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.

gratitude 3

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

5 Ways to Become a “Bounce Back” Leader

In my previous post I suggested 5 indicators that point to leaders who quickly bounce back from adversity, setbacks, and disappointment. I used the phrase “resilient leaders” to describe them. Since every leader will face difficulty, what can we do to become more resilient? Consider these practical steps you can apply in your life and leadership to ‘bounce back’ more quickly.

Power of LIfe
  1. Accept that fact that you will face setbacks.  While not constantly looking over your shoulder, remind yourself that with leadership comes challenge and hardship. So when difficulties do come, you won’t be blindsided by them. Welcome them as a teacher to help you learn more about yourself.
  2. Develop the discipline of ‘metacognition.’ Metacognition is a fancy term for, ‘thinking about what you are thinking about.’ Often when faced with a difficulty we get caught up in our negative self-talk, the thought stream in our minds that all is gloom and doom. However, by monitoring our thoughts we can catch this negativity before it overwhelms our thinking and emotions. Read more here about the Monday morning blues and metacognition.
  3. Give yourself some extra TLC. Often when we face setbacks we drive ourselves even more to fix the problem. Certainly when a “dam” has broken, we must go into emergency mode and increase our efforts. Often, however, setbacks don’t require our immediate, extra attention. In many cases we actually need more emotional reserve and thinking clarity to wisely tackle the issue. These come only when we slow down, tend to our soul, and take care of our body. Extra time off and more rest might actually be your best choice. Remember, Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  4. Stay in community. When hurt, it’s easy to withdraw to lick out wounds. However, during those times we need safe friends with whom we can process our pain. In this post I describe what to look for in a safe friend.
  5. Remember how emotional contagion works. Emotional contagion describes the process by which people ‘catch’ our emotions, both good and bad. When your church or organization faces a setback, make sure your body language, tone of voice, and words don’t send a defeatist message to your team. That can diminish team productivity and morale. While keeping authentic about your disappointment, communicate a hopeful, God-focused tone. They will catch the attitude you intentionally or unintentionally telegraph.

When you’ve faced a setback in your ministry, what has helped you bounce back more quickly?

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5 Signs You’re a “Bounce Back” Leader

Inevitably all leaders face disappointment, setbacks, and difficulty in their roles. As a pastor, I’ve faced my share at times: significant budget deficits, losing crucial staff members, people leaving the church in a huff, programs that didn’t meet expectations, and painful conflict. This side of heaven we can’t avoid the pain that leadership sometimes brings. Some leaders bounce back quickly from such adversity. Some don’t. So what does a “bounce back” leader look like? As you read the following list, ask yourself how many of these qualities would characterize your leadership when you face adversity.

Bounce back

The term often used for this ‘bounce back’ quality is called resilience. So we could actually call this list “The Resilient Leader.”

Resilient leaders…

  1. Don’t lead from perpetual caution.
     They take reasonable risks, but don’t “bet the farm” on risky leadership options.
  2. Admit they hurt when they face setbacks. They are honest about how much it hurts. However, they don’t wallow in their pain. The more we ruminate over our disappointments, the more we actually strengthen the fight-flight-freeze-appease parts of our brain which in turn dampens our ability to think clearly.
  3. Seek to learn new insights from their setbacks. Often a setback can be a blessing in disguise, for without it we would not be open to new learning. Resilient leaders are perpetual learners.
  4. Keep a long haul perspective through difficulty. Failure is never fatal nor final.
    Rather, it prompts resilient leaders to step back and refocus on their long term goals, objectives, and core values. Read my post here that explains how we can discover our true north values.
  5. Refuse to let their devotional life slip. In fact, such leaders recognize that in tough times they must draw closer to Him for strength and wisdom.

When you’ve observed great leaders face disappointment and setbacks, what qualities have you seen in them?

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The Moody Leader: 4 Reasons NOT to be One

Churches, non-profits, and businesses require emotionally healthy and aware leaders. While competency, good management skills, and vision casting ability certainly matter, research now shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) profoundly impacts leadership effectiveness as well. One aspect of EQ, knowing our emotions, reinforces the idea that leaders must never be moody ones. Neuroscience gives us four reasons why.

Range of Emotions - Mad to Happy

Before I list the reasons why leaders should never be moody, here’s how I describe a moody leader.

  • Employes and followers aren’t sure what kind of mood he will bring to work.
  • When he feels anxious, which is often, he’s short with others and demanding.
  • He thrives on drama in the workplace.
  • He lacks self-awareness of how he comes across when he’s emotional.

So, here’s how neuroscience informs us about the downsides of moody leaders.

  1. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the term that describes how others catch our emotions. If a leader is often moody, sour, or negative, that attitude will permeate that organization or church. I was once treated very rudely when I ordered a hamburger and fries at a hamburger joint. A few minutes later the cook yelled at the person who waited on me. At that point I realized who actually waited on me, the owner of the restaurant. His employees had ‘caught’ his bad attitude. I never returned.
  2. Uncertainty. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we sense it (“I wonder what kind of mood the boss will be in today?”), it sets up an avoidance response in us. Or flight-fight-freeze-appease center (the limbic system) ratchets up which results in fear, less team cooperation, and less creativity in the workplace. Moody leaders infuse uncertainty into the workplace. (My blog here describes our brain’s 3 leadership systems we should be aware of.)
  3. Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of brain cells that cause us to mimic goal directed behavior. For example, when we see someone yawn or smile, we tend to subconsciously yawn or smile. But such behavior is not limited to yawns and smiles. If a leader constantly frowns or furrows his brow in a disapproving way, it sets a negative tone in the workplace or the church. Yet, genuine smiles can do the opposite by encouraging a positive, productive work setting.
  4. Theory of mind. Theory of mind is a concept that says our minds can somewhat intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although not mind reading, the process called mentalizing, helps us understand another’s mental states. Mentalizing helps us imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings, and goals. When a leader brings moodiness into relationships, he inadvertently leads others to intuit negative intents, purposes, or desires which that leader probably does not want his followers or employees to think or believe.

So you can see that moody leadership does not contribute to healthy teams, trust, creativity, leadership effectiveness, or cooperation.

If you think you may be a moody leader, ask someone who truly cares about you to gently remind you when you start acting moody.

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The Dumbest Mistake I Ever Made as a Pastor

On the whole, I believe pastors are a pretty smart bunch. We earn advanced degrees, study biblical languages, go to conferences to learn, and constantly challenge our brains when we prepare messages and talks. I’ve earned two theology degrees and consider myself a relatively smart guy. But, brain smarts won’t guarantee ministry fruitfulness. Our walk with Christ fundamentally matters. And how we manage relationships probably ranks second in influence. As I look back over my 34 years in ministry, I realize I repeatedly made this one really dumb mistake in the relationship area.

Smart Vs Dumb - Choose Intelligence Over Ignorance

I hid out.

I don’t mean that I intentionally hid from people. But I isolated myself too much from staff and people in the church. I didn’t make myself visible enough.

  • In one church my office was the furtherest away from everybody else. And I stayed in it way too long during work hours. I seldom came out of the office.
  • In that same church I didn’t emerge from my office until three minutes before the Sunday service.
  • In another church as a low level associate, I would never meet with anyone unless they made an appointment several days in advance. This practice certainly may be necessary for the lead pastor of a large church, but not for my role at the time, my first full time position.

Since those early years, I think I’ve grown up and become much wiser. Most church people (and staff) recognize that lead pastors are busy. Yet, they want to feel they have some connection to him or her. They don’t want to feel we are always in a rush to be somewhere else.

I now recognize that my visible presence matters greatly. And I don’t mean that we should make ourselves 24/7 accessible. We, too, must keep healthy margins. But, church people and staff need relational touches. Even small ones matter.

Here are changes I’ve made to help me be less of a ‘hider.’

  1. When I’m not preaching on a Sunday, I visit the kid’s areas, poke my head in each classroom, and thank the leaders. I don’t just sit in my office and read (which I enjoy doing).
  2. Before each Sunday service I intentionally finish my prayer time with an elder 10-15 minutes prior to the service start time so I can shake people’s hands and chat.
  3. I ask an elder to close out each service in prayer and just prior to that as I share some final comments, I explain that I will be at the welcome center after the service and would like to meet new people.
  4. I more often manage staff using the MBWA technique, Management By Walking Around. Although I still keep my door closed to minimize interruptions, I intentionally break throughout the day and wander around to touch base with staff.
  5. When I talk to a staff person during the week or a church person on Sundays, I try to give them my full presence through eye contact and genuine listening. Even a minute or two ‘fully present’ interaction can make a positive deposit into the souls of others.

I’m much wiser now and hope that going forward I won’t make as many dumb mistakes as I did when I was younger.

What’s the dumbest mistake you’ve every made as a pastor?

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