Growing New Neurons by Weaving Gratitude Circuitry in Your Brain

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brain-powerDo you know someone who always complains, criticizes, and looks for problems rather than solutions? We either say it’s congenital – i.e., their personality, or attempt to understand them though amateur psychological analysis. In either case, we presume that it will take a lot of long, hard work to change, or we say that change is impossible.

“Ah, he’ll never change.” How many times have you heard that?

Experience-dependent neuroplasticity, based on studies of the brain, scientifically shows that people CAN transform their outlook. It turns out that everyday experiences–and very simple exercises like keeping a gratitude journal–can change the wiring in your brain, and change your life for the better.

Last week I attended a workshop in Berkeley, CA lead by Dr. Rick Hanson, an acclaimed neuropsychologist and author. He talked about how your behavior is determined by three factors: the challenges you’ve faced, the vulnerabilities those challenges grind on, and the inner strength you have for meeting challenges. On average, about a third of a person’s inner strengths are innate. The other two thirds are developed over time. That’s great news for all of us. It means that we can grow those inner strengths that cultivate fulfillment, happiness, and inner peace.

All mental activity is based on underlying neural activity. When something big happens, something traumatic, it leaves a lasting impression. Repeated mental/neural activity will also leave an imprint in our neural structure.

In my talks and interviews, I always say that when you express a feeling, you amplify it. When you express irritation, you get more irritated. When you express appreciation, you become more grateful. Since the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon, if you are primarily focused on perceived threats, grumbles, self-criticism and stress, then you will be more vulnerable to anxiety and anger. However, if you focus on good things—on what you are grateful for, for instance—then over time your brain will take a different shape.

As Dr. Rick Hanson says in his book, Hardwiring Happiness, “In effect, what you pay attention to is the primary shaper of your brain.” Dr. Hanson’s advice is to “take in the good.” In other words, dwell on good feelings and experiences and this will weave them into your neural circuits. In my life, I focus on what I’m grateful for, instead of what I perceive to be lacking, and that contributes to a sense of abundance. According to scientists, I am hardwiring those feelings and growing new neural circuits in my brain when I practice gratitude on an ongoing basis.

We need to activate a state of gratitude – but it takes consistency to install them as neural traits. Just as we exercise the body, we need to exercise our gratitude muscles on a daily basis to make a lasting physical difference. I am so thankful to people like Dr. Rick Hanson who help us understand how we can transform our brains (and our lives) simply by taking in the good.

And what easier way to do that than by saying thank you?

Think Before You Thank

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One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is never to forget to say “Thank You!”

When someone is generous and gives you a gift, a note to say they care, their time… When someone is helpful – shoveling your sidewalk, holding the door for you, or dropping off a meal when you’ve lost a loved one or are ill.

But sadly, two events happened last week that got me thinking not only about the importance and significance of saying THANK YOU, but what happens when people are left out.

The first eye-opener happened last Friday evening. I had accompanied a group of high school students I work with on a service project to help pack meals formulated for malnourished children in West Africa, and dozens of countries across the globe.

The teens I work with live in a neighborhood plagued by gang violence, unemployment and statistics that weigh heavily against them:  less than half of teenager’s graduate high school and only one-tenth advance to college.  Yet, twice a month, they volunteer their Wednesday or Friday nights to help other children across the world less fortunate than them. On most of these volunteer nights, they are joined by four or five other new groups of students – Boy Scout troops, basketball teams from neighboring high schools and church youth clubs.

On this evening, as it happened a few weeks before, the organizers of the relief organization gave a huge shout-out and round of applause to all of the teen groups who manned the almost two-hour packing shift, except for the 14 teens with me. As we were walking to the bus, one of the girls, a junior, said to me: “”Why don’t they ever cheer for us?” It seems like they don’t appreciate us.”

It stung the students. As the round of kudos were being called out, I watched their smiles waiting in anticipation of hearing their school name and the round of applause and then burst like a balloon in the silence. These are amazing kids who face amazing odds and are doing amazing things.  A thank you is a simple way to tell them.

The second event that underscored the “thank you don’ts” happened on Facebook. Who’s to say that virtual slights don’t cause the same pain as the up-close, in-person kind.

A “friend-of-a-friend” posted a lengthy thank you on Facebook naming a long list of people and specific acts of kindness they had done recently during her loved one’s hospital stay, but not mentioning someone who had been omnipresent with their support and caring during the several weeks involved. The omission rang off the FB post like a siren. I hurt for the person who wasn’t named, because I knew how hard she had tried to be present.

The bottom line is that saying thank you is an art. It is something we need to learn to do with grace, kindness and thoughtfulness. I’ve learned that if you are going to name names, it’s best to be 100 percent certain that you have been inclusive, because the name that isn’t said can inflict more harm than not saying thank you to all.

It’s important to acknowledge the generous spirits and kindness bestowed to us by others. It’s really a simple idea- people like to feel appreciated. This post asks that we think before we thank, just to be sure.

-Mary Beth Sammons

Listful Thinking: Is Gratitude on Your List?

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ListfulThinking_hiresI recently read Listful Thinking by Paula Rizzo and so much of it made me think about the importance of listing blessings when setting out on a grateful life journey, as well as the benefits that accrue when doing so.

According to the author, something as simple as creating a grocery list can reduce anxiety, boost your brain power, improve focus, increase self esteem and organize your thoughts.

Listful Thinking, which is divided into chapters that cover work, lifestyle, home life, and more, is chock-full of time saving apps and websites. Her tips and suggestions have a huge payoff — in addition to the grocery list benefits listed above, this book can help you save time and money. As someone who takes a lot of trips, I particularly loved Paula’s section on “Must-Have Items to Pack When You Travel”.

The other fact that resonated with me is that list making eliminates a lot of clutter in your thoughts, and frees you to focus on the larger picture. Which is exactly what thankfulness and appreciation does: it takes the focus away from thinking “what if”, “why me” or “what’s next” and helps one to arrive at a state of acceptance which frees up the mind for positive action.

Paula, an Emmy Award-winning television producer in New York City and founder of ListProducer.com, admits she has glazomania, a passion for making lists. She attributes her success to list making, and also includes other busy people like Madonna, Martha Stewart, Richard Branson, Ellen DeGeneres, and even Ben Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci in her list of list makers. Speaking of busy, she quotes a statistic from the Families and Work Institute which found that more than half all American employees feel overwhelmed.

Who wouldn’t want to replace that mentally-numb feeling, a result of “too much going on,” with a more productive mindset?

Paula writes, “Many people say they wish they could be more successful, have more money, be happier, and feel healthier–yet they can’t seem to achieve these things. They blame their bad luck, their busy lives, their limited resources…Being more successful in any area of your life isn’t about wishful thinking. It’s about listful thinking…Once you write down a goal, you instantly become accountable.”

We agree wholeheartedly that the act of writing something down is powerful! In our books, Living Life as a Thank You and The Grateful Life, we advise readers to write down the things that well that day, or to wake up and list a few things they are grateful for. Numerous scientific studies have shown that this activity can transform your health, outlook, and even help you live longer. Thank you Paula, for writing a book that gives sound, solid advice that can help people turn their lives around.

What other books do you find helpful to keep your lives on track?

Nina Lesowitz

Give Yourself a Gratitude Reboot!

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Give Yourself a Gratitude Reboot!

With the New Year just days away, instead of resolving to change our bad habits – eat less, exercise more and stop stressing out, we suggest a gratitude makeover.

It turns out that by integrating gratitude into your every day you actually will be healthier, more deeply spiritual and lead a more abundant life. And you will be so much happier! Consider this about grateful people:

  • Grateful people have 10 percent fewer stress-related illnesses.
  • They are more physically fit.
  • Their blood pressure is lower by 12 percent.
  • Every 10 years you practice gratitude adds five years to your life.

How do you reboot your life with gratitude?  We offer these 3 ways grateful people we talked to for this book did exactly that. We’re inspired by their practices and hope you will find them transforming too.

  1. Falling Asleep, Gratefully.

Before bed each night, Holly takes time to review her day and to review the gifts she has received. It’s a practice she started to stave off the insomnia and middle-of-the-night awakenings when she couldn’t get herself back to sleep. Instead of tossing and turning, she starts with the letter, “A” and thinks of something she is grateful for. To do this, proceed through the alphabet with “B,” “C,” etc. “Regardless of our evaluation of the day – good, bad, mediocre – we can call forth the blessings that were present. This practice transforms our consciousness as it reveals at the heart of our lives,” according to the DailyOm.com.

2. Feel the Gratitude Burn.

Try incorporating gratitude as a first step in an exercise program. While you are lacing up your running shoes for a trip to the gym or to ride your bike, or head to a spin class, give thanks for your feet, your legs, the tendons that connect them, and the bones that give them structure. Thank yourself for taking care of your body, and acknowledging that saying “thanks” in a form of exercise too – one that has just as many health dividends as your workout!

3. Getting to the Soul of Your Gratitude.

Bring to mind a time when you felt very grateful. You may have received good news about a friend or family member, or perhaps you were surprised by a wonderful gift from someone you care about. Relive that experience as if it is happening now. Notice feelings and physical sensations as you vividly recall this experience of gratitude. Experience this from your head to your toes for two to four minutes, or as long as you would like. Then let go of this memory, but continue to relax into the positive sensations that feeling grateful evokes in you. At various points throughout every day, take a minute or two to bring this experience into your awareness. This will help you have many bright moments on the days you do this practice.

Happy New Year! We hope you will draw inspiration from these simple gratitude practices and find 2015 filled with blessings!

The Meaning of Life

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Paku PakuWe love to collect new ideas that come to us from readers on what seems like a weekly basis.

We received several months’ worth of ideas from a  radio host when she interviewed us on her Energy Awareness Radio show. T Love, owner of Quantum Wellness Center in Andover Township, New Jersey is an accomplished energy therapist, certified sound therapist, and applied positive psychology practitioner as well as an international keynote speaker and a contributing editor for various magazines.

T Love shared some of her grateful living innovations. A few highlights: A “Gratitude Challenge” scholarship endowment fundraiser for the Sussex County, NJ Chamber of Commerce where T Love serves on the Board of Trustees, co-chairs the Wellness Committee, and is a member of the Women in Business Committee. The participants were asked to pen thank you notes on a daily, weekly or monthly basis throughout the year. “All notes must be handwritten, include the words thank you, and specify why the recipient is being thanked,” she told us. “Part of this challenge is to think, feel and take the time to write the note. Post-it notes count too: ‘Thank you, Irving. I couldn’t have completed the proposal without your help. – Eugene’.”

Participants were asked to pay a one-time fee based upon their chosen challenge. “As an added incentive, each participant was entered into a drawing as many times as the notes in the challenge they took on,” she explained. “For instance, if someone opted for the one-note-a-month challenge they had 12 chances to win and if someone chose the one-note-a-day challenge, they had 365 chances to win!”

This is the perfect example of a win-win for all concerned – a “fun-raiser” at its best: educating members about the benefits of gratitude, raising funds for children in need, and providing a year’s worth of themes for the organization to rally around.

She told us another story – a very powerful story – about speaking to children on the topic of gratitude at an event sponsored by the non-profit group Pass It Along. When the children, ages 13 – 19 entered the room they had no idea what she was going to speak about. She told them she was there to tell them the secret of life. She asked if they knew what it was. Lots of great answers poured forth: marriage, love, sympathy, empathy, joy, happiness, etc.

Then she told them what it was: GRATITUDE.

She gave examples they could relate to, did a meditation, and demonstrated how to use the Paku Paku or Fortune Teller (photo above). The next night she got a call from the president of Pass It Along who told her that hers was the most popular and liked workshop.

According to T Love, “I was so grateful to have done those workshops. I didn’t know how it would go over and I was so unsure afterward. Somehow though, the kids GOT it.” We love the idea of T Love’s Paku Paku and her Gratitude Challenge for businesspeople.

If you would like more information about making your own Fortune Teller, leave a comment below. Or let us know about any other ways you have taught the concept of gratitude to children. You can listen to our interview on her radio show here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/energyawareness/2014/12/03/the-grateful-life-the-secret-to-happiness-and-the-science-of-contentment Thank you T Love!

Eat, Drink and Be Thankful

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Add subtitle textOur favorite holiday takes place this week in the United States, and we are looking forward to

the festivities with grateful hearts.

     Thanksgiving helps remind us of all the ways in which we are fortunate, and of all that we take for granted. It is a yearly reminder to celebrate the abundance in our lives. However, once you start looking at the world through the lens of gratitude, you’ll see that every day can be an occasion to give thanks. And expressing appreciation can improve your health, your outlook, your relationships, your job performance, and even help you sleep better at night.
     There are numerous ways to bring the “thanks” back to Thanksgiving at your holiday table. Try going around the table and having each person say what they are thankful for. You can start a new tradition by distributing cards and asking guests to write three things they are grateful for. These can be collected and read aloud the following year.
     You can also recite quotes to enhance your Grateful Table. Here are a few we like:
  1. “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Epictetus
  2. “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you’, that would suffice.” Eckhart Tolle
  3. “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” Thornton Wilder
  4. “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” G.K. Chesterton
  5. “Make it a habit to tell people thank you. To express your appreciation, sincerely and without the expectation of anything in return. Truly appreciate those around you, and you’ll soon find many others around you. Truly appreciate life, and you’ll find that you have more of it.” Ralph Marston
  6. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” John F. Kennedy
  7. “If a fellow isn’t thankful for what he’s got, he isn’t likely to be thankful for what he’s going to get.” Frank A. Clark
  8. “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” Willie Nelson
  9. “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” Oprah Winfrey
  10. “It is not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.” Unknown

Do you have a special Thanksgiving ritual that has become a tradition in your household?

Lessons in Expressing Gratitude for Life’s Little Moments

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cup-of-coffee-236808I was trained by rote to say “thank you,” with any interaction. Maybe it is because I was raised in Catholic schools and feared of the wrath of the nuns if I wasn’t super polite at every moment.

Spontaneous “thank yous” began at an early age with: ‘Thank you Sister Mary-Something for informing the entire class that I am wearing Lafayette blue knee highs instead of the mandated navy blue and calling my parents in for a teacher/parents and child conference to label me as a rebel and discipline risk in 6th grade.

These days, I hear myself saying “thank you” after I’ve held the door open for someone at the grocery store.

“Thank you” is a word that is always on the tip of my tongue, a word that I apparently misuse in often inappropriate and incorrect ways, just because I am trained to say it. And when I do think I am sincerely saying “thank you,” I am not always fully cognizant of and appreciative of why I am saying it and what I am truly grateful for.

Until yesterday in a series of ordinary, turned extraordinary encounters I had during the course of some pretty routine stuff.

First, I was on the call with AT&T’s “Information” trying to hunt down the phone number of someone not Google-able. I finished my query saying ‘thank you” to the operator. She kept me on the phone for another 30 seconds at least thanking me for thanking her and saying that rarely happens. “People usually just slam down the phone,” she told me. “Thank you for saying thank you,” she added.

A little while later, I was headed to a meeting and stopped in at the local Starbucks I frequent. I was running late, and the rush-hour crunch was over. When I was handed my soy latte, the clerk said “Thanks, it is on us.” Why, I wondered, and then she responded: “To thank you because we appreciate how you always tell us thank you.”

Later in the day I came home to find a hand-written thank you note from a friend to thank me for thanking her for sharing her story in our book, The Grateful Life.

These little whispers of “thank you,” startled me. But they also reminded me that even though I sometimes speak the “thank you’ word automatically, it comes back around in ways both small and profound.

In small, seemingly insignificant interactions, my “thank yous” did make an impact. Being grateful, and telling people you are thankful for them, is significant. Do it. Try it. Like me, you may experience the enormous impact it can make in your life.

I know that it is important for me to be appreciative. And now I’m grateful that I was taught at an early age to incorporate “thank you,” into my every interaction, even during times when it seems unnecessary.

Mary Beth Sammons