Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to remember the many blessings in our lives. Many of us gather with family and friends to share our gratitude for one another. This is a beautiful time of year to kick off a new gratitude practice that has the power to shape how we think, act, and feel.
Wired for Danger
We have a natural tendency to focus on what goes wrong. Over thousands of years we have developed a built-in survival mechanism wired to detect danger. Our minds know that learning from negative experiences is a matter life or death. Our brains are like velcro for anything negative that crosses our path. This skill is important for our survival but also impacts our feelings. If focus only on negatives, we can become angry, anxious, or depressed.
On the other hand, positive or neutral experiences happen all the time each day, but have no bearing on whether we will live or die. Our brains are like teflon for the positive experiences. Something pleasant happens, it slides right off, and we continue through our day. What does this have to do with how we think, act, and feel?
Nourish the Brain
According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, where we place our focus has the power to shape our brains.
If you rest your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, or there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take on a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.
Hanson suggests that we have the power to build inner strength and resilience by focusing on positive experiences in such a way that our brains are reshaped to respond to life with more positive feelings, sense of calm, and confidence. He suggests that we literally “hold the good” for as long as 10-20 seconds each time we have a pleasant experience. In his new book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Hanson has a number of simple practices that have powerful benefits. He developed the HEAL exercise to build the positive centers of the brain and also decrease the negative charge of painful experiences, both past and present:
- “H: Have a positive experience:
- Notice a positive experience that’s already present in your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone. Or create a positive experience for which you’re grateful, bring to mind a friend, or recognize a task you’ve completed. As much as you can, help ideas like these become emotionally rewarding experiences, otherwise it is merely positive thinking.
- E: Enrich it:
- Stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; let it fill your mind. Enjoy it. Gently encourage the experience to be more intense. Find something fresh and novel about it. Recognize how it’s personally relevant, how it could nourish or help you, or make a difference in your life. Get those neurons really firing together, so they’ll really wire together.
A: Absorb it:
- Intend and sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Let it really land in your mind. Perhaps visualize it sifting down into you like golden dust, or feel it washing you like a soothing balm. Or place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart. Know that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource inside that you can take with you wherever you go.
- L: Link positive and negative material (optional)
- While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of awareness, also be aware of something negative in the background. For example, when you feel included and liked these days, you could sense this experience making contact with feelings of loneliness from your past. If negative material hijacks your attention, drop it and focus only on the positive; when you feel recentered in the positive, you can let the negative also be present in awareness if you like. Whatever you want, let go of all negative material and rest only in the positive. Then, to continue uprooting the negative material, a few times over the next hour be aware of only neutral or positive material while also bringing to mind neutral things (e.g., people, situations, ideas) that have become associated with negative material.” (Hanson, 2013)
This week we celebrate together the blessings of this year. What if we took this opportunity to expand this practice into the rest of the year? When we “hold the good,” we open our hearts to experience joy, and remind ourselves that each moment is our life.
Resident therapist at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute