Have you ever seen the movie Pollyanna? Child actress Hayley Mills starred as the orphaned daughter of missionaries who becomes the ward of her rich, embittered aunt. Pollyanna's infectious habit of being thankful transforms the crabby aunt, the crochety household staff, and the whole town!
These days, people use the label "Pollyanna" to suggest someone childishly naive in her ability to look on the bright side. But being happy doesn't require us to turn a blind eye to troubles such as gangs and crime and Columbine. Neither does it mean we chant shallow platitudes such as "Don't worry, be happy."
Like most attributes we long for (peace, patience, goodness), a happy heart takes root in the discipline of giving thanks. It's the secret weapon of the joyous Christian! But what is it about gratitude that creates a happy heart?
Happy in the Lord
Of course I was madly in love with my husband, David, when we got engaged. But that's nothing compared to the love I have for him now, after nearly 11 years of marriage. The difference? Gratitude! I'm thankful for the hundreds of times David's scrubbed the pots after dinner, for the times he's instantly forgiven my crabbiness, for the willing spirit he shows about helping my single-parent friend, for the amazing enthusiasm he brings to parenting our kids. As I think about the multitude of actions that prove David's love for me over the years, I'm filled with joy.
That's the way I feel in my relationship with God, too—and the reason I believe the Old Testament is loaded with verses that instruct God's people to "remember" his goodness, such as 1 Samuel 12:24: "Be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you."
Whenever I struggle to feel joyful, I choose to reflect on how God always meets my needs. Time after time, I've seen God put forgiving love in me right where angry resentment had been half an hour before, simply because I asked him to.
As my relationship with God grows, my love for him becomes more deeply entwined with my gratitude to him. The more I remember his goodness, the closer I feel to his comfort, peace, and presence.
Happy with Others
It's easy to recognize how integral gratitude is to experiencing joy in God. It's less obvious to see how it affects my other relationships—but it does!
When I'm tempted to keep score with others, or resent a friend who talks more about herself than listens to me, gratitude helps me remember how "full" my cup is—how well God's caring for me. Then I'm better able to reach out to my friend without becoming bitter.
I once had a coworker—a woman I considered a friend—who unintentionally dragged me into her troubles with management. The result was a difficult annual review for me, and the postponement of a promotion I'd expected. Preoccupied with her own misery, she didn't realize what she'd done, so I couldn't expect her to apologize. I had to forgive her, of course—as a believer, I don't have a choice! But it helped me to look around at my other positive work relationships, at my marriage and beautiful kids, and realize God had given me so much. I was able to consider that whole episode a bump on the road and let go of my resentment against her.
If developing an "attitude of gratitude" is difficult for you, take heart! You'll be surprised how a little bit of discipline goes a long way toward giving you a joyful spirit. Try these action steps:
1. Start a joy journal. Keep a small notebook by your bed, just for jotting down a few good things God's done for you that day. This doesn't take long—especially if you use one or two key reminder words. At the beginning, or on a day when your heart's heavy, this may take some work. But even on those days, try to come up with three items, minimum. It may help to look back over the other days' entries to spark "happy thoughts" of God's faithfulness to you. As your thankfulness "skill" develops, this exercise becomes a pleasure.
2. Play Pollyanna's "Glad Game." In the movie, Pollyanna plays a game her father taught her. He told her that in every situation, there is something to be thankful for, if only you look for it (1 Thessalonians 5:18). One time, when the little girl had been hoping for a doll to come in a supply shipment, she received a pair of crutches instead. Pollyanna chose to be thankful she didn't need them!
A few months ago, my father was diagnosed with the worst kind of leukemia a person can get. It's been rough sailing—with aggressive chemotherapy and infection setbacks—ever since. Of course I'm pounding the gates of heaven with my requests for his healing, but at the same time I've found some things for which to be thankful. I'm glad my father's a passionate Christian. I'm grateful we've had a good relationship, and that my husband and kids love him and know him well. He's good at Pollyanna's game himself. He may be suffering, but his attitude of gratitude comes through loud and clear during these tough times.
3. Look for the silver lining. My former coworker really seemed to loathe working in our office. Day after day, her list of verbal gripes grew longer, which didn't do much for my morale. Finally, I suggested she list what she did like about her job. The next day she surprised me by showing me her list. She admitted she'd been so busy focusing on her grievances, she'd forgotten to notice the good things in the office.
All-or-nothing thinking is common when you feel discouraged, but don't fall into that trap. There usually are a few times, at least, when things go right. So look for the silver lining!
4. Say "thank you" before "please." When it comes to prayer, don't jump directly into your list of wants and needs, no matter how pressing those may seem. God loves to hear us appreciate him! Start by praying the way Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 6:9-13, by honoring God ("Hallowed be your name"). Your praise will naturally include thankfulness for his faithful love, the daily help of his Holy Spirit, and his provision for you.
5. Remember the "Thanksgiving Special." For years I assigned myself the annual Thanksgiving task of making a list of "100 things to be thankful for." Why not compose a year 2000 list? I typically find the first 20-30 easy to come up with, then get bogged down in the middle. But all of a sudden I find myself remembering little things that have built my trust and confidence in God. I always manage to come up with 100. Give it a try.
6. Try a Scripture search. Remind yourself of the importance of "rejoicing" by searching the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—for God's instructions in this area. (Pollyanna says there are at least 800 "happy texts" in the Bible. I'll have to take her word for it.) It will spur you on to "consider what great things [God] has done for you."
I love 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 be-cause it reminds me it's God's will that I be "joyful always" and "give thanks in all circumstances." God wants me to have a happy heart as much as I long to be joyful. It's not all up to me; God's there, waiting to give me joy.
7. Just ask. When you struggle to obey God in the area of giving thanks, don't hesitate to ask him to show you how. He's longing to draw you close, to give you strength for the challenges of every day. So ask for his help.
What begins as an awkward discipline of thankfulness can end as a habit of happiness. Gratitude's been my secret weapon for finding contentment and joy; put it to work in your life!
Annette LaPlaca, a TCW regular contributor and freelance contributor to several magazines, lives with her family in the Chicago area.
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