Do 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?