The Rev. Rosanna Anderson, associate director of stewardship ministries for Discipleship Ministries, said cultivating gratitude comes from noticing where God is at work in daily activities.
The Rev. Joy Price, pastor of United Methodist Christ Church by the Sea in Newport Beach, California, thinks people create a more grateful spirit by appreciating what others have to offer.
"The attitude we approach the world with that fosters gratitude is the attitude that what other people have to give – no matter what it is – is valuable," she said. "We should be thankful for it because they're utilizing the gifts God has given them. I think it's really easy for us to get so narrow in our belief of what's important, especially because of the materialism in our world."
Teach gratitude by modeling
Giacomo Bono is a psychology professor at California State University and director of the Youth Gratitude Project.
"Our non-verbal behavior is usually more important than what we say," he said. "Modeling is definitely important because it shows what you value. If you're not practicing (gratitude) yourself, there's no point in trying to encourage it in kids."
The Rev. Ken Sloane, director of stewardship and connectional ministries at Discipleship Ministries, agreed, saying he thinks instilling gratefulness should start at an early age.
"Our kids are going to pick up how we look at the world," he explained. "If we look at the world as ‘everybody is out for themselves, so take care of number one,' that's what our kids are going to learn. That's the people they're going to be."
Bono, who co-authored the book Making Grateful Kids, said he thinks modeling gratitude applies beyond the family setting. He encourages church leaders to be specific in saying thank you and demonstrating grateful thinking by sharing about the blessings they appreciate.
"Making your gratitude visible to the whole community is important, whether you do that at home or at church," Bono said.
Price said she tries to lead her congregation in this way during church services.
"The purpose of worship is to thank the God who provides all things for us," she said. "So from that perspective, I like to make certain that our worship has an element of gratitude in it. Whether it be the broader gratitudes for our relationship with Jesus Christ or the thank you for the UMW for putting on a fantastic retreat this weekend, it is so critical that, as leaders in particular, we reflect and role model the importance of gratitude for our congregation."
To demonstrate gratitude for the larger community, Price's congregation that averages 65 people in worship began writing personal thank you notes and delivering them to staff at schools, police stations, social service agencies and other organizations. Over the summer, the congregation wrote 230 thank you notes to local lifeguards.
"The concept behind this is that no one can fully serve a community by themselves," Price explained. "We really need to give ‘atta boys' to all the people who do that. As partners in this community, we appreciate what you do for us."
Cultivate through service, generosity
Bono encouraged churches to combine gratitude practices with service opportunities to make the activities "truly transformative."
"It's possible that one way to have lasting effects with service opportunities is to process it a little bit more after you've done it," he said. "You just helped someone. How do you think they appreciate what you've done?"
For teens especially, this conversation regarding service and gratitude helps them "see the meaning in the behavior and hopefully find more joy in doing it," Bono said.
Generosity is another way to cultivate joy and gratitude, Anderson said, noting the holiday season is a great time to develop these practices.
"We're going to feel the joy of the season and the gratefulness when we do something that brings other people closer into the kingdom of God," she said. "When we get focused on the presents, it reduces the joy and the season of giving. What we really are seeking is these intangible moments and experiences and relationship interactions."
Bono's research shows that "practicing gratitude helps children become more purposeful." He views gratitude as "an intentional skill" we can develop to improve the quality of our lives.
"[Gratitude] is strongly related with self-discipline and personal responsibility," he said, noting the importance of awareness in both hard and good times.
"A lot of times when we're happy, we're sort of mindless," he explained. "It's worth practicing gratitude to notice what makes you happy and try to plan more of that in your life. It's about becoming a more intentional person in the world."
Price agreed, adding that regardless of circumstances, God's love can be a reason to give thanks.
"How can we not give every ounce of gratitude that our physical being and our emotional being can develop to a God who gives us eternal life?" she said. "Life is hard, but I think when you approach life having this attitude of gratitude, it enriches your spiritual relationship with God and with neighbor."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is also on staff at The Upper Room. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other publications.