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Gratitude: Upgrade Your Life

By Marcy Axness, PhD

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

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.