by Abu Aaliyah
The research of Albert Meharbian is often misinterpreted. It is often believed that his work is the result of the following saying, “What you say is more important than how you say it”1. However, what you say is as important as how you say it since it is often the combination of the two that determines our attitude. And because our attitude in life correlates with our level of gratefulness, what we say and do ultimately determines how grateful we are.
But is it necessary to act upon the feeling? Perhaps, William Arthur Ward, the inspirational writer from the early part of the 20th century, said it best2,
“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a gift and not giving it.” (click to tweet)
There appear to be a few implications of this axiom, the first of which is that that gratitude is firstly felt. And that in its lowest and least desirable form it is a transient feeling of awe felt internally without any outward action. What he may have also been suggesting, however, is that at its peak, gratitude is a constant state of expression. It is having the recognition and awareness of one’s moment-to-moment blessings in the heart and mind, knowledge of where the blessings are coming from, and following through with action.
These assumptions seem to fit well with research that shows that gratitude can exist either as a state or trait in people. As a state, gratitude is the emotion a person experiences from another individual’s expression of gratitude26. But as a trait, gratitude is practiced as a daily part of life27 .
In his work, Patience and Gratitude, Ibn al Qayyim al Jawziyyah (May Allah be pleased with him) describes three dimensions of gratitude3:
- Knowing that the blessings are from Allah only (the foundation of gratefulness)
- Recognition and awareness of His blessings (in one’s heart and speech)
- Performing deeds to show gratefulness (obligatory and recommended)
Gratitude is when we appreciate that which is valuable and meaningful. Gratitude is also our default condition. Our Lord created us for gratitude 4. He also made us testify concerning ourselves to His existence 5. And our Prophet (Peace be upon him) reinforced this point, saying, “No one is born except upon natural instinct, then his parents turn him into a Jew or Christian or Magian”6. Thus, gratitude appears to be the natural position towards which our souls incline.
Yet despite this natural inclination, the nature of our existence in this world and the tests accompanying it make expressing gratitude challenging. Allah mentions this in the Qur’an when He states, “Indeed God is the possessor of all bounty for all people but most people do not give thanks.” 7 (click to tweet)
In a 2013 survey on gratitude by the University of Berkeley, most people reportedly felt that their own gratitude was increasing while everyone else’s was decreasing – an impossible result! One interpretation of the paradox was that although we feel grateful, we fail at expressing it8.
Reasons for this appear two-fold:
- The External Fight: Iblees has made it his mission to lead us astray from the straight path – “You will not find most of them as thankful ones (i.e. they will not be dutiful to You)’” 9. Additionally, an unproductive, negative, or traumatic environment or childhood circumstances can significantly distort our thinking, making the expression of gratitude challenging.
- The Internal Fight: We are all subject to a part of ourselves called the nafs which some refer to as the ego. The nafs has anger, passion, lust, desire – some might refer to as the carnal self or the carnal soul. Either we master it or it masters us and when the latter occurs, expression of gratitude becomes increasingly challenging. Furthermore, if we fail to address the distortions in our thinking due to our experiences, we may find gratitude much more difficult to express.
For these reasons, gratitude may appear not to come naturally to us due to the forces within ourselves as well as external to us that we are fighting against to return to our natural position.
It is for these reasons that Allah repeatedly reminds us to be grateful:
- Show gratitude 10
- Be grateful to Me 11
- that you may give thanks to Allah 12
- He showed his gratitude to Allah 13
- Be grateful to Allah 14
Our Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) also reminded us when he asked Mu’adh ibn Jabal (RA) to make the following du’a at the end of every prayer,
Allahumma inni ala Zikrika wa Shukrika wa husni ibadatika (O Allah, aid me in Your Remembrance, Your thanks, and in perfecting Your worship).” 15
Furthermore, actions alone do not satisfy conditions of gratitude. The action must be aligned with the correct understanding of Allah and His blessings upon us. Ibn al-Qayyim (Rahimahullah) narrates a story of a worshipper who worshipped Allah for fifty years. Afterwards, Allah told him that He had forgiven him. The man replied, “O Allah, what is there to forgive when I have not committed a wrong action?” As a result, Allah caused a nerve in his neck to give him pain, so he could not sleep or pray. When the pain eased and he was able to sleep, an angel came to him, so he complained to the angel of the pain he had suffered. The angel told him: “Your Lord says to you that your fifty years of worship is to pay for the soothing of your pain.” 3
Secular views on gratitude simulate the Islamic perspective. Dr. Robert Emmons, who has done much research on this subject, states that gratitude has two stages30:
- Acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life. That we are grateful for us. We are grateful for life and living with all its detail. We recognize that life has it’s ups and downs yet we embrace all of it. We are gratified by whatever comes our way.
- Recognition that the source of goodness is outside ourselves. That we are grateful to the creation and the Creator. At this stage, we are able to recognize not only the goodness in our lives but who receives credit for it.
As such, we see that gratitude is not just about embracing all of life the way it is but also thanking others for it.
Our Need for Gratitude
Since gratitude is intrinsically rewarding, a life without it would feel purposeless, dysphoric, and lacking any motivation for carpe diem.(click to tweet)
Frankly, all of gratitude’s bio-psycho-social-spiritual benefits are for the individual. In the Qur’an, Allah mentions that if we are grateful to him, he will increase us (in favour) 16. In fact, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) mentioned a grateful heart (that is thankful to Allah) as one of the four qualities that are equivalent to being given the best in this world and the next 3.
One may ask why we should thank Allah for giving us what he has given us? What good does our thanking Him do when He’s not in need of it?
Analogous questions were posed to Dr. Zakir Naik, founder and president of Islamic Research Foundation, at a conference19.
Questioner: If Bill Gates gave me a 100 dollars, should I praise Bill Gates?
Dr. Zakir Naik: Why should Bill Gates give you a 100 dollars? If a Tom, Dick, or Harry gave you 100 dollars, it is nothing to be amazed about. But Bill Gates gave you a 100 dollars!? Why should he give you a 100 dollars?
Questioner: I get it. So I should not be amazed by the money he’s given, rather that it’s him who has given me the money.
Although gratitude in general is rewarding, Islamic-based gratitude trumps secular-based gratitude. In one study, the level of happiness of Muslim student’s was examined as they practiced Islamic-based gratitude versus secular-based gratitude. The study found that Islamic-based gratitude strategies produced a significantly higher level of happiness in Muslim students versus secular-based gratitude. The study highlights the importance for Muslims to use faith-based gratitude strategies to improve their mental well-being18.
Gratitude, in general, has positive effects that extend beyond race, ethnicity, sex or geography. For instance, studies among Taiwanese high school athletes, found that gratitude positively predicted life satisfaction 33.
Gratitude also helps create social bonds or enhance current ones. An act of sincere gratitude not only makes the other person feel appreciated but also increases one’s own “social points”. Conversely, acts of gratitude can be used for apologies, making amends, and helping solve relationship problems (think about the last time you sincerely thanked your parents, spouses, or children!) Grateful people tend to be less narcissistic and more willing to forgive others. 36
Furthermore, research shows that practicing gratitude increases mental health, improves self-esteem, allows you to sleep better, improves relationships, and improves physical health17 . For instance, in a 2007 study, researchers found that higher levels of gratitude led to better subjective sleep quality and sleep duration. 34
Gratitude can also help reduce the negative effects of materialism.35 Materialism often breeds personality traits like envy, lack of generosity, and possessiveness due to the high value placed on possession of wealth and material goods. This occurs at the expense of meaningful relationships, community involvement, and spirituality. Research shows that such individuals tend to be unhappy people who experience high levels of negative emotion, low levels of positive emotion, dissatisfaction with their lives, and at risk of mental illnesses. However, practitioners of gratitude experience high levels of positive emotion and overall satisfaction with their lives.(click to tweet) They look at others’ good fortune and recognize that there were causes for their success. They also look at their own positive outcomes as the result of intentional, benevolent, and valuable behaviours of others. Thus, those who easily recognize the numerous ways that their lives are enriched by the benevolent actions of others tend to be extraordinarily happy.
Practitioners of gratitude also show greater self-control. 37 One of the authors of the study stated the following:
“Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercises opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.”
These numerous evidences point to the importance of adopting gratitude as our attitude.
The Use of Language in Gratitude
As stated in the beginning of this article, what we say significantly determines our gratitude. This, perhaps, is often a neglected aspect of gratitude. The language we use in our moment-to-moment interactions with ourselves and the world determines our attitude. For what we say and write in our daily lives, determines our physical, psychological, social, and spiritual location in this world as well as the hereafter.
Don’t believe in the “Sticks and Stones” saying. Because words can and do harm. What we say to ourselves, what we say to others, what others say to us, and what others say to themselves leaves a mark. It carries the potential to break hearts. And recovery from broken hearts can take longer than the healing of broken bones. (click to tweet)
Words also affect us on a physical, psychological, social, and spiritual level. In their book, “Words can Change Your Brain”, Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert, states that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”20 (click to tweet) Hence, the adage, if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all holds a lot of weight.
Using words, the world is quick to point out what’s wrong with us. However, gratitude and its practitioners choose to focus on what’s right. Gratitude must be mobilized through both hands-on action and speech. (click to tweet) And the power of language to shift attitudes cannot be underestimated. Grateful words uplift us. In Counselling and Psychology, positive self-talk is often used as an intervention to help people feel more confident and secure.21 When we speak disempowering words, we lose power and possibility. We are problem-focused, stuck in the negative and in loss. The use of gratitude-filled language creates an abundance mindset in those who practice and experience it.(click to tweet)
Perhaps, it is for this reason that we are to say Alhumdulillah (a phrase Praising Allah and showing gratitude towards Him) in both good and bad situations. When the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) saw something that he liked, he would say, ‘Al-hamdu Lillaah alladhi bi ni’matihi tatimm ul-saalihaat (Praise by to Allaah by Whose blessing good things happen).’ And if he saw something that he disliked he would say, ‘Al-hamdu Lillaahi ‘ala kulli haal (praise be to Allaah in all circumstances).’” 22
Ever heard of the self-fulfilling prophecy concept?23 What we say and how often we say can bring things into reality. For instance, the more we focus on our lack of money, our poor health, our troubled relationships, the more our words can become our reality. Remember that Henry Ford stated, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you are right.”24
If one were to query the part of speech to focus on in order to bring gratitude in our lives, then that appears to be the adjective. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an adjective describes an attribute of a noun.25 Think of what happens when I ask you to describe your life, job, relationships? What kind of adjectives come to mind? Adjectives are describing words. The adjective gives whatever it’s describing a quality. And this quality, in turn, allows the reader or listener to make an assessment or judgment about the noun. Each adjective carries an attitude, tone, and a feeling with it. For instance, a hardworking wife resonates differently, in both thought and feeling, with a reader than a lazy wife. A stingy husband portrays a different attitude versus a frugal husband. In these cases, the descriptor has power and speaks volumes about the mindset of the describer and the object being described.
How to Increase Gratitude
Below are some ways to bring gratitude into your life. Over time, practicing gratitude can help it shift from a state to your trait.
- Know Allah. It was Ibn Qudama al-Maqdisi (Rahimahullah) who said, “Know that a man floating on a piece of wood in the sea is not in more need of God and His mercy than a person in his home, sitting between his family and property. When this meaning becomes ingrained in your heart, then rely on God like a drowning man who knows not any other means to salvation but God.” Allah says in the Qur’an, “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding.”28 Once we take some time to consider these signs and our purpose in this world, we will realize that gratitude is our default condition. There’s no one to show ultimate appreciation to and give sincere thanks to than our Creator. And the way to show gratitude to Allah is by sincerely worshipping Him alone.
- Mindfulness. Human beings either ruminate about the past or lament about the future. In doing so we lose all perspective of the present moment. However, when we focus on the present moment with intention, you are not worrying about anything. You are just embracing now. There are many guided exercises that can help you become more mindful of the present moment.
- Live a balanced life. It’s not about avoiding life’s negatives. It’s about embracing and accepting that in the journey of life, we encounter both good and bad. (click to tweet)
- Spend time with people that matter to you most. As previously mentioned, spending time with loved ones and friends can help evoke feelings of gratitude in us for having such people in our lives. (click to tweet)
- Exercise. Research shows that 30-60 minutes of exercise 3-5 times a week and improve your mood and mental health. 31 Even fewer amounts have found to improve mental health well-being. Hence, since gratitude is a state of the mind, one way to increase this in your life is by being more physically active. Experiencing gratitude makes us feel positive. As a result, this increases our sense of well-being. to foster positive feelings, which in turn, contribute to one’s overall sense of well being. 32
- Journal. Journaling is more than recording personal thoughts and daily activities. In fact, some University programs like social work, there is a strong emphasis on journaling thoughts and feelings. Such reflection builds critical thinking, problem-solving skills, self-awareness and insight. It also allows for cognitive and emotional processing. After a stressful event or day the process of journaling can often be cathartic. Journals like The Journal for Muslims can help change negative thought patterns to more neutral or positive ones. For instance, writing about 3-5 things you were grateful for each day will condition your mind to think from a lens of gratitude. In a study by Emmons and McCullough, gratitude and well-being was examined in three experimental conditions30. Participants int he first condition was asked to journal about negative events or hassles. The second condition was asked about the things for which they were grateful for. The third was asked about neutral life events) and were required to journal either daily or weekly. Results showed that the gratitude sub-sample consistently had a higher level of well-being in comparison with the other groups.
- Volunteer. Give time to your community. Give time to those in need. Services to humanity gives us perspective. It’s also a two-way street. It’s human nature to see others with less resources and/or more needs and feel grateful about what we’ve been blessed with. It’s also within out nature to feel good about helping others. The receiver of help feels gratitude for being helped and the one giving the help feels gratitude for what he or she has or is able to do. The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, “Do not look to those above you, lest you view the favours of Allah as trivial.”29
We must recognize that somewhere along our life journey, we forgot to practice gratitude. Gratitude is our default condition; the one we must return to. It is what Allah wants and expects from us. He wants us to know that the blessings are from Him, for us to recognize and be aware of His blessings, and for us to perform good deeds to show gratitude. Apart from the religious benefits, gratitude also has a multitude of bio-psycho-social benefits. Grateful people feel and live happier and more satisfactory lives. Furthermore, the language of gratitude can make or break us and others. What we think and say to ourselves and to others and our descriptions of life portrays our attitude. Lastly, there are many ways to bring gratitude in our lives such as learning more about Allah, journaling, looking at those below you, and mindfulness. Practicing gratitude daily will cause it to become a trait within us, something we must all strive for.
1 Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co.
2 Ward, W. (1970). Fountains of faith. Anderson, S.C.: Droke House.
3 Ibn Al-Qayyim Al Jauziya, M. (2004). Patience and gratitude. New Delhi, India: Adam Publishers & Distributors.
4 Qur’an. Surah ad-Dhaariyah (51: 56)
5 Qur’an. Surah al-A’raaf (7:172)
6 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 1292, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2658 Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi (authenticity agreed upon) according to Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
7 Qur’an. Surah al-Baqarah (2:243)
8 How Grateful are Americans?. (2013). Greater Good. Retrieved 17 June 2017, from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_grateful_are_americans
9 Quran, Al-‘Aaraf (7:16-17)
10 Qur’an. Surah al-Imran (3:123)
11 Qur’an. Surah al-Baqarah (2:152)
12 Qur’an. Surah an-Nahl (16:78)
13 Qur’an. Surah an-Nahl (16:120-121)
14 Qur’an: Surah al-Baqarah (2:172)
15 Imam al-Nawawī, A. Riyad as-Salihin.
16 Qur’an. Surah Ibrahim (14:7)
17 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round. (2014). Forbes. Retrieved 17 June 2017, from (https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/#75b19a86183c)
18 Al-Seheel, A., & Noor, N. (2016). Effects of an Islamic-based gratitude strategy on Muslim students’ level of happiness. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 19(7), 686-703. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2016.1229287
19 Islamic Research Foundation. (2013). Is God sadistic? Why has he given us a free will?. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3KZWA6aXVs
20 Newberg, A., & Waldman, M. (2013). Words can change your brain. New York: Plume.
21 Bloch, D. (2013). The Power of Positive Talk. Cork: BookBaby.
22 Sunan Ibn Majah. Etiquette. The virtue of those who praise Allah. Vol 5. Book 33. Hadith 3083. (Classed as hasan by al-Albaani)
24 A quote by Henry Ford. (2017). Goodreads. Retrieved 20 June 2017, from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/978-whether-you-think-you-can-or-you-think-you-can-t–you-re
25 Murray, J., Bradley, H., Craigie, W., & Onions, C. (1961). The Oxford English dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
26 Lopez, S., & Snyder, C. (2011). Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
27 McCullough, M., Emmons, R., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 82(1), 112-127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124
28 Qur’an. Surah al-e-Imran. (3:190)
29 Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6125, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2963
30 Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counted blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003;84:377–389. [PubMed]
31 Cdc.gov. (2017). Physical Activity and Health | Physical Activity | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm [Accessed 22 Jun. 2017].
32 Fredrickson BL. Gratitude, like other positive emotions, broadens and builds. In: Emmons RA, McCullough ME, editors. The Psychology of Gratitude. New York: Oxford University Press; 2004. pp. 145–166.
33 Chen LH, Kee YH. Gratitude and adolescent athletes’ well-being. Soc Indic Res. 2008;89:361–373.
34 Wood AM, Joseph S, Linley PA. Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2007;26:1076–1093.
35 Polak EL, McCullough ME. Is gratitude an alternative to materialism? J Happiness Stud. 2006;7:343–360.
36 DeShea, L. (2003). A scenario-based scale of willingness to forgive. Individual Differences Research, 1, 201–217.
37 Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior helping when it costs you. Psychological science, 17(4), 319-325.