Pastor Will Johns talks about his new book on the transformational power of gratitude.
Question: You recently published a book called Everything is Better Than You Think: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life. How did you first become interested in the subject of gratitude?
Answer: I was trying to come up with a topic related to spiritual growth for my doctoral thesis. I needed something that wasn’t too broad. My major professor suggested I look into gratitude. I think he may have sensed that I am a naturally pessimistic person and needed to research this topic. Whatever the reason, I am so grateful that he pointed me that direction. I was drawn in very quickly and my outlook on life has never been the same since.
So, this book is the result of three years of research and a doctorate. Did you look at neuroscience? What new research is available that helped you in your findings?
My research did lead me to study neuroscience, but I spent most of my time in the groundbreaking work of Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. Their 2004 book, The Psychology of Gratitude, contained all the latest findings from the foremost researchers in this field at that time. If you want to study first-hand sources, this is a fantastic place to start. I haven’t seen any research that has come out since that has contradicted the principles from this book. This field of gratitude research really started to come to the forefront in the 1990s. It is part of the positive psychology movement that studies how humans function at their best.
Tell us about some of the practical strategies for practicing gratitude that you share in your book.
Gratitude is like exercise. You don’t have to fully understand it to get the benefits. You just have to do it. So, for someone who just wants to try it and see, I would recommend writing down five things you are grateful for every day at a set time until this becomes a habit. This practice will deliver the quickest results.
However, many people find it to be challenging to stick with this practice. So, you could take a gratitude walk where you focus on what is good in your life while walking outdoors. That is something I practice daily. Or you could share gratitude with others. Or talk to yourself in your car while you’re driving. Or any other activity where you are focusing your mind on what is good in your life.
How do you describe your book when people ask you what it's about?
The short answer is this: The book is all about focusing on the good in your life and in the world. There will always be good and bad. Gratitude does not deny the bad stuff going on in our lives or in the world. Instead, gratitude empowers us to focus on the good as well as the bad. Without a gratitude practice, we will naturally focus on the problems, according to the neuroscience research. Gratitude allows us to choose to focus on something other than the bad stuff.
The forward to your book is by your uncle, who was very moved when you shared the basic concepts you had learned over a brief encounter in Portland. What was the brief enticing hook you shared that was so impactful to your uncle?
Wow! That was nine years ago I think, so I can’t remember exactly, but I think what resonated with him was that we have the power of choice to choose to focus on the good.
One of the barriers to gratitude is the “law of habituation,” which states that over time we adjust to the good in our lives and come to expect it to stay forever, as an entitlement. So, for example, I take my car for granted until the morning it doesn’t start and then I get angry that my car doesn’t work. But how many times do I express gratitude that I have a car that works, or a comfortable shelter to live in, or for food and clean water or modern healthcare? We typically are not grateful for the things we come to expect will just be there for us every day.
I think the practice of gratitude helped my uncle to appreciate the incredible richness of his life.
Has gratitude changed your life, personally?
Very much so! I would not have had the motivation to write this book if I hadn’t felt like the information was incredibly transformative. I am naturally more pessimistic and negative than your average person. I believe God knew I needed to study this topic for my own emotional and spiritual well-being, and that’s how I ended up doing my doctoral thesis on this topic.
When I began to see the negative stories that I was telling myself, it gave me a new freedom to change those stories and my outlook as a whole. So now, when I’m feeling bad and my mind says to me, “Everything is falling apart, why even try?” I can relax and say to myself, “Yes, I’m feeling bad right now, but it won’t last forever. I might feel differently in five minutes.” Then I can start to list what I’m grateful for and I do feel better.
I found the practice to be incredibly empowering and a very useful tool for facing the pain that comes in life.
This seems to be a particularly auspicious time to be practicing gratitude, yes? Did the current context of COVID and economic difficulties play into your thinking as you wrote this book?
No, I finished the rough draft for this book in 2018. It did seem a little audacious on my part to release this book during a pandemic! However, it is so important to understand that gratitude is never a denial of pain. I actually put three chapters in the book that deal with gratitude’s relationship to pain, guilt, and negative emotions. If we use gratitude as a form of denial of reality, it will only harm us.
I argue in the book that gratitude helps us see reality more clearly (thus the glasses on the front cover) by helping us factor in the good that is usually ignored in our self-assessments. But we still have to be willing to feel our pain and move through it. Right now, many people are suffering in our country because of COVID and because of racism. Gratitude does not make those problems go away. What it does do is help empower you as an individual to most effectively deal with those sources of pain in your life.
Should children work on practicing gratitude, or is this really just a book for adults?
Yes, absolutely! This is a perfect book for parents wanting to instill the values of gratitude in their children. The most important thing parents can do is to model the behavior they want to see in their children’s lives. So parents, practice it first, then share with your children the value of gratitude from your own experience.
You are a full-time pastor. How much do you talk about the power of gratitude in your sermons? How have your strategies for increasing gratitude helped your church members?
I have been accused of preaching on this topic too much! So yes, I probably reference it quite a bit. I think my church members appreciate it most when I practice it on them. I’m constantly thanking them for giving of their time, talents, and resources to help serve our community. I am just trying to live it first and foremost. Then I can share it from there.
Your book is self-published. Why did you go that route? Did you hire an editor?
My vision from day one was to have the book for sale on Amazon. Fortunately, Amazon makes this very easy to do. And yes, I started with a good friend of mine, Larissa Brass, who did an amazing job on the first edit of the book. Then I reviewed all of her suggestions and hired a second editor to edit what was my final copy. Then I reviewed her suggestions, made corrections, and published it. I also hired someone to design the cover and the layout.
That’s great that your book is available on Amazon. How many copies have you sold so far? What reactions have you heard from readers?
I haven’t done much marketing of the book yet, so the 121 copies I have sold so far have been mostly to my Facebook friends, for which I’m very grateful! My readers have been very positive about the book so far.
Is this your first book? How long did it take you to write the book? Would you write another?
Yes, this is my first book. It took me four years to finish it. But that included a lot of down time where I put it on the shelf for several months. I will probably write at least one more book. I feel like I finally know what I’m doing.
How is your book different than other books about gratitude?
There are definitely much better books out there on the theory of gratitude. However, I think my book excels in helping people actually practice gratitude. If you want to see gratitude actually change your life, then my book is a great option.
Tell us a little bit more about you.
I grew up Adventist and attended Southern Adventist University for a BA in Theology, Andrews University for my Master of Divinity, and Denver Seminary for my Doctorate. I currently live in Silver Spring, Maryland and pastor the Tech Road Campus of Beltsville Adventist Church.
This is a new church plant founded in 2016, which helps to explain why writing this book took four years. My oldest daughter Bryn is 16, my son Noah is 14, and my youngest daughter Lila is 11. My wife Lori and I are grateful for each day we get to enjoy having our children at home with us. We know we don’t have much time left with them at home.
Why did you decide to become a pastor?
God has been the best thing to happen in my life. Although I grew up with a distorted picture of God, when it finally clicked for me that God is love, I felt compelled to try to share that good news with others.
What do you do when you are not working?
I really enjoy time with my family, especially when we have the opportunity to travel together or go skiing. Those are my favorite times. I like to go out to eat with my wife, play golf, work out, go to the pool to relax, hang out with friends and of course, practice a little gratitude in the midst of it all!
Will Johns pastors the Tech Road Campus of Beltsville Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. He holds his undergraduate degree from Southern Adventist University, his master’s from Andrews University, and he earned his doctorate in 2015 from Denver Seminary in Leadership in Community Spiritual Formation.
Everything Is Better Than You Think: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Will Johns.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.