The Word: Keep being thankful

Published 6:34 am Sunday, December 3, 2023

Monday morning, as I drove to the office, I hit play on my podcast app. I had downloaded several episodes to listen to on my Thanksgiving travels, but I hadn’t worked through them all. Next up Monday morning was a TED Talk. If you’ve never heard of, or listened to, a TED talk, they are short, engaging lectures about any number of topics.

This particular episode was titled, “How Gratitude Rewires Your Brain.” It seemed an appropriate listen over the Thanksgiving weekend, but it hadn’t made it to the top of the queue. I don’t know what I had expected, but it was a fascinating listen: a neuropsychology doctoral student, Christina Costa, who developed a brain tumor discussed how she put the insights she had learned about well-being and resiliency into practice in the most personal ways possible. She struck me as an exceptional young scholar, but more than that, as an admirable person.

What Christina learned firsthand was that approaching life, even a life including cancer, with gratitude can rewire our brains to increase resilience. She wasn’t grateful for her tumor, mind you – but she was grateful for her body that could do amazing things, even in its weakened state; she was grateful for the medical professionals and their techniques; she was grateful for the possibilities that were ahead of her because of the surgery and chemotherapy she had to undergo. As she consciously chose gratitude, Christina found that she had a higher sense of peace and a better control of her negative emotions – which confirmed what science had taught her. She noted, “The cool thing is that we can intentionally activate these gratitude circuits in our brain. In general, the more we do something, the easier it becomes, and the brains work the same way. The more we activate these gratitude circuits, the less effort it takes to stimulate those pathways the next time, and the stronger those pathways become.”

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Christina Costa and other neuroscientists give scientific substance to the practices that people of faith developed millennia ago. The apostle Paul wrote to friends in Thessalonica, “Give thanks whatever happens.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). 

I’ve read that verse many times, and I’ve thought how callous that advice can be when you face something difficult or scary. There are many things not to give thanks for; brain cancer is one that comes to mind. Yet perhaps Paul’s instruction is less about religious devotion and more about well-being – which is, after all, not only physical, but mental, emotional, social, and spiritual, too. Might a regular practice of gratitude make us healthier, brighten our days, and fill our lives with more hope, peace, and joy? Paul would say yes – and the science backs him up.

As we leave the short season of Thanksgiving behind, let’s not leave gratitude behind. It really is a practice worth nurturing every day of the year.

Rev. Dr. J. Adam Tyler is the Senior Pastor for Farmville Baptist Church and he can be reached by email at pastor@farmvillebaptist.org.