Is Gratitude Good for Body and Soul?

As recent events prove yet again, the modern world is chaotic and harsh. It's a place where depressed young adults live-tweet their own suicides, and gainful employment seems even harder to come by than civil public discourse. Though we may attempt to escape -- perhaps into the arms of Honey Boo Boo or NeNe Leakes -- we still cannot avoid being touched by the Hurricane Sandys and Newtown shootings of the world.

Living in such a time and place makes it easy to become like the grumpy grandpa who is too busy chasing kids off his lawn to enjoy the beauty of life. Ingratitude is a disease from which no one is immune, especially wealthy and self-sufficient Americans and the often-entitled Millennial generation from which I hail. But could a failure to offer a simple thanks actually rob us of the fullness of life?

According to a slate of recent scientific research, gratitude has many surprising physical benefits. One study, for example, found that those who practice gratitude feel better about their lives, have fewer health problems, and are 25 percent happier.

"A growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychological benefits," report Drs. Rita and Blaire Justice of the University of Texas Health Science Center. But religious Americans are now being urged to practice gratitude for another reason: it's not just beneficial for the body, but also good for the soul.

Heralding this call for thanksgiving is Christian author Margaret Feinberg. In her new book, "Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God," she devotes an entire chapter to the spiritual practice of gratitude. With her trademark mix of captivating storytelling and surprising spiritual insights, Feinberg invites the reader into a journey of offering thanks at all times and in every circumstance. This spiritual practice, she says, marks one "who strives for a vibrant relationship with God."

Feinberg is not alone; she joins the ranks of other emerging voices such as Ann Voskamp. A former Hallmark greeting card writer, Voskamp recently released "One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are" to the praise of many critics. In the book, she calls readers to offer thanks for life's often overlooked gifts.

"When I give thanks for the seemingly microscopic," Voskamp writes, "I make a place for God to grow within me."

Their messages seem to be resonating. Voskamp's book became a surprise New York Times bestseller. Feinberg's "Wonderstruck" released on Christmas day as the No. 1 ranked Christian Living title on and continues to garner critics' acclaim. Maybe we should heed their calls.

How often do we miss opportunities to offer thanks to those who have loved us, supported us, sacrificed for us and stood by us even when it didn't make sense? And, more importantly, how often have we forgotten to turn our gaze heavenward and to give gratitude to the One who showers us so liberally with gifts of grace?

"This thankful disposition plays an essential role because it invites us to reorient our lives toward God. Through praise and thanksgiving, we reflect on the transcendent nature of God -- the reality that he is above all," Feinberg writes. "As we look up toward God, we also can't help but be reminded of our smallness. This shift in perspective softens our hearts, inviting us once again to lean into God's goodness, to look up for his salvation."

As religious Americans face the inevitable chaos and harshness of 2013, perhaps we should covenant together to offer thanksgiving for the gifts of grace and love and relationship hidden amid life's rubble. Maybe we should set aside regular time to extend gratitude to those around us and the One above us. If Feinberg, Voskamp and the data are right, both our bodies and our souls will thank us for it.

Jonathan Merritt (@jonathanmerritt) is author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. His columns appear regularly in outlets such as USA Today, The Atlantic, and National Journal.