be grateful right now." And I think that's pushing them way to quickly.

Chris Grace: So somebody scores medium on this scale, compared to 1,200 adults that have taken this sample, and this one in particular, there somewhere in the middle, so one of the things that you would say is "Listen, there are times in which we all find ourselves in disappointment or there's something that has gone on, a stressor in life.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: And maybe it's hard, but as time goes on, there are some things that we can remedy, some ways we could begin to look at things differently, and there's always this saying the hope that comes when we look at what can be or the ways in which we have moved from earlier things. So even though we're currently struggling maybe in this particular area.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: Look how faithful God has been, or my partner has been on these areas. Is that one way that you'd get through this?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I had somebody take me through what they call a Life Map, where you go back as far as you can remember, and then you work through each of the major seasons of your life. So this would be elementary school, junior high, high school, college, post college, all that kind of stuff. You look back and you try to find God's fingerprints. Now here's what I thought was brilliant about this Life Map. There's certain things that you just are still in process over. Let's say it would be the divorce of your parents, okay? Then you set that aside and circle it. You're still working on it. You're still trusting God, that He can redeem that somehow, but you're not there yet. I love what C.S. Lewis said, "Don't pray what supposed to be in you, pray what's in you."

So that Life Map isn't just revisionist history that God is good all the time, and he worked everything for good. I believe he's in the process of doing that, but it's okay to circle certain things, and say, hey. Especially, if we're talking about evil, right? If were molested as a child, if there was a tragic accident that you now have chronic pain, okay, we're not saying whitewash that. Circle that, set it aside. We're just simply saying, "Don't let those three, four circles dominate the entire Life Map."

We call that tunnel vision, right? I can't see anything but these three or four situations. That's what we're saying, Chris, I think is notice the good, and then keep those circles there, and God's working on it. By the way, I love Psalm 73, where Asaph is saying, "Listen, I've got issues with you, God.  The wicked are prospering, and we the just are not doing well."  But then he says, "But you know what, I walked into the sanctuary, and it was there I saw the goodness of God."  

So we're not saying minimize what's been circled. We're saying, but don't let the circles dominate your whole perspective when you start to look back on your life.  

Chris Grace: You know, it reminds me too, of there's so much wisdom to pull back or to go back and look upon, and that pulls aside all of the different things that can influence the way we see the world.  I think of the different Proverbs that have been out there.  Even in Proverbs 15:15 talks about all the days of the afflicted are bad, but a cheerful heart has a continual feast.  It's something to say, okay, there is something to look forward to, life hasn't been always perfect, but there is something there in the way I might view or interpret or see.  And Tim, we've talked in here about the SCAR study where someone has perceptions and filters that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.  Yeah.

Chris Grace: They see the world through, and they see it through hurt, and they see it through pain, and I guess what you're saying then is you circle that, you don't whitewash it, you don't ignore it, but what you do is you begin to see these blessings, these things that you do have in light of this.  There's a redeeming quality to some of this.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.  Yeah.

Chris Grace: That can come back and make us or help us see differently.  Not only maybe the world as we're currently living, but even that particular circumstances there can be something that comes out of it that could be a blessing.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.  I like that, Chris.  I read a book, fascinating book called "Suffering in the Search for Meaning" by Richard Rice.  He's talking about a theodicy. A theodicy is just a technical word we use to say how can I still believe God is good, and the evil that happens in the world. Like personal tragedy.  Things like the Las Vegas shooting or a hurricane hits Houston kinda stuff.  But how do you make sense of that?  We call that a theodicy.

This is what he writes about a theodicy.  A theodicy is less like emergency surgery than physical therapy.  It may belong in a first-aid kit for sufferers, but it does have a place in long-term care.  Over the long haul, however, believers often need something more; a sense of where they are, and a reason to keep going. I like that. A theodicy isn't this first-aid kit, but it's physical therapy that you keep revisiting over, and over, and over.

I think gratitude and contentment is even in the hard times, the suffering, is it possible to go back and say like Job, even though I lost everything, even though I lost my family, I lost my possessions, I lost all of this, God is still with me. That's what I think we need to do with ultimate gratitude is to say, you know what, Lord, this life has thrown me some curve balls, and it hurts that I lost my dream of playing basketball. It hurts that my parents' marriage dissolved. It hurts that I have a friend who has experienced life-altering tragedy. But even in the midst of it, what spiritual blessings do I have, and let me just offer one that the New Testament gives.

John says this in Revelation. "No matter how hard things are, I promise you there's gonna be a reunion in heaven where God is gonna wipe away the tears of each individual, and deaf, mourning, crying, pain, suffering, will be done with."

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Again, that's not a quick fix when you're in the pain, and maybe it's too soon to share something like that, but long term, I think we need to think even if everything goes south physically, materially, I still believe in the end I'm gonna be with God.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: And that kept the New Testament church going, Chris, when it seemed like they didn't have much to be thankful for there in the midst of persecution, but they still retained heaven and were grateful.  

Chris Grace: I like that. It's really good. We've had Joni Eareckson Tada here.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: She has written a couple of things. I remember this quote. She goes, "Many decades in a wheelchair have taught me to not segregate my Savior from the suffering he allows as though a broken neck or in this case, maybe a broken ankle or heart, or home, merely happens, and then God shows up after the fact to wrestle something good out of it. No, the God of the Bible is bigger than that. Much bigger."

So there's something to this idea of contentment and gratitude in the midst of suffering, Tim. I think this is what you were saying too, that we can see and feel and experience just like early Christians did, that even in the midst of these difficult and trying times, there is a bigger, deeper purpose.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: I will sometimes be blind to that, because of my circumstances, the pain the surrounds me, but resting in this deeper knowledge and understanding that there is something deeper going on. How do you do that well, and how do we suffer well?

You know, finding even a person in a relationship, one piece of advice you'd give them I've heard is find that person that suffers well, that person that can deal with this.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: Would deal with hardship and pain, because guess what, life is a series of difficult things that we face, and you want to know that the person that you're gonna spend a lot of time with in life can do this well. So what do you thing?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. A good friend of ours Tim Downs, his daughter, Erin, was diagnosed with Leukemia and went through five years of just these brutal treatments, and Tim said, to have a partner, a spouse, that they could do it together, and lean on each other. And Tim said, "Man, there were days I didn't have it. I didn't have it, and there were days she didn't have it, but we had each other, and we would lean on each other." So Chris, I think you're right. Find a person who has some shoe leather, that you know has gone through some hard times. And again, this is my personal philosophy. I think sometimes we marry too quickly, too early. I think you wanna see this person experience some hard times to know, hey, what are you like when the chips are down? Can I count on you? And I think we need to give people time to mature and experience life before you hitch your wagon to that person's wagon for the rest of your life.

Chris Grace: No, that's good. Tim, as we're thinking about this and talking about it, there are just some practical things that you've brought up as far as gratitude and things that we can do. We've talked about keeping a gratitude journal.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: And every day finding something that you could be thankful for.

Tim Muehlhoff: Sabbath rest.

Chris Grace: Sabbath rest.

Tim Muehlhoff: Each week.

Chris Grace: Each week, and keeping even just simply something as simply as saying thank you and smiling and acting in a grateful way can begin to lead a person to feel this way.

Tim Muehlhoff: So somebody told us to do this when we just got married. I'm so glad they said this, and I don't know if you guys do this, but they said when you go places, buy a Christmas ornament. So we just went to Yale. You and I just went to Yale, and I actually purchased something from this group called Rivendell that brought us in. So guess what's gonna happen? I'm gonna forget this pretty quickly, right? I mean, you and I are doing a million things. Well, guess what? When we do that tree, I'm gonna put up an ornament from Yale, and I'm gonna go, "Oh, my gosh. What a great experience."

Well, Chris, we've been doing this for 27 years, me and Noreen. There's things the kids have done, ornaments that they've made, and so when we're doing this, it gives me a big picture of all the cool things we've done that honestly I'd forgotten about, and now you just remember 'em like oh, yeah, Lithuania. We lived in Lithuania for a year, and met this person and that. So I love that. So keep the daily stuff, keep the weekly stuff, but keep the yearly stuff, I think is cool.

Chris Grace: And I think that, Tim, that's what it means to be more mindful.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.

Chris Grace: These are visual triggers for you. It's why we celebrate times like Thanksgiving and others that we need to do more of, and it's why in the Old Testament, people would simply have these visual reminders.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's right. That's right.

Chris Grace: Because they just told you this is something where God was faithful. This is something I could be grateful for, and what a great reminder of how to do that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Remember the Old Testament. Interesting passage where David, young, young, young David, who's gonna go on to become King of Israel with all the headaches and that's gonna entail. Do you know when he defeated Goliath, you know what he did? He took Goliath's sword and kept it. But you can imagine when hard times hit, him being King, and there's a lot of bickering and moaning and groaning about his leadership and all this kinda stuff, he looks at that sword, Goliath's sword, and says, "You know what, God? You showed up in the past."

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Boy, that's a good reminder I think.

Chris Grace: It is. One other one we can add there is you can make, even and own your vow, and make a vow. Find out where you're at in an area, and it could be as simple as this. I vow, or I pledge, or I commit to count this one blessing each day. You could make that commitment.

Tim Muehlhoff: Sure.

Chris Grace: And then write it down, and then maybe make it your screen background, right? I'm going to practice gratitude by writing this one thing, and making this vow that I'm gonna count my blessing or do this at least once a day. Then you just keep reminding yourself of it. That's a great little way to do it too.

Tim Muehlhoff: I think that's awesome.

Chris Grace: Well, Tim, it's been great to talk about this idea of gratitude, gratitude and contentment, and that notion of feeling surrounded by not only the sense of His presence, but a contentment and a peace that we have in what we've been given. It's been fun to talk about this. So even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of hard times, we begin to experience a new sense that he's there, and part of us and what we can do by simply giving thanks and gratefulness to Him, and any final words that you have on this?

Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, in all seriousness, this really is fun to be able to do the Center for Marriage and Relationships with you and do this Podcast, man. It is great.

Chris Grace: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's a blessing.

Chris Grace: And it is a blessing. I feel fortunate to be able to do this with you, Tim. So hey, we're grateful to have you guys join us and listen to us. Go to if you're interested in some other things that we have out there, conferences and events, and some great Blogs as well.

Tim Muehlhoff: I have a research paper on What is Reverse Scoring. Check that out. [crosstalk 00:23:18].

Chris Grace: Hopefully, they don't have any questions, but go back and relisten to that Podcast if you need help with reverse scoring. All right. Good to be with you all. Take care.

Tim Muehlhoff: All right. Take care.