Gratitude: Upgrade Your Life

Author // Marcy Axness, Ph.D.

We are always self-creating. When we focus our consciousness toward gratitude, beauty and communion, we weave peace into our very cells. This isn’t just flowery sentiment; this comes from leading-edge research in the fields of positive psychology and mind-body science. For instance, consider the process of cell regeneration.

About one percent of all of our cells die and are replaced every day, meaning that at the cellular level we have new bodies about every three months. Thus, we are always participating in our own self-creation. And how we perceive daily life—with appreciation, gratitude and joy, or irritation, upset and negativity— literally shapes us into who we are tomorrow. This is how we have the power to grow a peaceful generation and cultivate a peaceful world.

As revolutionary as it is, the idea that each of us has a powerful say today in how we and our children evolve tomorrow isn’t a brand new idea. It has been carefully researched and expressed by progressive thinkers in previous centuries, whose ideas have simply been waiting for us to recognize their brilliant relevance.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” —Aristotle

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Are You Creating, or Re-Creating?

One of the biggest challenges we face in creating the lives we want—for ourselves, our partners, our children, and for our larger community and world—is that our basic attitudes and perceptions are a series of neural perception templates that were pretty much shaped for us, by our earliest experiences with the people and environment around us. During our pre-verbal early years, over the course of repeated experiences, the brain subconsciously distills the constant themes that underlie those experiences. This results in a kind of surreptitious learning that psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls “memory masquerading as fact.” Wrestling with these implicitly learned, habitual patterns of thinking or reacting is a little like having someone give you a great computer, then discovering it’s got some basic operating programs you don’t like…but you can’t seem to uninstall them!

This kind of automatic learning features a kind of bad-news bias. Until very recently in human history, our survival depended on remembering every detail of how we survived negative, stressful events, so our primitive brain systems pay much more attention to unpleasant experiences—detecting, imprinting and cataloging them. However, in the 21st century and beyond, our survival may instead depend upon prioritizing the positives of human experience—gratitude, appreciation and connection. This is how we can, for the first time in human history, unfold the full potential of our brains, including the prefrontal cortex—what one scientist calls the “angel lobes”—the seat of introspection, intention, conscience and civilization.

Where’s Your Head At?

What we put our attention on increases. When we focus on the positive—beauty, gratitude, enjoyment—just as when we zero in on the negative—criticism, losses, everything that’s wrong—it’s like putting water and fertilizer on it, making either the positive or the negative flourish and multiply. This isn’t just fuzzy “power of attraction” stuff, this is also Brain Function 101: when we tune our attention in a certain way, we initiate a flow of biochemicals that carve brain pathways for more neurons to travel more easily down that same path in the next nanosecond, minute, hour, day, year. At the same time, our attitude and focus also create a subconscious template of perception that filters the millions of incoming bits of life’s information and captures those bits that match our initial proposition.

Can you see how quickly this becomes a feedback loop, spiraling either up or down? Let’s say I’ve just missed out on getting a job even though I was sure I had nailed the interview, my rent payment is overdue and the landlady is getting harder to avoid, and my cat is throwing up all over the apartment. Each of these situations could unleash streams of brain chemicals (what neuroscientist Candace Pert calls “molecules of emotion”) to edge me toward upset, and when they happen all together, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for me to have a bit of a meltdown. That’s understandable, normal and human. The trick here is to find an exit ramp before I careen completely off the rails: a short trip on the Freak Out Expressway is okay as long as we take timely control of the wheel and get back onto the tree-lined Avenues of Life.

Revising Our Programming

There are many simple and effective ways to do a pattern interrupt on spiraling negativity, whether it’s sadness, stress, anger or whatever—and each time we make a choice to exit that negative brain pathway, we are indeed “uninstalling” those old operating programs we don’t want, rewriting them with healthier ones. Here are a few methods that are tried and true:

Breathe. Put your attention on your breath and mindfully take in some slow, deep breaths…holding each one for a few extra counts. (This encourages extra oxygenation of the blood going to your brain to help it cope with the neurons firing away like crazy in this intense moment!)

Focus on gratitude. Think of something that pulls up the “grateful” or “appreciative” feeling from your mental file cabinet, and then immerse yourself in that feeling now. It can be the memory of an event that made you feel wonderful…the thought of a person whom you deeply love…something exceptionally kind someone did for you…or even a pet you adore. This is especially helpful when you’re in the grip of angry feelings, because as sophisticated an instrument as your brain is, when you’re in a stressed or highly emotional state, it becomes fairly primitive and can only deal with one thing at a time—either anger or appreciation. Research demonstrates that appreciation brings us into inner alignment at the levels of the brain, heart and mind.

Notice & name: The simple act of observing and identifying for yourself the emotions you’re feeling can help the brain structures driving those negative feelings to self-correct, and help you find your way back to a lighter, freer emotional tone. It also helps lasso your mind back from rehashing the past or rehearsing the future, and to situate you in the present moment, the only place where true serenity can be found.

Smile. Research shows that when we smile—even if it at first feels forced, because we’re really in a funk—we do get happier. Again, it’s the brain’s own pharmacy at work!

Nourish yourself. Omega 3 EFAs (essential fatty acids) are the equivalent of motor oil for the healthy functioning of the brain. As our national fish consumption has dropped over the decades, our depression rates have indeed risen, and scientists think there is a connection. Getting your Omega 3s is simply an enlightened, basic health practice—just like brushing and flossing.

Connect with others. Spend some time in the real (not virtual) presence of someone with whom you feel comfortable, supported and safe—ideally someone who is grounded and centered. Thanks to “mirror neurons” (recently discovered by scientists in the new field of interpersonal neurobiology), another person’s emotional calm can be contagious, and by simply being in their presence we can feel better. One of the primary qualities that will characterize this generation of innovative peacemakers is resilience—the capacity to weather tough times and challenges with equanimity at the physiological, psychological and behavioral levels. Meaning we don’t collapse, freak out, or smash things when the pressure’s on. It bears noting that people who score high on resilience feel comfortable reaching out, and that the interdependence of asking for help (and giving it back when help is asked of you) is one of the healthiest capacities a person can develop.

Do something. I love a saying from David K. Reynolds’s Constructive Living: “Accept your emotions as they are and do what needs to be done.” If the dishes need to be done, do them. If the floor is nasty, sweep or vacuum. It may require an act of will, but tackle that messy corner of the room you’ve been avoiding. An activity as mundane as scrubbing the bathtub can be surprisingly restorative when we immerse ourselves utterly and completely in each moment’s movement: the warmth and hum of the water, the pitted texture of the sponge, the tangy smell of the cleanser, the stretch of the arm muscles when reaching to the far side…and the satisfaction of the gleaming, ring-free final result.

Which brings us back to appreciation!

These suggestions aren’t just for crisis moments, but are fundamentals for developing our own inner well-being and peacefulness. Two themes prominent in these activities are connection and appreciation, both of which have emerged in human health research—both mental and psychological—as superstars. The relatively new field of positive psychology finds that the single most potent means of amping up our joy—and also our physical energy and well-being—is to cultivate gratitude. Scientists talk about keeping a gratitude journal, writing gratitude letters, and an exercise one doctor calls “three blessings,” in which you take time each day to write about three things that went well, and why.

Even more simply, though, appreciation can take the form of noticing more fully some of the myriad things we normally take for granted in daily life. For example, the small act of eating a piece of fruit can take on a whole new dimension when we turn our attention to what is embodied in that apple—seasons of nurturance by rains, sun and those who cared for its tree—and the amazing fact that the flesh of that fruit will be transmuted into us in the coming hours and days.

The Only Question, Always: Growth or Protection?

If you only remember one paragraph of this, this is the one, since its message pervades and informs every moment of your life: At every level of and at every stage of life, an organism is either in growth mode or in protection mode. Expanding or contracting. Reaching out or withdrawing. Unfolding or reinforcing. The entity may be a single cell, a community of cells (such as a person), or a community of people (such as an organization, country or race).

The organ most vulnerable to growth impairment due to stress is the brain, particularly the healthy development of the prefrontal lobes. Neuroscientist Paul MacLean called the prefontals our “angel lobes,” and they are truly our ticket off this ride of repetitive cycles of human-on-human aggression, war and misery. But for lo these 40,000 years with this wondrous, potentially uplifting addition to our neural architecture, we as a human race have thwarted its development—and thus our own glorious evolution—through our threatening actions, both subtle and extreme.

Installing the Upgrade

One of the upgrade functions of the prefrontal lobes is to unite the instinctive, automatic responsiveness of the lower brain centers—the doing and feeling areas—with the more thoughtful, reasoned qualities of the neocortex, resulting in a being whose reflex is to act wisely and with humanity. The ability to retain access to higher brain centers during high-stress situations can actually be trained, as we see with firefighters, paramedics and others whose professions require a cool head during what would normally be perceived as threatening situations.

You can begin to develop this capacity in this very moment. As you continually give birth to your future self through cell regeneration, you have a direct influence on the healthy quality of that growth. Recognizing that your thoughts, attitudes and emotions have a direct impact on the functioning of every cell, tissue and organ—and particularly the brain—you have the power to harmonize them all into coherent, integrated and purposeful function.

Try a little experiment with me: Imagine there is a lemon wedge on a plate in front of you. Pick it up, smell the tart aroma, and then, without a hesitation, put it in your mouth and bite down hard. If you felt saliva pour forth, you have just experienced the power of thoughts in your mind to make things happen in your body. This is a most auspicious time to understand and harness that power. You are at the helm of your ship and the master of your destiny, to a far greater degree than scientists ever before realized (but many philosophers knew). But it is a choice, and not always an easy choice. Our culture doesn’t warmly welcome the cheerful person (calling them “Pollyanna” or branding them on sitcoms as the silly or naïve one), and instead fosters pessimism, cynicism, criticism and other forms of collective negativity. Our very way of life ultimately organizes around consumerism—the Gross National Product is a fundamental measure of our “national well-being” is it not?—and it is far easier to sell things to people who are feeling down! Indeed, from birth onward, we are enculturated to the idea of security having to do with things, which leads to a materialist drive: Getting more and more things, more and more money, bigger cars, etc., somehow shores up our sense of self and security. But the late George Leonard was acute in his observation about the trap of materialism: “You can never get enough of what you really don’t want.”

A Glitch or a Glimmer in the Works

In some cases the communication between the environment and the cell is straightforward: When we’re exposed to the sun, certain ligands park in certain receptors, signaling for melanin to be produced to adapt our skin to sunny conditions. When we see, hear, feel or smell an immediate threat (an armed intruder, a hissing snake, an earthquake, a fire) torrents of ligands flow, dock in receptors, and trigger an arsenal of fight-flight-freeze hormones so that we can effectively respond to the threat.

But in most cases, especially in our modern world, the communication between the environment and the cell passes through an intermediary: your mind. It is through your mind that you perceive your environment—that is, tell yourself a story about it. In this way we can amplify, diminish or even fundamentally redirect the ligand responses to many of our experiences. Our human ability to think creatively, to imagine, to invent, is a double-edged sword; the more painful edge is our ability to create, imagine and invent negative perceptions to environmental circumstances, which we have a natural, survival-based tendency to do. The driver didn’t simply pull in front of you without signaling, he deliberately dissed you and put your life in danger. The electricity didn’t simply disappear due to an outage, it confirmed that “everything’s conspiring against me today!” You get the idea.

This is where Nature’s brilliant design runs into some snags in the 21st century. The way our bodies and brains operate has remained virtually unchanged since we stood upright on the savannah, and yet our world and our worldview have changed dramatically. For most of us, the grave physical threats faced by our distant ancestors have been replaced by more mental and psychological insults (usually made far more insulting by virtue of the story we wrap them in), and this results in a derailment of what used to be an adaptive survival response. In less cerebral times, the very act of running, fighting or even screaming used up all those hormones (adrenaline, corticosteroids, epinephrine) designed to give you quick energy, to make you think fast, to make you run, fight or scream with the most power and effectiveness possible, or even to successfully feign death. This brilliant system even primed the immune system to be ready to attend to injuries you’d probably suffer during the episode. But today we typically don’t express those actions for which we’re biologically primed in stressful circumstances. This is one way that stress puts wear and tear on our bodily systems.

Making it ever worse, we were originally designed to respond effectively to major but only occasional threats. Today’s turbo-paced, traffic-jammed, techno-powered, instant-access, cell-phone-fax-web, information-overloaded e-world is peppered with one mini-threat after another, with little time in between for all those activating hormones to abate and give our machinery a rest. Chronic stress can shrink brain cells, harden arteries, raise cholesterol and impair immune function, among many other negative effects, so it isn’t surprising that stress has emerged as a strong contributing factor to most chronic or degenerative diseases, as well as common acute illnesses like colds and flu.

But research consistently turns up glimmers of empowerment, suggesting that rather than wringing our hands over the unavoidable pressures of modern life, we have the ability to choose which story we tell ourselves about whatever is going on—i.e., to perceive with consciousness—and thereby shape our own being. This is where the power of gratitude and appreciation does its stuff.

Growth / Protection Regeneration Gap

The distribution of receptor spaces on a cell’s membrane isn’t a fixed design, but one that is constantly being revised on an “as needed” basis. If I’m chronically stressed—either because I’m being stalked by tigers daily or I’m continually perceiving situations in a negative-spin way—the consistently increased level of stress hormones circulating in my system looking for parking spaces is going to change my cells, quite literally.

The cell’s intelligence, propelling it to respond to environmental information for its own well-being and continuity, interprets an abundance of circulating stress chemicals as proof that the environment is dangerous. This in turn behooves it to generate more receptors—and more sensitive signaling “curbs”—by which it can receive and respond to this critical information, increasing the individual’s chances of surviving. To augment this survival strategy, the cell will also reduce the number and sensitivity of receptors for chemicals that trigger feelings of pleasure and contentment, since “stopping to smell the roses” in a threatening world would put an organism at serious risk.

Cells Are Excellent Students

Research in psychoneuroimmunology (the study of the “mind-body connection”) has given us astonishing illustrations of the power of our mind to effect “cellular instruction.” Examples include:

  • Subjects who developed asthma attacks after being given a harmless substance, but told it was something to which they were highly allergic.

  • Patients with multiple personality disorder have differing physiological profiles, depending upon which personality is active. This can include optical prescriptions, allergies and even diabetes in one personality but not others.

  • Patients with high cholesterol levels reduce them by 35 percent solely through daily, 15-minute “mind-clearing” sessions.

  • The placebo effect, while complex and subject to a variety of factors, has a long and impressive history of demonstrating the powerful role of a patient’s mind when she has expectations that a treatment will work. One study found that up to 75 percent of the effectiveness of antidepressants was due to the placebo effect rather than the treatment itself.

We are walking pharmacies, able to produce our own powerful drugs to treat everything from pain to sadness to fear. Our brains and nervous systems do not know the difference between something we imagine or something we experience “in reality.” Elite athletes have long known this, and use focused visualization to augment their physical conditioning and practice. Whatever you spend time thinking about and envisioning—regardless of whether it’s something you hope for, or something you hope against—is what you are ordering from the menu of life: This is what I’ll have, thank you.

This is the power of imagination—your neuro-endocrine system lines itself up in service to your thoughts, perceptions and intentions about yourself and about the world. With this awesome power in your service, you engage 24/7 in a nonstop dialogue with your 50 trillion brilliant cells, telling them about the world they need to adapt to. As those cells continually regenerate to make the never-ending story that is you, the question becomes: What are you instructing your 50 trillion cellular geniuses to be?

When you consciously practice presence, cultivate gratitude and focus on appreciation, you are teaching yourself to be peace. You are being the peace you seek. You are changing the world.

Pathways Issue 29 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #29.

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