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?

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!