I’m sure you know that living thankfully is good for you. And I’m sure you are aware that the Bible is replete with encouragement, and even commands, to be thankful. But did you also know that scientific studies have proven that choosing to be thankful changes your brain?

That’s right. Choosing to be thankful literally changes you, including your brain. Here are six ways choosing to be thankful transforms you:

6 Ways Thankfulness Transforms You:

  1. It changes your perspective. (And your perspective is your reality, so changing it to the positive is essential if you want to be happy.)

Look at this verse:

 “Everything seems to go wrong when you feel weak and depressed. But when you choose to be cheerful, every day will bring you more and more joy and fullness.” Proverbs 15:15 TPT

Did you notice it said, “choose” to be cheerful?

Negativity turns out the lights so that you can’t see the good you have in your life.

You can be surrounded by treasures, but if you are in the dark, you can believe you are poor.

Conversely, if you choose to be thankful for every blessing in your life, thankfulness becomes a flashlight that shines a light on all the good things you already have. That is why God says…

 “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 NLT

Here are three things that can help you be thankful:

  • Lose everything (If you lose your health, wealth, marriage, job… it becomes very precious to you all over again. This is the no fun way to appreciate what you have)
  • Visit the third world (This alone will do it)
  • Practice looking for the positive in any given situation. (This is the easiest way to happiness)

Some choose to remain negative because…

  • It’s easier (it takes effort to be positive),
  • It garners sympathy (temporarily, but then it just repels people),
  • It enables you to abdicate responsibility (for a while, then it’s harder).

I asked my wife, Hope, how Romans 8:28 is real for her as she endures cancer treatment for the third time. She said, “You have to look for the good. It’s there.”

About ten years ago I allowed myself to get into a very negative mindset. One day Hope had had enough and said to me, “Either you change, or make a change, but either way, we aren’t living like this anymore.” (Spouses are from God. You know that, right?)

She was right, and I knew it, but both prospects gave me anxiety. How do you change yourself, and where would you start in changing your station in life? So, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do – I go to God. I took a two-day retreat. I spent the first day avoiding the subject altogether. Then, on the second day, I sat in a chair with a blank legal pad. I said to the Lord, “Whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do it.” He simply said,

“Let’s start with thankfulness and go from there.”

That one word from God changed me forever. It will change you too.

  1. It changes the molecular structure of your brain

According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, regularly expressing gratitude (the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation) literally changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps the gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. In 2008, scientists first used fMRI to study gratitude. (Instead of creating images of organs and tissues like MRI, fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity.)

In the study the researchers measured brain activity of participants experiencing different emotions and found that gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions and lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus. This is important because the hypothalamus controls a huge array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels. In short, just like Prozac, gratitude can boost neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine.

What’s really interesting is according to Dr. Alex Korb in his book Upward Spiral, the act of “seeking” the items to be grateful for has as much, if not more benefit than the item you are actually grateful for. Dr. Korb states:

“Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.” Dr. Alex Korb (Neuroscientist, UCLA)

Basically, just thinking about how you could be grateful sparks brain activity critical to sleep, mood regulation and metabolism. Next time something bad happens and you can’t think of anything to be grateful for, guess what? Just the act of searching for gratitude is beneficial.

The practice of gratitude increases your dopamine production which encourages your brain to seek out more of the same. It’s the brain saying, “Oh, do that again” which means the more you are grateful for, the more you will find to be grateful for. Some say, “what you appreciate, appreciates.” On a scientific level, this is an example of Hebb’s Law, which states,

“Neurons that fire together wire together.” Hebb’s Law

  1. It improves your psychological health.

Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher, has conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.

  1. It improves your self-esteem.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athlete’s self-esteem, which is essential to their success. Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs – which is a major factor in reduced self-esteem- grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.

  1. It helps you sleep better.

Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer.

  1. It increases your mental strength.

Research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma.  A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on Sept 11.  Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – fosters resilience.

When something bad happens in your life, think of 5 good things that happened as a result.

As an example, this week I had lunch with a brother who told me that when he got laid off, though it was difficult at first, he found that the time he spent with his family helped him realize he was working too much and neglecting the thing that matter most in his life. He told me this week that even if it meant not having a lucrative career in his field of expertise if he could just pay his bills and spend time with his family, especially before his kids are grown and gone, he would do it.

The cool thing is the Bible knew all of the benefits of thankfulness before modern science “discovered” it.

Proverbs 17:22 NKJ “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones.”

Exercise: Slip away for fifteen minutes today and write down 10 things you are thankful for. Your brain will thank you for it.

Happy Thanksgiving!


P.S. You can watch this sermon HERE