The Grateful Brain

“If you want to turn your life around, try thankfulness.
It will change your life mightily.”
~Gerald Good~

 

Gratitude is a cornerstone of every major religion, and indeed a part of North American culture.  (I am thinking here of Thanksgiving Day, which is celebrated in the US and Canada). For years we have been hearing from modern thought leaders such as Dr. Wayne Dyer and Joseph Dispenza, that we have the power to create our lives anew, and that gratitude plays a key role in it.

Recently I have been noticing the work of Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D., who is a psychiatrist researching brain functioning.  He uses the modern technology of brain scans to examine the electrical activity and blood flow in the brains of his subjects.

He discovered that gratitude positively and literally changes brain chemistry.  Especially the frontal lobes and cerebellum show increased electrical activity and blood flow. The frontal lobes are responsible for judgment, impulse control and planning. When your frontal lobes are functioning well, you are making high performance decisions that serve you well.

In a study to determine the effects of gratitude, Dr. Amen scanned each subject’s brain twice. One after asking the person to focus on things in life for which she felt grateful, and another after asking her to focus on things that made her angry.  The scans were amazingly different!  Feeling grateful showed a dramatic benefit to her brain.  Blood flow and electrical activity increased in the area of the brain which would result in better decisions, focus and judgment. By contrast, angry or hateful thinking resulted in a draining or restricting of blood flow and overall brain activity!

When we are taught that fear, anger and hatred are constricting and limiting, this is more than “New Age” mumbo-jumbo. And when the ancients indicated the way to expansion and a better spiritual life, we can now see how our human physiology is directly affected by our thoughts and resulting emotions. If you doubted the truth of what you were hearing, now science has demonstrated why they are true!

When you write a gratitude list and focus on the feeling, your pituitary gland releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters that contribute to a feeling of overall well-being.  This is not just your imagination, because we now understand more about the power of that imagination.  Improving your mood leads to improved brain functioning, making it easier to make healthy decisions that will make it possible to create the life of your dreams.

Practicing gratitude is the key.

Gratitude and Attraction

“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things
for granted or take them with gratitude.”
~Gilbert K. Chesterton~

Have you heard of the Law of Attraction?

Over the past few months I have been giving a lot of thought to how the lives people are living often fall short of what they truly desire.  And yet we are all creating our lives every day.  According to the Law of Attraction, our thoughts and the emotions they trigger, and the choices that we then make, bring about the reality we experience.

We can make plans or set goals for taking the necessary steps to getting on track for getting a better job, improving a relationship, making more money or losing weight.  In fact setting goals and taking action steps is an essential part of the process of change.

So why do those plans often fall so miserably short?  What causes the sincere New Year’s Resolutions to fade away like so much dust in the wind?

Maybe it’s because we are attempting to force a change in those things that are external to us.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the desire to have a better job or relationship, or more money or a healthier body.  But all the “positive thinking” in the world won’t do any good if our real underlying beliefs are saying the opposite.

The problem is this:  how can I have a healthier body or bank account or relationship if I don’t BELIEVE that I can?  Or that I don’t DESERVE it? And even though it may be difficult to see and accept that I have such a limiting belief, the proof is apparent.  My life circumstances are the accumulated effect of my choices, and my choices are based on my beliefs about myself and the emotions they create.

 No matter how much I want something, I cannot receive it if on a deep level I believe that I don’t deserve it or that having it is impossible.

Many of these limiting beliefs are unconscious, or are so much in the thread of your daily thinking and feeling that they are like wallpaper you’ve lived with for 30 years…you can’t see it anymore.  You have absorbed them from your family and your culture, repeated them, and while you are certainly affected by them, you may not be aware.

So on a given day are you feeling irritable or grumpy?  Dour and dejected?  Cheerful and optimistic?  How would you rate your energy level on a scale from 1 to 10? This “vibrational level” and your mood will give you a clear indicator that your thoughts are positive or negative.

How can you brighten your mood and bring up your energy level?

The answer may surprise you.  You can do this when you practice gratitude!

And when I say “practice” I really mean practice.  Just as you practice the piano, or practice meditation, or practice doing the New York Times crossword puzzles, this is something that you do over and over again.  Some days it may feel awkward and difficult, and other days it will flow beautifully.  However it is, keep practicing.  The benefits are amazing.

How can I practice gratitude, you ask? 

  • Begin by writing a list of 10 blessings or things or people that you are grateful for.  Yes, write it down and do it every day, preferably first thing in the morning.
  • Write why you are grateful for it.  Don’t skip this step because it will help you feel grateful, and the feeling is the thing we’re going for here.
  • Pay careful attention to the beauty that surrounds you during the day.  Feel and express gratitude for the people who serve your needs every day; notice the beauty of nature in its large and smallness; see the beauty in the face of anyone you meet. Make eye contact and smile.
  • Notice what goes right in your life and express gratitude for it.  If you have a tight roof over your head and food on the table, you have something that a lot of the world’s population doesn’t.
  • Break your habit of complaining. When you catch yourself griping about the weather, the traffic, your spouse, your aggravating kid, your job, etc. just stop it!  You may have a habitual grumble going on in your head, and it forms a dark cloud over you and keeps you from seeing the possibilities that surround you.  Furthermore it contaminates the conversations you have with others and encourages more negativity. Shift your focus again to what is going right. Don’t play “Ain’t it Awful?” with others.
  • Make an effort to hang out with positive, grateful people. You will very quickly be able to see who they are.  Avoid the ones who are always complaining about slow business, or the management or the government or anything else.  This “low vibrational” energy is contagious. Think of how you would avoid someone with a lethal virus, and take similar steps.
  • When you are being challenged by some difficulty or loss; when it seems that things are not going your way, then being grateful might seem out of the question.  But I suggest that you look deeper. Is it possible that a failure or disappointment might bring some benefit to your life? To your growth or development? If we find purpose or meaning in these difficulties, they often help us become better humans, and thus we can be grateful for them.
  • At the end of the day, before you go to sleep, review the events of your day and focus on the best parts of it. It may be something large or very small. It may have been on your gratitude list, or not. Take a few minutes to re-live the positive emotions, and say thank you.

In a short period of time, you will begin to notice an improvement in both your mood and energy level. You do not have to do this perfectly or compulsively. Just make room in your schedule as frequently as you can, and practice.  I’m telling you, gratitude will change your life!

 

Thanksgiving Wishes

It’s getting late on the night before Thanksgiving. My daughter and I have been having what has become our own tradition of some crazy holiday cooking. We both enjoy cooking.  I prefer the alchemical process of cooking, grasping the concepts and principles, then often flying by the seat of my pants. She is an excellent baker because she understands the more exacting science of baking and follows recipes to the tee (yes, sometimes I lack the patience). We make a good team. And we have a lot of fun.

Each Thanksgiving and Christmas we are bouncing back and forth between the inspirations of old favorites and also untried recipes and the gorgeous pictures accompanying them, and trying to rein ourselves in from creating an impossible and stressful job. We have had some stellar successes as well as some equally harrowing (and now funny) results.

The best part of it is keeping each other company and chatting while we work. It is an echo of my memories of my mother and grandmothers working together in the kitchen, and occasionally asking us kids to help, but mostly trying to keep us out from underfoot.  Such scenes are being carried out in kitchens and dining rooms across America and probably in yours.

This year my Thanksgiving reflections are bittersweet.  A dear friend is losing her courageous and unflagging battle with cancer, and thoughts of her of much on my mind and in my heart. Needing to shift my focus from anxiety and despair, I have been writing in my journal about the many gifts of our friendship, and how much knowing her has enriched my life.

It seems that holidays and the memories they bring up, remind us of those family and friends that we have loved and lost. And yet the ways in which they have touched and shaped our lives will never be lost. Nor is the love we still feel when we think of them. I believe that love ultimately is Divine, and everlasting, even though the human form may be gone.

The thing I love most about Thanksgiving is the obvious: it is a time of gathering with others and regardless of our particular religious beliefs and practices, we express our gratitude. By now of course we know that gratitude is one the the best things we can do for our health and the well-being of our relationships.

So despite the challenges that you may have experienced over the year, my wish for you is that you will spend the day in the company of people you love. And that you will reflect on the gifts of your life and to simply express your thanks for them. And if you actually write the list, I hope that you will find it astonishingly long.