Change Your Brain from Mindful.org . Part one

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The cynics, skeptics, and curmudgeons tempted to dismiss gratitude and other happiness-boosting practices as New Age hokum would be well advised to consider the mounting evidence linking positive emotions to markers for good health. Our brains tell a significant part of the story.

“Research suggests that when people consciously practice gratitude, they’re increasing the flow of beneficial neurochemicals in the brain,” Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author, most recently of Hardwiring Happiness, tells me over hot and sour soup in San Rafael, California. “What passes through the mind resculpts the neural structure of the brain. If we focus on what we resent or regret, we build out the neural substrates of those thoughts and feelings. But if we rest our attention on things we’re grateful for, we build up very different neural substrates. New blood starts flowing. Existing synapses become more sensitive and new synapses grow.”

Who knew that happiness is an equal opportunity emotion, as available to grouches and worriers as it is to the innately cheerful?

The key, Hanson adds, is promoting sustained attention. Just having positive experiences isn’t enough. In order for those experiences to have a real impact on our brain, we need to stay with them for longer periods than may be our custom. Hanson calls this taking in the good.

The practice goes something like this: Notice something pleasant already present in the foreground or background of your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, the sight of a beautiful tree, or a feeling of closeness with someone. Stay with it for five to 10 seconds or longer. Open to the feelings it produces in your mind and body, enjoy them, and gently encourage the experience to intensify. Finally, imagine the good sinking into you as you sink into it. You might even visualize the experience as a soothing balm or a jewel in your heart—a resource inside yourself that you can take with you wherever you go.

This sounds and feels good; I’ve even tried it during my daily walks through the hills in my neighborhood, and I like it. I’ve savored the beauty around me and felt it soak into my body. Still, I can’t help wondering about my default anxious self. How does “taking in the good” affect the old wiring and issues related to fear and safety? These issues, Hanson says, tend to be rooted in the more primitive parts of the brain—the subcortex and brain stem—areas that are more resistant to change than the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with positive emotions and greater neuroplasticity.

“It’s important to distinguish between real threats and false alarms,” suggests Hanson. “Trust yourself to be aware of real threats, and you’ll be more comfortable dismissing the false alarms. You need to recognize at the cognitive level and in the body that false alarms are delusional. Learn to calm your body and build up inner strengths, such as mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion.” Because our brains can only process a limited amount of information at any one time, he says, the more we focus on positive experiences, the less room there is for the negative to take hold.

Still, I’m slightly wary. Is all this emphasis on the positive like trying to put a giant Band-Aid over what is sad and painful and difficult in our lives?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Deep and meaningful ✨♥️

  2. Yes, we can influence our happiness

    We must discount the noise then reinforce the good

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