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David C Winegar

David C Winegar

Author, trainer, coach, speaker, and applied neuroscience advocate. For 20 years he has been using the latest research to help people and organizations to achieve more.

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Success! BraInsights sold 68 pre-orders by Oct. 30, 2018, was pitched to 21 publishers, and will be self published.

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Update #4 - Happy Thanksgiving - The Neuroscience of Gratitude Nov. 22, 2018

Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.

As we begin the American Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the research about gratitude from my upcoming book Brainsights. Neuroscience researchers, in just the past couple of years, have release several studies that highlight how being grateful can improve your well-being and help you live a happier life. One of the most remarkable findings is realizing the benefits only takes forming simple habits.

Learning to be grateful, celebrate the things we have, and appreciate the every day “gifts” others contribute to our lives is something research shows has many positive health and well-being benefits.

One of the key benefits of practicing gratitude includes reducing the stress hormone cortisol and increasing oxytocin. The combined affect promotes healthier and more meaningful relationships. In a 2015 study, researchers found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship (Williams and Bartlett 2015). The researchers’ findings for the first time support the evidence that perceptions of interpersonal warmth, friendliness, and thoughtfulness, serve as mechanisms via which gratitude connects and advances connections to others.

A 2012 study found those who rate high in gratitude were more empathetic and showed less aggressive tendencies. Participants in the study who had been identified as high-grateful persons were more likely to behave in a prosocial manner. They showed overall more sympathy and sensitivity towards other people and a decreased desire to seek reprisal (DeWall, et al. 2012).

The benefits of good sleep to human health is well documented and research has shown that practicing gratitude will help improve sleep. In a 2009 study involving 400 adults of all ages showed those who spent just 15 minutes jotting down things they were grateful for before going to bed reported sleeping better and longer and needing less time to fall asleep. Participants also had a carry-over of thankful thinking to the next day and had less daytime dysfunction (Wood, Joseph, Lloyd, & Atkins, 2009).

Another study published in 2016, involving 119 young well-educated women, asked participants to keep a simple diary recording what they were grateful for. The results not only showed increases in optimism and sleep quality, but also reductions in blood pressure and an increase in overall well-being. (Jackowska, et al. 2016)

Neuroscience has also shown keeping a gratitude journal is beneficial to the brain. (Kini 2016) (Karns, Moore and Mayr 2017) A 2016 fMRI imaging study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience confirmed participants who wrote a daily gratitude journal experienced change to their S2 brains. Those who took part in a program were required to reflect daily on the things they were grateful for. In just three weeks changes to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), the area responsible for social decision making, were documented. The participants expressed feeling more generosity and selflessness towards others during the time they were keeping the journal. Researcher Christine Karns commented that the study “suggests that there's more good out there when there is gratitude." (University of Oregon 2017)

Journaling does not have to be a tedious task, a simple listing of three things you are grateful for each night before bed is a great start and produces benefits. For me growing up in a Christian family in the mid-West I said my prayers each night and part of those prayers was giving thanks for those people in my life.

For those not into journaling or prayer, Dr. Glenn Foxx, Research Fellow at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, recommends spending a few moments each day contemplating things in our life you appreciate. He explains in the morning he takes a moment to contemplate the small things that others have done to give him moments of pleasure, for example, coffee. Fox will think about all the people involved who allow him to enjoy his coffee in the morning, from the farmers that picked the beans, to the people who roast, pack, and ship it. Putting your mind to think about the efforts needed to enjoy the simple pleasures you experience each day, can make you more appreciative, humble and grateful. (Foxx 2016)

The sustained happiness we get from gratitude has been studied. In a 2012 study participants were asked to write a letter of thanks to someone who had been kind to them (identical to the exercise I was asked to do). The results showed participants who engaged in letter-writing reported an increase in happiness lasting for at least a month (Toepfer, Cichy and Peters 2012).

Gratitude has been found to also foster resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change. Most of us in our lives are confronted with setbacks. Setbacks make life unpredictable and stressful and it is in those moments between triumph and tragedy that builds character.

The brain is wired to bounce back from difficulties through experience and practice of habits which create the coping mechanisms that build resilience. Gratitude based habits focus your brain on positive triggers in the nervous system and, according to researchers at the University of California Davis, results in a 23% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. (UC Davis Health 2015)

An interesting study published in 2014 found another benefit of practicing gratitude, an increase in self-control.  Researchers at Harvard found gratitude served as a tool for reducing impatience. Participants in the study showed higher self-control when they focused thoughts on life events they identified as being grateful for, as opposed to those they were happy or neutral about. Professor Ye Li comment on the potential of using gratitude as a tool for self-control stating:

Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discover a way to reduce impatience with simple gratitude exercises opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing a wide range of societal ills from impulse buying and insufficient saving to obesity and smoking.

The current findings argue strongly for a second route to combat excessive impatience – a route that can operate relatively intuitively and thus effortlessly from the bottom-up.  (DeSteno, et al. 2014)

self-control is the most energy-intensive cognitive task of the human brain? By practicing gratitude, it is possible to increase self-control without a demanding behavior modification program based on willpower, which plenty of studies confirm seldom work.

The goal should be for you make gratitude habit. To move being grateful over to an automated process that is effortlessly triggered. Your brain continuously creates new neural pathways, making connections between two ideas, or objects, and sending electronic pulses between corresponding neurons. The more you use these neural connections the more efficient and automatic they become. The more you practice gratitude, the stronger the synaptic efficiency will become and the more self-control you will have.

Start by giving thanks for another day from the moment you wake and look for ways you can express thanks for those around you who have made your life easier, more rewarding, more interesting or enjoyable. Tell them what they have done for you, send them an email, text message, a Facebook IM, and let them know. End the day by taking a few moments to reflect on what you have and what you can give thanks for. Write it in a journal, use a mobile app to save it, or write it on a post-it note and stick it to your computer screen or mirror where you will see it at the start of the next day.

I have made an initiative in my life to show gratitude for the things people do for me. I have thanked often individual customers for their business and continued support and for opening the door to their company to what I offer. The reaction has been often some embarrassment, but I know they appreciated it. It takes only a moment, and it has far reaching benefits for you and for them.

In my business producing insulin pump cases for children, Radrr (radrr.com) I have created friendships with the people in China helping me to produce my products. I try to get to know them as people by asking them about their lives, their children, hobbies, where they have traveled and what their aspirations are. Does it take more time? Yes, it does. But I have seen the results of my gratitude. I can hear in their voices the appreciation for my interest in them, and I see in my business they will do more to help me succeed, including faster service and more attention to detail. The gratitude I have extended to them is paid back.  

This is what a good life is about and what we should aspire to every day. Expressing our gratitude to others for being in our lives. There is a saying, “Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds.” Make a habit of planting more “flowers” by using gratitude.