Essay / Education

Thank God for Dopamine

As adults we realize that it is not socially acceptable to loudly complain. Parents realize that if they have a child who is constantly complaining their parental fitness will be called into question. Of course, parents want to look like they have their own house under control (yeah right) so they teach their children the pragmatic truth that complaining never accomplishes much.

As adults we rationally understand that complaining is mostly ineffective, and, yet, we still complain constantly. We have learned to limit our overt complaining, but we have become highly skilled at the craft of sarcasm, rhetoric, and other witty ways in which we can correctly display our personal displeasure. © Sandstein / Wikimedia CommonsWe complain about the traffic, our boss, the food at the restaurant, and the speed of the checker at the grocery store. Have you ever been frustrated at the rate of speed in your grocery line and looked for someone in your line to commiserate with? Nothing feels better than complaining with someone in the same predicament that you are in. We grumble and whine as if it is a constitutionally guaranteed right, but is it good for us?

As Christians we are encouraged to live a life of thankfulness and not to grumble. Now science is agreeing with this important part of traditional Christianity. Recently, Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC Davis published a book entitled, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. This book states that we need to abandon a culture of complaining, and adopt a life of thankfulness. Emmons states that rather than focusing on the things that irritate you on a daily basis you should take time to appreciate the things you have to be thankful for.

Emmons writes, “Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits.” Emmons’ research revealed that people who practice gratitude are less likely to be stressed or depressed. If one learns to focus on the good in their life it actually can have a positive impact holistically.

Debra Norville recently wrote a book for Thomas Nelson press entitled, Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work For You. She writes about the book in the October 2007 Readers Digest. She grounds some of what she writes on the research of Robert Emmons. Reporting on the results of Emmons’ study she states, “The people who focused on gratitude were just flat-out happier.”

She also reports on the research of Cornell University psychologist Alice Isen who states that when we practice appreciation we release dopamine into our system. When released into our brain dopamine is believed to stimulate higher complex thinking and conflict resolution. Norville describes it as the chemical associated with happiness.

Science has finally come along and “proven” what Christians have known for thousands of years—being thankful is a necessary condition for our human flourishing. The thankfulness encouraged by Norville focuses on our external experiences rather than focusing on the transcendent love of God.

A simple search of the Bible for the word “thanks” will reveal many verses like this one from Psalms 106:1 “Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Or this verse in I Corinthians 15:57 “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here we see the object of our thankfulness is not our possessions, situations or even the people around us, but the unchanging transcendent holy God. Yet, today the reason we should be thankful is not because it is commanded to us by the scriptures, but because science has proven it to be so.

Debra Norville’s publisher has this to say about her book on Thank You Power:

Deborah Norville’s groundbreaking and persuasive book argues that gratitude is the secret key to unlocking your full life potential. Rooted in science, presented from a spiritual perspective, Thank You Power details the surprising life improvements that can stem from the practice of gratitude.

It is interesting how her publisher points out the book is “rooted in science.” Our culture has been trained to trust the work of science as truth bearing. In another blurb from her publisher states that Norville uses scientific research to prove “what people of faith have long known.” This implies that God’s command to his people is good, but now science has enabled us to have proof.

Theological truths cannot be arbitrated by the methodology of modern science. Science is an amazing tool by which we come to understand the empirical world, but it is ineffective at explaining Biblical concepts like thankfulness. As G.K. Chesterton points out, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” The object of that wonder and happiness is not dopamine, but a holy and loving God. It is there our thankfulness rests, and it is through the work of his Spirit that we have access to that reality.

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