October 26, 2021 • De Pree Journal, Third Third Journal
In March 2020 I wrote an article called “Gratitude and Lifelong Flourishing.” You can find it in the Third Third Journal of the De Pree Center website. (Or just click on the article name above.) In that article, I surveyed general research on the connection between gratitude and flourishing, but then focused on several studies that demonstrate the benefits of gratitude for older adults. Very briefly, these research studies found that grateful older adults in the Netherlands experienced less loneliness; in Sweden, less fear of frailty; in China, less fear of death; in England, enhanced well-being and reduced stress; in Spain, less anxiety and depression.
Today, I want to update my collection of studies showing that gratitude helps folk flourish in the third third of life. One article is from 2006, though I missed it the first time around. The other three are more recent, all published since March 2020. All four of the studies not only show the benefits of gratitude but also provide distinctive insight into the relationship between thankfulness and third third flourishing.
Gratitude Toward God, Stress, and Health in Late Life
The first article appeared in Research on Aging in March 2006. “Gratitude Toward God, Stress, and Health in Late Life” was written by Neal Krause, a professor (now emeritus) at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Krause is a widely recognized expert on stress as well as religion and health in later life. As the title of the article shows, Krause is interested not just in gratitude in general, but in gratitude toward God, in particular, the sort of gratitude that Christians feel and express.
Krause’s research study used interviews of more than 1,000 older adults, seeking to understand how their gratitude toward God affected their stress and overall health. He came up with three major findings:
First, the data suggest that older women are more likely to feel grateful to God than older men. Second, the results revealed that the effects of stress (e.g., living in a deteriorated neighborhood) on health are reduced for older people who feel more grateful to God. Finally, the analyses indicated that the potentially important stress-buffering properties of gratitude toward God emerge primarily among older women but not older men.
This is certainly good news for older women. Not so much for older men, at least initially. Notice that Krause did not find that gratitude wasn’t helpful to older men, only that they tended to be less grateful than women. In his research report, Krause speculated on why there is such a difference between women and men concerning gratitude:
Research indicates that older women have more well-developed social networks than older men (Antonucci 2001). In addition, the literature reveals that social support networks tend to thrive in religious settings and that church-based significant others play an important part in shaping religious practices and beliefs (Krause 2002). Taken together, these findings suggest that social support networks in the church may help older women bolster and maintain feelings of gratitude toward God.
Women are generally more connected to their churches, which may help to explain Krause’s findings. Once again we find the foundational significance of relationships for third third flourishing.
Practical Implications: Whether you are a woman or a man, grow in your feelings and expressions of gratitude to God. God deserves it and you will benefit from it.
Gratitude as a Mediator of the Effects of Savoring on Positive Adjustments to Aging
Admittedly, the title of this article is a mouthful: “Gratitude as a Mediator of the Effects of Savoring on Positive Adjustments to Aging.” Published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development (92:3, May 2020), this article by three psychology professors, two of whom work for Loyola University Chicago, builds on research that shows that savoring valuable life lessons helps older adults flourish.
The new angle of this particular study focused on a middle variable: gratitude. Those who contemplated their life lessons felt grateful, and their gratitude boosted their attitudes towards “aging, life-satisfaction, and hope.” (Other research shows that positive attitudes like these bring a plethora of physical and psychological benefits for older adults).
Practical Implications: Take time to reflect on your life, especially on valuable things you have learned through experience. Let these reflections lead you to gratitude.
An Attitude of Gratitude: Older Japanese in the Hopeful Present
This article by Professor Iza Kavedžija appeared in Anthropology and Aging (41:2, 2020). It was based on her ethnographic research with older adults in Osaka, Japan. Her research led her to conclude that older adults benefit from cultivating an “attitude of gratitude.” This attitude not only gives meaning to life, but also it “binds together both reflections on the past and attention to the present moment in its fullness.”
Professor Kavedžija summarizes her main point this way:
My argument is that gratitude as a mode of attunement offers the basis for what I have described as quiet hope, whereby dependence on others is recognized not simply as a burden or potential source of embarrassment, but also as moving and deeply meaningful.
Notice how gratitude helps older adults accept the dependence they may experience, which in turn allows them to benefit from key third third relationships.
Practical Implications: Don’t just be grateful once in a while. Develop an attitude of gratitude, learning to be thankful for many gifts even in the face of the losses and dependencies of old age.
Give Thanks in All Circumstances? Gratitude Toward God and Health in Later Life after Major Life Stressors
This title certainly caught my eye, since “Give thanks in all circumstances” is a quotation from 1 Thessalonians 5:18, a marvelous and often overlooked letter of the Apostle Paul that was, among other things, the focus of my doctoral dissertation. Also, “Give Thanks in All Circumstances? Gratitude Toward God and Health in Later Life after Major Life Stressors” is another academic article (like that of Neal Krause, above, who is quoted often in this current article) that focuses, not just on gratitude in general, but specifically on gratitude toward God. The authors, Laura Upenieks and Joanne Ford-Robertson are both sociologists, one at Baylor University and one at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Their article appeared in August 2021 in the peer-reviewed journal, Research on Aging.
What Upenieks and Ford-Robertson found, based on interviews of over 1,000 older adults, was that “gratitude toward God tends to predict better age-comparative and global self-rated physical health in the aftermath of stress.” In particular, “gratitude toward God buffered the negative global and age-comparative health consequences of experiencing a personal illness, and likewise mitigated the effect of the death of a loved one on age-comparative self-rated health only.” Moreover, the researchers found that “In the aftermath of stress exposure, . . . feeling grateful to God makes one see themselves as a more fervent collaborator with God to solve the problem and move forward by acknowledging God as a causal force in their lives.”
Practical Implications: Gratitude is essential for third third flourishing, especially when you go through challenging and stressful experiences, such as serious illness or the loss of a loved one. Thus, the advice of Paul, “Be thankful in all circumstances” which was meant for all Christians is especially relevant to those of us in the third third of life.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.