Emily Dunlap, LAC, Living Well Counseling

As hard as it is to believe, Thanksgiving 2023 is almost here. Families have likely already started making plans, with cousins and aunts volunteering to bring the sweet potato casserole and the cranberry sauce. You might be thinking of what your answer will be to the traditional question, “what are you thankful for this year?”  

We are experienced at practicing forced gratitude, sometimes through clenched teeth, for a few minutes around the dinner table with our extended family. But gratitude doesn’t have to be an obligatory list offered once a year. Gratitude can be a mindset—a lifestyle that when adopted, actually significantly improves our outlook on life, and therefore our mental health in general. 

Research tells us that the practice of gratitude releases the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin – which are the brain’s happy chemicals. Antidepressants and anxiolytics, like Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, and Paxil, just to name a few, are prescribed by clinicians every day with the goal of – you guessed it – increasing serotonin in the brain. According to the New York Times, in our post-COVID era, Zoloft is the 12th most commonly prescribed medication in America. That indicates that millions of Americans are desperately seeking happiness, contentment, and joy.  

Is it possible that developing a mindset of gratefulness and thanksgiving could be a key to cultivating contentment in life?  

It’s important to define what gratitude is and what it isn’t. Gratitude is, for example, telling a friend how much you appreciated the groceries they dropped off when you were in isolation at home after that COVID-19 test was positive. Gratitude is not, however, shaming yourself for being disappointed when you didn’t get the promotion you wanted because “plenty of people don’t even have jobs at all.” Gratitude does not involve minimizing, ignoring, repressing, or otherwise shaming yourself for having negative feelings.  

Gratefulness is the practice of training your mind to find the positive things in your life. Gratitude involves taking small moments out of your day to notice the things that bring you happiness, contentment, or joy. Sometimes, it’s a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning. Sometimes, it’s a police officer letting you off with a warning instead of a ticket!   

As believers, ultimately, don’t we always have so much to be thankful for? Even in the face of that diagnosis – or maybe ESPECIALLY in the face of that diagnosis – we can be thankful for the cross, and thankful for the blessed assurance of our salvation, our forgiveness, and the eternal life that God’s beloved children look forward to. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”(1 Thess 5:18)  “All circumstances” would include even those most difficult circumstances. So, how can we have a spirit of thankfulness even during the hardest trials of our lives?  

Perhaps Paul’s advice to the Romans can shed more insight on just how to be thankful even in the midst of our trials. Romans 5:3-5 says, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” As believers, it’s those moments when we have no one else BUT Jesus to turn to – when we can’t see a way out EXCEPT through God’s miraculous provision for us – it’s those darkest nights of the soul that bring us so much closer to our Savior. And what more could we ask for than to truly feel the presence of God? To feel the unimaginable, incomprehensible, love of our Father?  

In Philippians 1:18b-19, Paul wrote (from prison), “…yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” What amazing faith! Paul’s unwavering belief that in every situation God was working for his benefit could certainly serve to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness.  

Perhaps true gratitude comes from really believing what Paul wrote in Romans 8:28: “for we know that all things work together for good for those that love God and are called according to his purpose.” If we can believe that “all things” includes those bad things, those things we can’t understand, and those things that leave us broken; then maybe we can begin to cultivate a heart that can truly experience thankfulness in the midst of pain. 

So, what are you thankful for today? 

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