Developing a Thankful Heart in Daily Life and Rewiring Your Brain for Gratitude
Updated: Aug 10
I have in no way mastered this practice, but emerging from maybe one of the toughest years some of us have experienced, it could not be a more appropriate topic to discuss. Integrating daily life habits with the practice of gratitude can actually rewire your brain, establishing a new lens through which you see life. Among the many researchers who have now conducted studies on the effects of a grateful mindset on general health, one study proclaims that for a group of individuals with mental health concerns, one group of people who wrote gratitude letters for three weeks demonstrated significant improvement as compared to those who wrote about their negative life experiences (Brown & Wong, 2017). The article goes on to suggest that gratitude “...unshackles us from toxic emotions” and even has a profound impact on the brain as evidenced by the fMRI scans of the same study participants. Both expressing and receiving gratitude ourselves has been shown to increase dopamine and serotonin levels, the "feel good" chemicals that regulate sleep cycles and aid digestion, elevate our mood, and boost a sense of accomplishment and pleasure (you had me at 'sleep cycles!')
The nerdy neuroscience is all good and well, but how do we convert knowledge to action? Here are a few things to ponder...
Where are Your Thoughts?
When I find myself caught on a thought train going nowhere good- and FAST- it helps to stop and capture the triggering negative thought before it claims territory in my mind. I’ve heard negative thoughts described before as leaves floating on the surface of a lazy river. You see and acknowledge the leaf, take it in for a moment, and then let it float on by. You don't follow it downstream or dive in after it, tempting though it may be. While the thoughts may barge into our brains unannounced and uninvited, it IS our decision and within our power to nurture it or kick it to the curb. (Check out 2 Corinthians 10:5)
Just as muscle memory applies to playing a sport (unless you're athletically challenged like myself) so it applies to thoughts in the brain. We adapt to repeated patterns and exercises. If you find yourself reverting more often than not to the negative, you're probably developing a pattern. I’ve been called out for complaining about something (usually by my dear husband) and defensively argued that I just can’t help my mind from going down that path. But I can help it, and need to if I don’t want a negative thought pattern to become a well-worn path that leads to only misery and dissatisfaction. This quote hit hard:
“Your life is moving in the direction of your strongest thoughts.” Craig Groeschel, senior pastor at Life.Church
Quick note: This does not mean we push away any unpleasant idea that needs attention. There are many important, difficult thoughts that are meaningful and should be addressed, maybe worked through, but this is another conversation. The leaf analogy is describing a consistent pattern of unproductive complaining or negative thinking.
Pay Attention to Your Words
What we tell others, or ourselves for that matter, matters! We can probably all think of that friend or coworker who always seems to be complaining. It brings you down, drains your energy, and sometimes seems to suck the life from the room. If you can't think of that person in your life...do a quick self-evaluation because uh oh, it could be you, sister. If this is the case, don't worry! There is always room for growth.
One of Craig Groeschel’s sermons entitled “Words to Live By” could be a game-changer on this front. He shares his own life-altering habit in which he developed a scripture-based mission statement he began to read aloud daily. This changed his thinking, which in turn changed his life. The words are life-giving, empowering, and encouraging. Check it out here.
Look for the Blessings
Ask a trusted friend for accountability or better yet, challenge each other to resist the urge to gripe and complain and instead express gratitude. This doesn’t mean you plaster on a fake smile everyday and never allow yourself to crack the door to a negative comment. A 10-minute vent session to your best friend is allowed, but do your best to get it out, lay it down, and walk away from it.
Author Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts tells of her personal challenge to take written note of the “gifts” or blessings of life we tend to overlook. I followed suit and for a couple of years filled little notebooks with well-beyond a thousand gifts. You would be surprised the impact this simple exercise has on a mind prone to complaining. Your mind is taken beyond a negative observation.“Hitting every dumb red light” turns into “time to notice the sunset during my drive home.” "A stoop covered in bird poop," while still unpleasant, becomes “a mama and her three little eggs who made a home in our front door wreath.”
I challenge you to try this exercise, even if it’s noting 10 things as you exhaustedly climb into bed at night. It’s a simple practice that is actually reframing your thinking. Start looking for the blessings throughout your day!
A Grateful Attitude Produces a Thankful Heart
While meeting with a group of other moms recently, we were challenged to sit with God and for two straight minutes, only thank Him. I would have thought of myself as a rather grateful kid but unfortunately realized my tendency to rush through the thanking portion of the prayer on to the requests. And while I believe He is a gracious and patient Father, I hope to grow in this area. In two minutes of uninterrupted time, in childlike manner, my mind runs from the heavenly coffee that allows me to walk and talk like a normal person to the clean clothes that were washed with fresh water to the toast I made with good bread, to the car that transported us safely to the meeting...and the list goes on.
Developing a thankful heart in the day-to-day might take some work, but the results are well worth it, I’m convinced. Ultimately, the way to channel your thoughts and rewire your brain is to start by thanking Him, asking Him for a grateful attitude and the power to take captive your thoughts, and seeking out sweet blessings. You can do it right now!
“The unthankful heart...discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day and, as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings! -Henry Ward Beecher