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