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Author Diana Butler Bass unpacks gratitude at Stewardship Kaleidoscope

ST. LOUIS (PNS) – Gratitude is a deep and profound part of the story of Jesus. It is complex and beautiful — and also the subject of author Diana Butler Bass’ recent book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.

Bass is an author, researcher, speaker and consultant who decided to turn her attention to gratitude in November 2015 when she spotted a survey that indicated that 78 percent of Americans said they had experienced gratitude within the past week. The study was conducted by the Pew Forum and released just in time for Thanksgiving. “Seventy-eight percent is an extraordinarily high number,” Bass said. “I sat for a moment with that and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really wonderful that eight out of 10 Americans say they’ve felt strongly grateful in the last seven days.” Not only did I say ‘Wow,’ but then I said, ‘Am I one of the 78 or one of the 22?’ ”

She unpacked the subject during a plenary at Stewardship Kaleidoscope in St. Louis on Monday, Sept. 24. Stewardship Kaleidoscope is an annual stewardship conference sponsored by Presbyterian and Lutheran organizations. Workshops and plenaries cover the practicalities of how entities can work with churches, endowments, donor-advised funds and the impact that stewardship makes on the spiritual lives of church members. The Presbyterian Foundation is premier ambassador sponsor.

Diana Butler Bass spoke at the Stewardship Kaleidoscope in St. Louis on Sept. 24. Gregg Brekke

Bass is giving two of the plenary presentations. Monday’s presentation focused on science, social sciences and culture. Tuesday’s presentation is set to highlight history, theology and the Bible. “Those are the lenses I apply to the work that I’m doing and the things I’m writing about,” Bass said. “Gratitude is the subject of my latest book, and I wrote it not because I was an expert in it, but because I wanted to explore it more deeply.”

The physical experience

The science of gratitude fascinated her, and she sought to study what we feel and experience when we are grateful. She found the work of Dr. Dan Baker to be instructive, and used this quote from his 2003 book, What Happy People Know, to explain what happens to us physically. “During active appreciation the threatening messages from your amygdala and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves and turn your stream and thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate but are mutually exclusive.”

In other words, gratitude is good for our physical health, including our heart, battling illness and good for your brain. Psychologically, gratitude helps us be happier. “It helps us be able to organize the world in more loving, more compassionate and more generous ways,” Bass said.

She also quoted Dr. Robert Emmons, University of California at Davis, a professor of positive psychology. Emmons says:

  • Gratitude allows celebration of the present. We don’t get caught up in nostalgia of the past, and don’t worry about the future.
  • Gratitude blocks toxic emotions, including envy, resentment, regret and depression
  • Grateful people are more stress resilient
  • Gratitude strengthens social ties and self-worth.

Gratitude in modern American society

Other research she unearthed indicated American men are uncomfortable with the concept of gratitude. Being strongly indoctrinated in the importance of being “self-made,” they find it an insult to be told they didn’t accomplish their feats alone. “No one gives me anything,” Bass said, illustrating the sentiment. “I do it myself. That’s what is a prize narrative in our culture and has an effect on American men. It’s a cultural narrative and it has an impact here on understanding what gratitude is.”

Relevant to the primary topic at Stewardship Kaleidoscope, Bass cautioned her audience to ensure that stewardship efforts are not born of guilt. Gifts should be given freely as is God’s love for us. And we should develop a regular habit of noticing these gifts and expressing appreciation. “That’s what the ethic of gratitude is,” Bass says. “When you get a gift, do you notice it? Does the habit exist in your life that allows gratitude to become manifest in your world?”

by Robyn Davis Sekula, Presbyterian Foundation communications