Last year I kept my one-word New Year’s resolution to smile. My resolution this year is to embrace ideas from a book, Beginner’s Guide to the Brain, Major Discoveries that Will Change Your Life, by Elaine Johnson. She’s an educator, author and consultant to educators and business leaders on applying brain research to contextual learning.
Smile was a good resolution. Adding a smiley face to my email signature reminded me to smile. Smiling right now makes it more fun to write. My smiles made people smile as I talked to them. I smile, you smile, and we all smile. Until we read about fiascos like the ‘fiscal cliff.’
Science says smiles reward my brain and body. Smiles release neuropeptides that relax my body and lower my heart rate and blood pressure. Endorphin neuropeptides relieve pain. Serotonin neuropeptides are anti-depressants.
The link between smiles and health is consistent with other major discoveries that we can change our brains by thinking, according to Johnson. Begin by thinking of our brains not as hardwired, solid-state engines, but as malleable, organic gyroscopes we can guide to improve our life journies.
“We can actually focus our minds in a way that changes the structure and function of the brain throughout our lives,” said Daniel Siegel, Co-Director of the UCLA Mindful awareness center.
Rejoice at that thought.
People are improving their lives with thoughts. They add neurons that energize feelings of gratefulness by ending their evenings thinking of three things that worked well each day and writing them down. I note activities in my journal that have gone well and discover more have gone well than I remember because I’m ususally focused on ones that could have gone better. My discoveries have improved my moods.
Meditating could increase compassion.
“When Buddhists meditate on compassion, they produce brain circuits in which compassion is embedded,” said Johnson.
Bad habits could be abolished. People break bad habits that are hardwired as deeply as obsessive compulsive disorders, such as rewashing hands supposedly covered with germs. People learn to listen to the part of their reasoning brain that is saying. ‘Your hands are clean, you just washed them.’ They learn to replace the compulsive thought with a positive thought followed by a pleasant action, perhaps even smiling.
“The lives we lead weave into our neurons the “Users Guide,” the Self, that we call “I,” said Johnson. “Those who do not recalculate, who fail to examine the contents of their User Guide, run on automatic pilot.”
We should rejoice at the news we can change by thinking. Think of the advantages of that resolution. People might ask, “What are you doing?”
Instead of saying, “Oh, nothing,” I can say, “Thinking. That’s cause for rejoicing.”
Critical thinking is even better and avoids multitasking. Research shows multitasking leads to distractions and superficial thinking, leaving people more stressed. I felt stress writing this as I used my smartphone to see if my Chicago Bears made the NFL playoffs. They didn’t make it. Maybe I should resolve to quit following them.
Johnson recommends critical thinking.
“My modest focus is on thinking about thinking, which I call ‘critical thinking,’” Johnson wrote. “Critical thinking helps us gain the fullest understanding possible, and it helps us moderate the potentially overpowering influence of emotion.”
But thinking about thinking lacks energy. She writes that the brain sends more emotional messages than reasoning messages. We should harness the abundant energy in positive emotions.
And one-word resolutions are easier for me to remember.
‘Rejoice’ is the resolution.
By the time my feet hit the floor in the morning I can be singing, “Rejoice, this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Rejoice should remind me I can improve my community and my health by thinking and thinking about thinking.
Whoa. My first thought was, Am I really going to publish this and live by it?
My next thought was, Rejoice, Jim, rejoice.