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Neuroscience and Gratitude

February 5, 2014 Leave a comment

The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier

 by Ocean Robbins

Sometimes our world appears pretty messed up. With all the violence, pollution and crazy things people do, it would be easy to turn into a grouchy old man without being either elderly or male. There’s certainly no shortage of justification for disappointment and cynicism.

But consider this: Negative attitudes are bad for you. And gratitude, it turns out, makes you happier and healthier. If you invest in a way of seeing the world that is mean and frustrated, you’re going to get a world that is, well, more mean and frustrating. But if you can find any authentic reason to give thanks, anything that is going right with the world or your life, and put your attention there, then statistics say you’re going to be better off.

Does this mean to live in a state of constant denial and put your head in the sand? Of course not. Gratitude works when you’re grateful for something real. Feeling euphoric and spending money like you just won the lottery when you didn’t is probably going to make you real poor, real quick.

But what are you actually grateful for? It’s a question that could change your life.

Recent studies have concluded that the expression of gratitude can have profound and positive effects on our health, our moods and even the survival of our marriages.

As Drs. Blaire and Rita Justice reported for the University of Texas Health Science Center, “a growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychosocial benefits.”

In one study on gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.

Maroboli - Gratitude

In a later study by Emmons, people were asked to write every day about things for which they were grateful. Not surprisingly, this daily practice led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly journaling in the first study. But the results showed another benefit: Participants in the gratitude group also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others, or more technically, their “pro-social” motivation.

Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults having congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude group reported more hours of sleep each night, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening. The gratitude group also reported more satisfaction with their lives as a whole, felt more optimism about the upcoming week, and felt considerably more connected with others than did participants in the control group.

Perhaps most tellingly, the positive changes were markedly noticeable to others. According to the researchers, “Spouses of the participants in the gratitude (group) reported that the participants appeared to have higher subjective well-being than did the spouses of the participants in the control (group).”

There’s an old saying that if you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness. It turns out this isn’t just a fluffy idea. Several studies have shown depression to be inversely correlated to gratitude. It seems that the more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are. Philip Watkins, a clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, found that clinically depressed individuals showed significantly lower gratitude (nearly 50 percent less) than non-depressed controls.

Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington has been researching marriages for two decades. The conclusion of all that research, he states, is that unless a couple is able to maintain a high ratio of positive to negative encounters (5:1 or greater), it is likely the marriage will end.

With 90 percent accuracy, Gottman says he can predict, often after only three minutes of observation, which marriages are likely to flourish and which are likely to flounder. The formula is that for every negative expression (a complaint, frown, put-down, and/or expression of anger) there needs to be about five positive ones (smiles, compliments, laughter, expressions of appreciation and gratitude).

Apparently, positive vibes aren’t just for hippies. If you want in on the fun, here are some simple things you can do to build positive momentum toward a more happy and fulfilling life:

1) Keep a daily journal of three things you are thankful for. This works well first thing in the morning, or just before you go to bed.

2) Make it a practice to tell a spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day.

3) Look in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself.

Sure this world gives us plenty of reasons to despair. But when we get off the fast track to morbidity, and cultivate instead an attitude of gratitude, things don’t just look better — they actually get better. Thankfulness feels good, it’s good for you and it’s a blessing for the people around you, too. It’s such a win-win-win that I’d say we have cause for gratitude.

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January 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Prime Your Brain for Mega Success

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment
[Reprint Alert: Original Article]

Did you know that the thoughts, ideas, images, and emotional states you are bombarded with every day are constantly influencing your level of success in life and business? Recent scientific research has shown that a single word delivered to your mind just before you begin a task can affect the decisions you make when performing that task. Furthermore, your emotional state will affect your memory and the degree of your success when making decisions and evaluating problems and solutions. Science refers to this phenomenon as cognitive priming. It literally optimizes your brain to make it work faster and more efficiently, and when you change negative beliefs into positive ones, restrictive moods literally melt away.

If you’re at point in your life where you know you want to make a specific change in your life, but you lack faith in your ability to make that change with confidence and certainty, cognitive priming can make all the difference. Let’s use the power of cognitive priming right now. When you’re finished, you’ll be in the right mood and right state of mind to achieve whatever goal you desire with greater ease, and you’ll transform your old behaviors and mindsets that have interfered with your success in the past.

1. Write down one thing you would like to change in your life or business.

2. How do you feel about your ability to begin making this change right now? Notice your thoughts and feelings, and write down your first impressions without too much analysis.

3. Now think of a time in your life when you achieved a similar goal. The idea is to identify some past achievement that relates to your desired goal in any way at all, no matter how minor. For example, if you were unexpectedly asked to give a speech in two days and you haven’t given a speech before, you might feel quite nervous. In this instance, you could use cognitive and emotional priming by consciously remembering positive and enthusiastic conversations you’ve had with both friends and strangers in the past. Relive those memories of success vividly: see the colors and images your saw at that time; feel the feelings; smell the aromas, taste the flavors; think the thoughts you experienced at the time; and see the world the way you saw it at that time.

4. Now think about the desired the change you wish to make in your life now. How do you feel about your ability to begin making this change right now? Write down your first impressions without giving them too much thought. You should notice a tangible shift in your confidence and enthusiasm.

5. Write down one action you can take immediately that will help you achieve your goal. Now do it and notice how you feel.

Congratulations! You have just primed your brain and mind to successfully achieve your desired goal. The key, however, is to practice this every day. And how do you do that? Simply recall a time when you created a new positive habit, and vividly remember it with as much sensory detail as you can. Then take positive action.

It really is that simple.

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December 3, 2011 Leave a comment

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A New Definition for Addiction

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment
 [Thank you to LiveScience.com for inspiration and materials]

According to a new definition recently released by The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is a chronic brain disorder and not simply a behavior problem involving alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex.

The (ASAM) definition of addiction comes after a four-year process involving more than 80 experts.

“At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain problem whose behaviors manifest in all these other areas,” said Dr. Michael Miller, past president of ASAM and current medical director of the Herrington Recovery Center at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wis. who oversaw the development of the new definition. “Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.”

The new definition also describes addiction as a primary disease, meaning that it’s not the result of other causes, such as emotional or psychiatric problems. And like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, addiction is recognized as a chronic disease; so it must be treated, managed and monitored over a person’s lifetime, the ASAM staff researchers say.

Two decades of advancements in neuroscience convinced ASAM officials that addiction should be redefined by what’s going on in the brain. For instance, research has shown that addiction affects the brain’s reward circuitry, such that memories of previous experiences with food, sex, alcohol and other drugs trigger cravings and more addictive behaviors. Brain circuitry that governs impulse control and judgment is also altered in the brains of addicts, resulting in the nonsensical pursuit of “rewards,” such as alcohol and other drugs.

A long-standing debate has roiled over whether addicts have a choice over their behaviors, said Dr. Raju Hajela, former president of the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine and chair of the ASAM committee on addiction’s new definition. With the new findings, the brain appears to play a much larger role than previously believed. “The behavioral problem is a result of brain dysfunction,” suggests Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Just what does happen in the brain? It’s a complex interplay of emotional, cognitive and behavioral networks.

Genetics plays a role, meaning some people are more vulnerable to an addiction if they, say, experiment with drugs as a teenager or wind up on potent prescription painkillers after an injury.

Age does, too. The frontal cortex helps put the brakes on unhealthy behaviors, Dr. Volkow explains. It’s where the brain’s reasoning side connects to emotion-related areas. It’s among the last neural regions to mature, one reason that it’s harder for a teenager to withstand peer pressure to experiment with drugs.

Even if you’re not biologically vulnerable to begin with, perhaps you try alcohol or drugs to cope with a stressful or painful environment, Dr. Volkow says. Whatever the reason, the brain’s reward system can change as a chemical named dopamine conditions it to rituals and routines that are linked to getting something you’ve found pleasurable, whether it’s a pack of cigarettes or a few drinks or even overeating. When someone’s truly addicted, that warped system keeps them going back even after the brain gets so used to the high that it’s no longer pleasurable.

Make no mistake: Patients still must choose to fight back and treat an addiction, stresses Dr. Miller. But understanding some of the brain reactions at the root of the problem will “hopefully reduce some of the shame about some of these issues, hopefully reduce stigma,” he says.

And while most of the neuroscience centers on drug and alcohol addiction, the society notes that it’s possible to become addicted to gambling, sex or food although there’s no good data on how often that happens. It’s time for better study to find out, Dr. Miller says.

In a related statement, Dr. Hajela opined, “The disease creates distortions in thinking, feelings and perceptions, which drive people to behave in ways that are not understandable to others around them. Simply put, addiction is not a choice. Addictive behaviors are a manifestation of the disease, not a cause.”

“Even so”, Dr. Hajela continued, “choice does play a role in getting help. . .Because there is no pill which alone can cure addiction, choosing recovery over unhealthy behaviors is necessary.”

According to ASAM researcher staff, “choosing recovery” is akin to people with heart disease who may not choose the underlying genetic causes of their heart problems but do need to choose to eat healthier or begin exercising, in addition to medical or surgical interventions.

Dr. Miller concludes, “So, we have to stop moralizing, blaming, controlling or smirking at the person with the disease of addiction, and start creating opportunities for individuals and families to get help and providing assistance in choosing proper treatment.”

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August 13, 2011 Leave a comment