Grateful Heart, Grateful Life
By Diane Scallon
Did you know that practicing gratitude can rewire your brain? Yes, the brain, this amazing creation of God, can be rewired! Gratitude is a heart change that leads to behavioral change, ultimately improving your physical, mental, and spiritual health and even cultivating a delight for life.
A Neuroscience Lesson
Our brains are composed of many parts. The limbic system is responsible for our emotions. It consists of both the amygdala (looks like an almond) and the hippocampus (looks like a seahorse). Both of these regulate emotions, as well as other things like memory and body function. In addition to these beautiful parts of our brains working together on our emotions, the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin play vital roles as well. For example, when these are released, we tend to feel joyful. This happens both when we are practicing gratitude and receiving gratitude.
Let’s talk for a moment about the brain healing itself, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity—essentially, the brain’s ability to rewire itself by forming new neural connections—is involved when someone has to create new ways of functioning due to a brain injury or another health issue. The brain learns! When we practice gratitude, we train our brains to make new neural connections, leading to physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits.
Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude reduces stress, anxiety, and depression, improving physical health.
Practicing gratitude can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, ultimately improving physical health. In addition, the front part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is normally responsible for negative emotions, including shame and guilt. The prefrontal cortex is altered when we practice gratitude.
God commands us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). A thankful heart that rejoices in all circumstances begins with the desire to obey this command. God calls us to rejoice! Are we actively doing so?
Gratitude overcomes emotional struggles, improving mental health.
By practicing gratitude, we are activating the “feel good” and “reward” center of the brain, which has positive long-term effects physically and psychologically. Offering forgiveness produces these effects as well.
God’s Word tells us, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). Struggling relationships are a reality of our broken world. But as this verse says, we have hope in the midst of our struggles, all because of God! The understanding that God is with us will translate to a heart of gratitude.
Gratitude opens doors to greater friendships, improving spiritual health.
Gratitude is linked to close friendships. In the Bible, God calls us to be in communion with Him and others. John 15 clearly shows us the importance of a relationship with God and relationships with others. Remember this command that God has given us: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). As we practice gratitude, our relationships will flourish, because ultimately, we are purposing to live as God has commanded us.
As I grow in my understanding of God and His Word, I am constantly learning that God has spoken in His Word for a reason and that it is always for our best. God commands us to love Him deeply and to love others fervently. The heart that falls madly in love with God unquestionably will overflow His love to others here on earth.
A change of heart toward embracing joy in the midst of life—knowing our God is sovereign—changes everything, because Jesus changes everything. The very fact that Jesus gave us eternal life through His death for our sins and gave us the Holy Spirit for our daily walk gives us strength when we might feel weak. Subsequently, knowing Whom we believe in and acknowledging that He has given us a lot to be grateful for are crucial in cultivating a heart of gratitude.
A heart change regarding our desires and affections will directly influence our joy, which will then overflow. The knowledge that God is all-knowing and abundantly loving toward us will steer us to have the right perspective: God’s will involves our very best. His glory and purposes should matter so deeply that we are moved to gratitude for His grace, mercy, love, and direction for us.
Practical Ways to Be Grateful
Here are three practical ways to practice being grateful.
First, we can practice being grateful by jotting down “Thank you, God, for . . . ” in each day of a yearly planner. It is amazing to see how God works and to focus on the blessings He has given us.
Second, we can practice being grateful by watching our tongues, as James 3 warns us to do. It is easy to complain when things are not going smoothly. However, in rough times, instead of focusing on the negatives, let us practice outwardly expressing thankfulness and contentment for where God has us.
Third, we can practice being grateful by being humble. Jesus demonstrated this concept when He bore the wrath for our sins on the cross. Not only did Jesus suffer physically, but the Cross was emotionally tolling as well. Yet Jesus did not complain; rather, He humbly obeyed His Father.
It takes time for a heart change to lead to a rewiring of the brain—for our neural connections to be established and for gratitude to become more natural. A heart change leads to a behavioral change, and as that happens, joy overflows! You’ll find that the discipline and hard work of practicing gratitude are worth it as you enjoy the physical, mental, and spiritual rewards of a grateful life.
Diane Scallon is a pastor’s wife and the author of Against the Tide, published by Regular Baptist Press.