Emotional Health • 4 minutes to read
As the holiday season approaches, I’m reminded of last year’s holiday season. At the time, I was not practicing “an attitude of gratitude.”
Here’s what happened. Two of my sons are in the military and they were both planning to be home for Christmas. This had not happened in several years and I was beyond ecstatic! Then, in late October, their schedules changed and they would not be coming home until early January.
Still coming home, but not for Christmas.
I know what you’re thinking. This was not that big of a deal. No one was sick or dying and they were still coming home—just not for Christmas. In the big scheme of things, this was not tragic. I could logically rationalize these same thoughts, but honestly, I was devastated.
I knew I had a lot to be thankful for, but in the moment, I was not feeling thankful.
I cannot explain it.
My sons have been in the military for years and have missed several holidays. It goes with the territory. But for some reason, my feelings of disappointment were overwhelming. This hit me especially hard—I did not want to celebrate the holidays and decided to do the bare minimum.
Many of us may think that gratefulness is being thankful for what we have compared to others, but it’s really so much more than this. It’s being grateful for everything that’s happening in our lives right now—the good and the bad.
So many of our behaviors are based on how we feel, but what if we don’t feel thankful? How do we develop a mindset for gratitude that’s not based on our feelings?
Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.1 Thessalonians 5:18 NLT
I completely believe in the sovereignty of God, but when it comes to my feelings, living out this scripture is sometimes easier said than done.
There are definitely things we can do to help develop gratitude*:
- Keeping a gratitude journal: writing out what we’re thankful for on a regular basis.
- Writing “thank you” notes or letters to those who have blessed us with gifts, encouragement, and other significant things in our lives.
- Saying “thank you” to those around us, verbally expressing our gratitude toward others—whether it’s to the server at our favorite coffee shop or a family member.
These are all good practices and things that can help us cultivate gratitude, but why is it important to develop a grateful mindset?
GRATITUDE CHANGES OUR BRAIN
It has been suggested that when we express gratitude, it serves as a natural antidepressant**. Expressing gratitude stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin in our brain—two neurotransmitters that contribute to our emotional response and mood—creating a feeling of contentment and happiness.
When we intentionally practice gratitude on a daily basis, we are continuing to strengthen these neural pathways in our brain creating a more automatic and positive response. This is behaviorally changing our brain.
In fact, the more we practice gratitude, the more likely we are to experience many other positive benefits like strengthening our immune system and getting better sleep at night. Developing gratitude can help to minimize negative emotions, such as guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression.
At a neurochemical level, developing an attitude of gratitude reinforces the systems that help to manage our emotional and stress responses—creating more positive emotional responses when faced with stressful events.
It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.David Steindl-Rast***
If developing gratitude is based on a positive emotional response to what’s happening to us and around us, then we need to be intentional about practicing gratitude even when we don’t feel it.
The truth is, we need to develop gratitude at a cognitive and spiritual level, not an emotional level. We can’t wait until we feel grateful. We cannot rely on our feelings when it comes to gratitude. Sometimes, we need to develop gratitude based on our thought process and behaviors, even when we don’t feel it, and allow our feelings to catch up.
As Christ-followers, when we experience God’s goodness in our lives, it’s easy to feel grateful; but when life goes sideways, it can be more challenging. During difficult times, we need to remember God’s goodness and trust that He will see us through.
This is how we actively pursue an attitude of gratitude—it comes from knowing who God is and that all things are possible through Him. He’s not surprised by our circumstances, so we shouldn’t be either.
When we focus on having a grateful attitude, despite what’s happening in our lives, we develop a lasting, sustainable form of gratitude, one that changes our brain and renews our mind toward health.
This year, I’m starting early in my practice of gratitude, even though this holiday season will be much like last year. My sons are still in the military and not coming home for Christmas, but I’ve intentionally worked toward creating a mindset of gratitude.
Using the practical tools listed above can be a great place to start when developing gratitude. Choose one thing and add it to your daily behaviors.
It’s never too late to begin developing an attitude of gratitude.
1. Kolb, H., et al. (2019). Unraveled: Managing Love, Sex, and Relationships. Troutdale, OR: Pure Desire Ministries International.
2. Chowdhury, M. (2019). The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/.
3. Steindl-Rast, D. (2019). Goodreads. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/4182.David_Steindl_Rast.