Gratitude: The Brain’s Amazing Fertilizer

I live in Canada and we celebrated Thanksgiving in October while the U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving in November. Although a few other countries celebrate similar holidays, Canada and the U.S. make a big deal of it. Many people in both countries approach Thanksgiving with a desire to be more grateful, at least on those holidays. It’s great that we highlight gratefulness through a holiday, but did you know that gratitude is actually good for your brain and your body? Consider what science has discovered about this amazing brain fertilizer.

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Gratefulness…

  1. Can give you more energy. In one research study participants kept a daily journal listing what they were grateful for. Another group recorded what annoyed them. Those who kept a ‘gratefulness’ journal had more energy and enthusiasm and were happier than the other group (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
  2. Can help you become more other-centered. In a study by the same researchers, participants also daily journaled what they were grateful for. In addition to similar results to the above cited study, they discovered an interesting side effect. Those in the ‘grateful’ group reported that they were more inclined to help others with a personal problem. They became what is called more “pro-social” (Emmons, 2006).
  3. Can help you sleep better. Our brains and bodies need adequate sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains can’t consolidate our experiences from the day into our long term memory. So, without refreshing sleep, our memory and cognitive function suffers. A Chinese study discovered that not only did gratitude improve sleep, but decreased depression and indirectly lowered anxiety (Korb, 2012). So, start and end your day with a grateful heart for more rejuvenating sleep.
  4. Can make you physically feel better. When we are grateful, we activate brain regions associated with the feel good transmitter, dopamine.  Gratefulness also increases the mood neurotransmitter serotonin and the trust hormone, oxytocin. When dopamine is released, it evokes a “do that again” response. So, a grateful heart can feed on itself and help us want to repeat it. Its called the ‘virtuous cycle.’ We simply have to start the process by choosing to be grateful.
  5. Can help you become less materialistic. Several studies have shown that people with higher levels of gratitude are more likely to have lower than average traits of materialism (McCullough, 2002).This finding reminds of Jesus’ words, In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20.35)
  6. Can help combat negativity and the negative emotions that follow. Because our brain has five times more negative circuits than positive ones, we naturally tend to focus on the negative. It’s called the brain’s ‘negativity bias.’ When we are grateful it forces our brain to think about the positive. The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote Phil. 4.8. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

Not only does science speak to gratefulness, it also fills the pages of Scripture.

  • 1Th. 5.16   Be joyful always;  17 pray continually;  18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
  • Psa. 100.3 Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.  4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
  • Col. 3.16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God

If you want to learn even more about gratitude, watch this TEDx talk on The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance and read the book, Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

An old saying about gratitude goes like this.

If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.

Don’t forget the language of gratitude today!

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Sources

  • Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), pp.377–389.
  • Emmons, Gratitude and prosocial behavior: An experimental test of gratitude [Internet]. Available from: <https://www.academia.edu/365898/Gratitude_and_prosocial_behavior_An_experimental_test_of_gratitude> [Accessed 26 November 2014].
  • McCullough, Michael E. (2002) Savoring Life, Past and Present: Explaining what hope and gratitude share in common, Psychological Inquiry

7 Questions Leaders Should ask Themselves Every Morning

Mornings are the most crucial part of our day. And how we begin them sets the tone for the rest of the day. Insightful leaders understand this truth and mentally prepare themselves when they get up. Drew Canole, founder of fitlife.tv says, “How you start your day is how you start your life.”

Consider asking yourself these 7 questions within the first 10 minutes of your morning.

morning
  1. If I could only get one thing done today, what would it be?
  2. Have I set aside quiet time with God to pray, reflect, and read His Word?
  3. Is there any unconfessed sin in my life that I should confess?
  4. Are there any relational issues with others that need rectifying?
  5. Am I eating a healthy breakfast with plenty of protein and healthy carbs?
  6. Am I focusing on the positive, good things in life and ministry or do my thoughts immediately turn negative?
  7. Do I have a consistent routine like getting up at the same time, eating at the same time, taking a shower at the same time, etc. or is each morning dramatically different?

What we do first thing in the morning will dramatically affect the rest of your day. The Psalmist offers great advice with these words.

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. (Ps 143.8, NIV)

How do you prepare for your morning?

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6 Ways Leaders can Keep their Brains Sharp

This December I will hit the big “6-0.” Yep, that’s 60 years old. And I’ve been a pastor over half of those years. Some restaurants now even offer senior discounts since they consider me a “senior.” I can’t take them. I still pay full price. I’m not yet ready to be called a “senior.” Getting a “senior discount” on coffee at McDonalds is one thing. Keeping your brain mentally sharp is another. As our bodies age, so do our brains. Are we doomed to irreplaceable cognitive decline? Or, can we make some choices to keep mentally sharp? Fortunately, we don’t have to let our brains atrophy as we age. Here are some choices we can make to help keep them sharp.

Brain Aging

First, a few facts about the brain and aging.

  1. After age forty we lose about 5% of our brain mass each decade.
  2. The insulation around the axon or tail of a neuron (a brain cell) is called myelin and as we age it gets thinner. The thicker the myelin, the faster we process things. And the opposite also holds true. The thinner the myelin, the slower we process things.
  3. Dendrites, the little tentacles at the ends of our neurons that allow cells to talk to each other decline as we age. Think of a rose bush that gets pruned for winter. Although not as severe as a pruned rose bush, aging thins those tentacles.

Given these facts, how can we keep our brains sharp? Neuroscientists are now learning that we can stay cognitively healthy well into our later years. The term for our mind’s protecting our brains from decline is called cognitive reserve. The more we practice these habits now, the more cognitive reserve we take into our later years.

  1. Exercise. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day has proven to slow cognitive decline.
  2. Learn something new. Mentally stimulate your brain. Stay curious. When we stimulate our brains and learn new things, we increase blood flow which helps keep our brains healthy.
  3. Keep healthy relationships. God created us to be in community with each other. Close, healthy relationships are not only good for the soul, but for the brain as well.
  4. Maintain a strong devotional life. At the end of our chromosomes lie protective caps called telomeres that are linked to longevity. Apparently the longer your telomeres, all else being equal, the longer you live. Long-term stress shortens them and devotional practices such as meditation apparently helps lengthen them.
  5. Don’t veg in front of the TV. Scientists are now learning that too much TV watching can accelerate our mental decline. So, go easy on the TV.
  6.  Eat your spinach. Studies show that older people who eat lots of fruits and veggies, especially the dark green leafy kinds keep their brains healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., fish oil) also helps.

I’m encouraged by Peter Drucker, the father of modern day management. He wrote 39 books during his lifetime. He wrote 29 of them after he turned 60. He kept his brain sharp and it paid off.

What do you do to keep your brain healthy?

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10 Indicators You Have no Margin in your Life

In Richard Swenson’s seminal book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he defines margin this way. Margin is the space between our load and our limits.

He says it is related to our reserves and resilience. He calls it a buffer, a place where we can recharge our batteries, and a space where we can focus on what matters most. I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, those in ministry often lack margin. Here are 10 signs that may indicate you lack margin and 5 steps to gain more of it.

margin vice grip
  1. I’m always mentally and physically exhausted.
  2. Small things more easily get under my skin. I can’t turn my anxious thoughts off.
  3. I don’t seem to have the joy for ministry I once did.
  4. I count down the days until my day off. Yet even on my day off I’m still anxiously thinking about ministry stuff.
  5. Those who love me most tell me to slow down yet I always have a comeback excuse.
  6. I often worry about what others think of my performance.
  7. I too easily take things personally.
  8. I find that I can’t focus as well as I once did.
  9. I get easily distracted and try to multi-task more often.
  10. My devotional times with God are mostly dry.

If a few of these are consistently true of you, you may need more margin in your life.

If that’s so, what should you do?

When I’ve found myself with little margin, it hasn’t been easy to change things, but these steps have helped.

  1. Admit that you life is too full and that it’s not good, pleasing to God, or healthy for you.
  2. Learn the art of mindfulness, being aware of and in the present moment without being harsh on yourself or worrying about what happened yesterday or fretting about what might happen tomorrow. Meditate on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
  3. Take a day off, really. Turn off your phone and don’t check email. Do something that refreshes your soul.
  4. Turn your mind off earlier in the day than you do now. Perhaps you need to decrease night meetings. Maybe you need to establish hard stops for those evening meetings.
  5. Remind your self that if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others.
    After all, Jesus did say something about loving yourself.

What has helped you gain better margin?

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When Tough Times Hit: Reflections During my Daughter’s Eighth Brain Surgery

As I write this post I’m sitting in the waiting room of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago as my 27-year-old daughter Tiffany undergoes her eighth brain surgery. Due to intractable epilepsy (epilepsy non-responsive to drug therapy) caused by a brain tumor diagnosed at age 1, doctors implanted a device in her brain 8 years ago to stop the seizures. And four years ago they performed a temporal lobectomy to remove her right temporal lobe. During the last 4 years she has been seizure-free but due to complications from a recent surgery when the device’s battery was replaced, we’re back to have it reinserted again. As I’ve traveled down this road multiple times, I continue to learn these lessons about tough times.

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  1. Christ promises to sustain us through tough times.
    • “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13.5)
  2. A strong marriage makes it easier to navigate tough times.
    • Because my wife, Sherryl, and I have developed a strong marriage in good times, we can draw upon each other’s strength during this tough time.
  3. Uncertainty is an inevitable reality in tough times. 
    • A life of faith demands that we learn to live in a world with no certain tomorrow, except God and his sustaining grace.
  4. We all need a church family (and friends) that will care and pray for us in tough times.
    • Knowing our church and friends support us and pray for us encourages us.
  5. Nobody can escape tough times.
    • ‘Nuf said.
  6. Freaking out does not help us weather tough times.
    • Then calmer we’ve remained, the better we’ve been able to keep perspective and kept our emotions from running rampant.
  7. Life goes on during tough times.
    • I’m still a pastor and have responsibilities even during these interruptions. Life still happens.
  8. One day we no longer will face tough times.
    • Heaven awaits every follower of Jesus Christ and He will banish forever tough times. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev. 21.4)
  9. We must tend to our bodies during tough times.
    • Tough times causes our bodies and brains to release cortisol, the stress hormone, which can dampen our immune system. During tough times we must give special attention to body care, as much as possible.
  10. We WILL slow down during tough times.
    • When tough times comes, we realistically can’t expect to fit in all the normal life stuff as well. It’s ok to cut back on other commitments.

We pray that Tiffany will weather this surgery well (I just found out she did) and that she will recover quickly. However, we know that ultimately her future and ours as well are in the hands of our loving Heavenly Father.

When you’ve experienced tough times, what lessons have you learned?

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