I was watching an interesting video the other day by famed University of Toronto psychologist, Jordan Peterson, and he was talking about the mental health struggles that people go through.
He compared this problem to a balloon that if you keep pumping air into it will eventually blow up. But, he noted, that this break will take place at the balloon’s weakest point.
He says that the same thing happens to people.
When life starts getting complicated, and things start piling up, and we are hit with multiple issues at the same time, job loss, health issues, marital problems, the death of family or friends, the pressure builds until sometimes we break at our weakest psychological point.
And we are living in very complicated times, with all those issues compounded by a virus, lockdowns and growing societal unrest.
So, how to we deal with stress during these anxiety-filled days?
Several years back, two researchers, Joshua Brown and Joel Wong, decided to study the impact that thankfulness has on a person’s mental well-being.
In their article, How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain, they wrote that there have been several studies on the positive impact being thankful has on people that included being “happier and less depressed,” but there have been few studies looking at the impact this has on individuals who are struggling enough both mentally and emotionally to require counselling.
Their study involved nearly 300 people (mostly university students), who were seeking professional counselling. Most of them were struggling with either depression or worry.
While all 300 continued with their counselling, they divided them into three groups.
One group did nothing other than receive counselling.
The second group was asked to write a weekly letter for three weeks to one person expressing their gratitude for the individual.
The third group was also asked to write a weekly letter, but were told instead to write about their depression, anxiety and their struggles.
They found that the group that wrote the letters of gratitude reported better mental health, four weeks and then three months, after the counselling sessions had ended, compared to the other two groups.
Since only 23% of the people in the gratitude letter writing group actually posted their letter, it revealed that just having an attitude of thankfulness was the key to improved mental well-being.
The study also revealed that they needed to persist in being thankful, as there was not any marked improvement, compared to the other two groups, after the first letter.
But equally important, the study revealed that thankfulness was also a choice, as the second group chose to look for things to be thankful for after someone simply asked them to do it.
As we look at the letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to several churches, one of the major themes that repeatedly shows up was the need for believers to be thankful.
But it is important to understand that four of Paul’s letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) are referred to as the “prison epistles” because they were written as the Apostle sat under house arrest in Rome waiting his eventual execution.
He had every reason to be depressed, anxious and scared.
And perhaps it was his letter to the Philippians where Paul demonstrated the principle uncovered by the two researchers, as he poured out his gratitude to the Philippian church for everything they had done for him as they provided financial help to his ministry.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:3-6 NIV)
And later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges these believers not to be anxious about anything. But he also provided the antidote for this anxiety. The Apostle urged them to make known their concerns to God through prayer, but then adds this key element, they were to pray with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6).
Two thousand years ago, Paul was already prescribing thanksgiving as an antidote to stress.