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Does religion help in maintaining a healthy mental state?  According to this piece, gratitude to G-d provides for support for a healthy mental state.  I want to point out that this study is a good reinforcement for the Jewish practice of beginning one’s morning with a short prayer of thanks,  expressing gratitude to G-d.  “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”   We are alive to fulfill another day because G-d allows it.

Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man… living in the sky… Who watches every thing you do, and he has a list of ten special things that he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry for ever and ever ’til the end of time.

But he loves you. And he needs money!
~ George Carlin, from “You Are All Diseased”

Every morning I wake up and push back the anxieties and frustrations and the never-ending things-to-do list.  I awakened to the struggle of coping with these pressures for years until I found a positive psychology intervention that was, beyond a shadow of doubt, the most powerful tool in changing my thought process:  Gratitude.

I began the day with flooding my mind with the gratitude I had for events, people, experiences and conditions in my life.  I’ve written elsewhere about how this struggle evolved.  But I never gave where I was sending my gratitude toward any thought.  I just sent it out into the ether.  Just doing this every morning changed my attitude about life and allowed me to look forward to the day (for the most part) with less angst and more hope.  Not a bad deal.  Two minutes in the morning and the day brightened up.

There was good reason for me to begin doing my morning gratitude list.

The research has been stellar with regard to gratitude’s influence on things such as happiness, vitality, positive feelings, self-esteem, better interpersonal relationships, promoting generosity, less stress, greater life satisfaction and higher reports of general well-being. It also appears to help guard against PTSD, depression and sleep dysfunction.

So along the way I have recommended this to my clients, students, friends and colleagues.  This seemed like the easiest thing in the world and it was free.  Gratitude for what has happened in my life over the past 24 hours, as well as more global gratitude, had very strong, positive, sustainable effects.

But in spite of all that research, and the obvious benefit it has had for others as well as myself, I have changed my morning mental hygiene ritual.  Why?  Because (with apologies to George Carlin) the research is pointing toward the invisible man.

I now think it makes a difference if you send your gratitude toward God, or if you simply send it out to the universe hoping it doesn’t get hijacked by a sunspot or asteroid.

In a fascinating new study in the Journal of Positive Psychology (Rosmarin, Purutinsky, Cohen, Galler, and Krumrei, 2011) researchers from Harvard, Columbia, Arizona State, Rutgers and Pepperdine have collaborated to apply an evidence-based approach to religious vs. non-religious gratitude.   They asked whether gratitude to God is better for well-being than generalized gratitude.  The study looked at the relationship between dimensions of gratitude and measures of religious commitment and mental and physical well-being.

The authors, like other researchers, found that gratitude was significantly correlated  with religious commitment.  No surprise here.  But these researchers found that the relationship between these two variables was fully mediated specifically by having gratitude directed toward God.  In other words, gratitude is more potent when you have both religious commitment and gratitude is directed specifically toward God.

Through an online survey, the researchers looked at 405 adults of varying religious backgrounds and used gratitude questionnaires that measured both religious and non-religious expressions of gratitude.  These results were then compared to measures of religious commitment.  (Religious commitment was determined by a person’s degree of belief in god, importance of religion, and religious identity.)  Happiness, satisfaction with life, positive and negative affect and physical and mental health were measured using well-known scales or adaptations of them.

What the research found was that general gratitude was predicted for all the outcome variables.  This means that gratitude in general, as other studies have shown, works very well.

What was most interesting to me, however, is the degree to which a person is religiously committed was found to actually enhance gratitude’s effect.  As the authors put it, “we propose that religion facilitates gratitude through a religious lens” (p. 393).

The research is provocative and brings forth some new questions.  Does a strong belief in God alone and having gratitude to him affect our happiness, satisfaction with life, positive and negative affect and physical and mental health? I wonder because I would score very high on the strong belief dimension and lower on the other two.  Future research will have to figure this one out.

But until then I have a new morning plan.  I get up with the Boogiemen in my head, take my strong belief, and address my morning gratitude directly to the invisible guy in the sky.

Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA currently is a degree candidate in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania. He also is a licensed psychologist specializing in group psychotherapy and psychodrama, and author of Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir. Visit www.formerchild.com for more information.