Or if you simply want to feel more joy, choose gratitude, because when you feel more joy, you make the world more joyful. You need just three easy keys: emote, extend, and exercise.
Emote: meaning it’s not enough just to think about gratitude; you’ve got to feel the emotion.
Extend: as in extend your gratitude beyond yourself to include other people. Be grateful for other people.
Exercise: do your daily gratitude exercise.
Emote, extend, exercise. Say it with me: emote; extend; exercise.
When you practice gratitude correctly, you tap into neuroplasticity, brain plasticity. That’s the discovery that we can restructure our physical brains by using our minds to create better brain cell connections. When you use the three keys you unlock your neuroplasticity.
When you emote you fire up the hippocampus, your brain center of learning and memory. When you extend your gratitude to include other people, you spark the most highly evolved areas of the human brain devoted to social intelligence. And finally, in order for those wonderful new brain cell connections to go into long-term memory, to spread out into the subconscious where they become deep beliefs that drive you forward, that takes the regular repetition of daily exercise.
Emote, extend, exercise. Say with me: emote, extend, exercise.
Gratitude is especially powerful at healing childhood wounds. One of my clients, talented architect, grew up with a cruel abusive father. And my client was carrying around a sense of victimhood which was understandable. But it made him feel helpless, less self-confident which was limiting his personal and professional success.
Using the three keys, my client began doing a daily gratitude exercise. Within one month was attracting better customers making more money. Plus now he’s just a whole lot happier. He emailed me to say how glad he is, “just being thankful for the things I have”, he wrote, “instead of focusing on the things I don’t have.”
See, all of us experienced some negativity during childhood. That’s just life. The problem is children are vulnerable. Children cannot defend themselves against negative information. The part of the brain that allows us to make our own judgments and to block bad information is the prefrontal cortex, right up here. It’s the last part of the brain to develop. Its physical structure isn’t fully formed until after age 20.
So when we are kids, negative information slips easily deep into the brain unfiltered. And the more emotionally charged those negative messages are, the more they stick in the subconscious. They become what we call limiting beliefs which will hold us back, just as my client’s sense of victimhood was holding him back. Gratitude freed my client from old limiting beliefs. It can do the same for you.
Being a slow learner, it’s taken me a long while but today I’m grateful even for my own family history, as strange as it was. And I want to share with you some of that history to show you the power of gratitude.
When I was young, my mother abandoned our family. Eventually she became a radical lesbian. At one point, she told me she was no longer my mother. This may be hard for you to understand here in India where mothers are revered. But she saw the role of motherhood as being oppressive to women. And so for a while she simply resigned from being my mother.
My father was a hopeless alcoholic. He showed up for work so many times drunk he got fired from his job. Then one afternoon lying on his bed he passed out drunk with a cigarette in his hand and burned down the house. He and my brother Toby, who was also home at the time, were lucky to get out alive.
My brother Toby, three years older than I, twice as big, became violent during his teenage years and quite dangerous to me personally. Today he’s classified by the federal government as a severe paranoid schizophrenic. By law, he’s on a lot of medication, so he’s no longer a danger to others.
There were many wonderful aspects about my childhood. We lived in the forest with dogs and cats and pet bunny rabbits. That was heaven. But the negative effects of my childhood crept up on me around age 30 in the form of self-pity and bad behavior. I was destructively acting out, behaving badly, blaming my own behavior on my family. Hmm, I was confused. Living at the time in New York City, I did what confused New Yorkers do.
I went to see a shrink. Psychotherapy going all the way back to Freud was based on an interesting theory. So the psychotherapist was a nice person but she didn’t know what we know today about the brain. All the way back to Freud was based on the theory that if you kept digging at the roots of a psychological problem you could eventually yank it out like a weed as though the brain were a sort of flower pot.
Now there was never any real scientific evidence to support this flower pot theory. But for nearly a century most psychotherapy was based on it. So the psychotherapist had me endlessly dig up bad memories, dredge up old traumas, pull up old pain, dwell, dwell, dwell on a negative.
Today neuroplasticity shows us that when we dwell on the negative we reinforce those negative brain cell connections, making ourselves more negative.
Finally, this time in my late 30s, a friend came to the rescue once again. My friend Steven taught me a gratitude exercise. Gratitude saved my life. Gratitude has kept me happy ever since. It will do the same for you.