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Creating Joy

You are the master in creating your own joy!

You are the master in creating your own joy!

Introduction

Joy is an inside job. The experience of joy occurs in your central nervous system (brain) and is not dependent on an external phenomena. The experiences we call pleasure, ecstasy, and joy correlate to activity in very specific areas of your brain when measured by PET scan. There is neurophysiology and neurochemistry that underly your neurological processes and, ultimately, our experiences of pleasure, ecstasy, and joy.

Although joy can range from an intense and all-encompassing experience to a subtle and constant presence, it is characteristically a state that can be reproduced predictably. Joy is an experience that tends to be more stable than pleasure or ecstasy. My opinion is that joy is a natural outcome of high functioning and integration of your body, mind, and spirit/psyche. And, essential to the experience is the health and robustness of the physical organism in which the state is experienced.

Your Health as Foundation for Joy

“…one’s body should be trained for the sake of one’s soul and one’s appetites harnessed for the sake of reason.” ~Aristotle

Aristotle understood that the body is the seat of the mind and the soul (spirit/psyche). He urged physical training, diet, and general care of the body as the basis for pursuits of the mind and spirit to be successful. And, ultimately, the level of function of each part of our body, either optimizes or limits our experience because every sensory nerve ending, whether of sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell, brings information to the nervous system that allows us connection to the world around us and even our experience of reality.

If our physical body functions well, our experience of reality expands and becomes more rich and nuanced and our senses, awareness, and even consciousness expand. If the physical processes of our brain are efficient, if the neurons, their receptor, and the neurotransmitter chemicals function well, then our experience of our internal and external realities are accurate and complete.

Because of the importance of our physical body to our awareness, consciousness, and experience, taking care of our health is more than a material exercise. It is the fertile soil for in which each of our unique and innate natures to take root and thrive.

Types of Joy

Joy def. a feeling of great pleasure and happiness

orig. from Old French joie, based on Latin gaudium, from gaudere ‘rejoice.’

In my opinion, there are three types or classes of the experience we call joy:

  •  physical
  • mental
  • spiritual

Physical Joy

“My vital force was increased so greatly… that all my body cells rejoiced with my new energy power!” ~Paul Bragg

Paul Bragg here describes the kind of joy that comes about from a physical body that has full and natural function. When all of the someone’s organs and processes work together completely and harmoniously, they naturally experience a profound sense of energy and wellbeing. I have seen this over and over again as my patients adopted a lifestyle that supports rather than undermines their health. As they eat better, exercise, sleep well, and create a lifestyle that nurtures their health, they feel well-being, delight, and joy emanates from their physical being.

This is the state that causes you to smile merely because you feel so well.

Mental Joy

“You just are and it is a sheer delight…because existence is made from the stuff called joy.” ~Osho

This is the kind of joy that derives from undisturbed and focused awareness/consciousness. When the mind is present and focused a natural and innate sense of excited and passionate perception is typically present. Study that expands our experience and understanding of the world and people tends to create this kind of joy. The practices of meditation, contemplation, and prayer tend to help you experience this state.

Spiritual Joy

“In your light I learn how to love.

In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest,

where no one sees you.”

~Rumi

Observation has led me to believe that when people are physically well, open-minded and aware, and have a daily religious and/or philosophical practices they experience a subtle and stable sense of joy that is unrelated to what is going on around them.

Spiritual joy is different than physical joy. It is an amorphous state that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. It is pleasurable, but not a pleasure that comes from the senses or from thought. It just is.

Living your life consciously, clear about your talents and values, able to express your talents and values through your works is vital.

This kind of joy can be a marker of a spiritual practice that is in accord with your innate nature/ values. It seems to be a natural expression of living your life in a way that is congruent with your values and beliefs.

Is There A Process For Creating Joy?

I believe so. I have been exploring and practicing this idea since my teens. This has been extended to being a physician for over 30 years and working with patients to restore their health including their emotional well being. And, what could be a measure of emotional well being more than the experience of consistent and genuine joy?

What follows is the process for creating joy as best I can tell from what I’ve observed working with this idea myself and with others.

Optimize Your Health

You have to take care of yourself to have a foundation for joy. It doesn’t mean you can’t experience joy without health, but it will make it easier for you to be successful. Eat real food, don’t eat too much, don’t drink things made from chemicals, be physical every day, sleep enough and well, be moderate about your habits, be aware of your senses and be OK with enjoying them, breath.

Nourish Your Mind

Read, watch TV and movies that stimulate your mind and make you wonder, learn new things, don’t be afraid to actually study something new and different, take your knowledge of something you already know deeper, learn a language, learn to dance, learn to juggle…

Wonder, explore, be willing to accept new facts about how the world works and adjust your understanding accordingly, ask yourself “How does that work and why is that?”

Be Aware

It is so easy to be unconscious! Most of us are mostly unconscious most of the time! I constantly have to check in to see if I am being conscious or not. It still floors me how often throughout the day I am being unconscious. The way to tell is to consistently check your awareness.

Determine Your Values

What is important to you? Really important? What do you value?

Usually it’s not what you first think – delve deeply. We have a tendency to think that we value possessions – that’s usually not actually the case. Most often it isn’t the thing we want, but what the thing represents. For instance, it’s common for us to want a newer or “better” car. What is it about the car that we actually want? Is it the status (feeling respected), safety and reliability (feeling safe), luggage space (desire for adventure, travel), or gas mileage (feeling more financially secure through thrift, or lower emissions (feel responsible)?

Values relate to feelings – things like love, safety, security, respect, adventure, excitement, learning, serving, nurturing, mentoring, sharing, connection, intimacy, joy, wonder, awe, peace, sensual experience, etc.

What do you want most? Distill it down to a few things – 4? 5?. These are your core values. Write them down. Put them in order of importance. Then write down the criteria – the measure for each of these things being fulfilled (validation rule) for each of your values.

For instance, for the value of security – “I live in a home (apartment/house) in a safe neighborhood.” or “I have friends who I trust and they would help me if I were in trouble.”

Be Congruent

When you act in a way that’s in agreement with your values, you’re congruent. This will go a long ways to making you happy and even get you to joy. When you act congruent to your values and exercise the discipline to do it over time you tend to start getting what you want. That might take a good amount of time and a lot of work, but that’s how it gets done. Or, as Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “Diligence is the mother of good fortune.”

Be OK With Imperfection

Life isn’t perfect – it doesn’t always go the way you want it to. That’s life. We have to be OK with that to be happy and experience joy. Accept that life isn’t perfect and don’t be attached to it. Work toward what you want – diligently. How long do you do that? Until it’s done. Appreciate deeply and be grateful for what is going the way you want it to go. When do this you’re conditioning your mind to screen your environment for connections that help you create what it is that you want and will feel grateful for in your life1.

(1 My article The Neurology of Gratitude goes into the mechanics of this phenomenon – what some people call The Secret or The Law of Attraction.)

Determine Your Talents

What are you really good at? What do you really love to do?

These are your talents. People who are happy and even experience joy are able to use their talents. It might be in your work, it might be in your hobby (hobbies?), and – best – it might be both. When you’re able to do what you’re good at and passionate about you will feel fulfilled. And, you’ll probably be good at it and appreciated for it.

Have Your Work Be Who You Are

This is an extension of the last idea. Work things out – even if it is a long path to get there – so that your work takes advantage of your talents and what you love to do. Make sure you feel congruent to your values when you do your work.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to be in your dream job to exercise your talents and your values! In my late teens I worked for a year as a claims broker at Lloyd’s of London (yes, in London) and then flew directly to California to clean toilets in Yosemite Park. This contrast was a wonderful experience. It made clear that despite how different the two jobs appeared at the surface, both jobs allowed me to fulfill my talents and values for being disciplined, conscientious, and of service. Both venues allowed me to fulfill my value for adventure since the rock climbing in both areas is wonderful!

Make a Difference

“None of it matters until it matters…to someone else.” ~anon

The happiest and most joyful people I have known have a clear sense of making a difference – of serving and helping others.

Making a difference is such a fulfilling and joyful exercise! Wherever you are take stock for who is there and what they may need. “Is there something I can do and say right here and right now that would serve that person in front of me?”

What cause do you want to serve? Having a mission in mind that makes a difference in peoples lives provides direction, fulfillment, happiness, and joy.

Summary

I trust these ideas will serve you. They’re definitely not perfect, but can definitely be useful. These ideas have been tremendously useful for me and for my patients who have run with them over the years. May they serve you. as well. Keep in mind joy comes from you. Practice daily, practice little by little, observe the results, fine tune what you’re doing and keep going. You will feel fulfilled and happy and most likely even experience joy.

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The Neurology of Gratitude – Key to Happiness

The Neurology of Gratitude
def. the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

Gratitude

How does gratitude lead to more experiences in your life in which to be grateful?

What is the neurology of gratitude? We know gratitude is a rich and nurturing feeling of peacefulness, well-being, and appreciation. Deeply felt gratitude is an all encompassing experience. We recognize it mentally and feel it emotionally and physically. Observing life informs us that those who don’t practice gratitude are unhappy and unhealthy – no matter how much they have, it is never enough. Conversely, we are inspired and emotionally nourished by those who practice gratitude in their lives deeply and consistently – they savor their lives and share their enthusiasm with everyone around them.

We know that gratitude can feel good in very deep and gratifying ways. But, is there more? How does appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving benefit us beyond putting us in a good mood? How does gratitude effect our nervous system? Is there a neurology of gratitude?

Savoring our feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and thanksgiving has profound effects on our brain and body functions, improves our health and well-being, reinforces social values, determines how we experience life, and even leads to how successful we are in achieving our life vision.1,2,3,4,5,6

The Reticular Activating System

Now we get to the neurology part – stay with me here – this brief treatment of how our brains work will be worth it! The reticular activating system (RAS) is a part of the brain stem (the transitional area between the brain and spinal cord) that controls wakefulness, arousal, motivation, sexual activity, circadian rhythm (melatonin regulates activity of the RAS), respiration, cardiac rhythm, and other essential body functions.7,8

General anesthetics inhibit the RAS, as do many psychoactive drugs. Damage to the RAS can result in permanent coma.

Dysfunction of the RAS can result in hypervigilance, an over-amplified response to stressors in the environment, anxiety, and panic disorder and may play a role in autism.9,10 It has been proposed that the RAS plays a critical role in memory and dysfunction or damage to the RAS may cause dementias, including Alzheimer’s.11

In summary, the RAS plays a critical role in consciousness.12

Now, here comes the most important part of this little neurology lecture! It is generally assumed that the RAS’s role in consciousness is not in regard to the generation of consciousness, which seems to be a higher cortical (brain) function, but rather the RAS acts as a gatekeeper for what sensory information reaches the frontal cortex where consciousness (self and general awareness) generates.13

How we feel and think about our experience will train our RAS what to let into our consciousness and what to filter out. In this way, the RAS controls your attention and perceptual awareness.14 Research indicates the frontal cortex and higher cortical functions determine how the RAS is “programmed” to filter sensory information and control what sensory information from our nervous system reaches those parts of the brain where we are aware.15,16 In this way our minds can program what the RAS filters for the mind to be aware of from our environment.

So, we don’t perceive actual reality – we perceive that part of reality we have trained our RAS to send to our consciousness. We have the ability to train our mind to filter for what we are looking for – what we want – and the key to getting more of what we want is practicing gratitude.

The RAS and “Law of Attraction”

Most of us have heard of  The Law of Attraction. It is a process of envisioning a desired outcome to bring it into being.

Does it work? Practice this does seem to make magical things happen – we seem to always be in the right place at the right time, a mentor appears, our path that had been so frustrating and difficult before is all of a sudden laid out before us, our networking required to accomplish our vision seems to arrange itself in support of our work, our relationships become seemingly spontaneously harmonious…

…the myriad effects seem magical, mystical, and even metaphysical. Are they? Maybe. Some research has shown that mental intention alone may influence physical reality…to some degree.18,19,20

What is known is that you’re experiencing your wondrous neurology. You have trained your reticular activating system to filter for every possible advantageous connection in the world around you that triggers feelings connected to your vision! You didn’t spontaneously alter reality to meet your needs – you trained your mind to connect with all the aspects of reality around you that can meet your needs.

Training Your Reticular Activating System

Training your reticular activating system makes your brain more efficient for “giving” you the information you need and in a useful format for you to work efficiently in making your life the way you want it.

Here are the steps you have to take to train your RAS effectively –

  • Practice in a relax state – this allows you to focus
  • Be very clear about what you want
  • Make sure you actually want what you think you want*
  • Make sure what you want is congruent to your values
  • Describe/articulate precisely the measurable aspects of what you want (who, what, where, when, how much, etc.)
  • Write it down – use precision, be complete, and concise**
  • Condition the vision of your desired outcome using all your senses – what does your vision look, feel, sound, smell, and taste like?
  • Condition your desired outcome using all of the positive emotions associated with its’ achievement
  • The stronger you sense and feel the emotions associated with your desired outcome the stronger your conditioning will be
  • Repeat the conditioning process regularly – preferably multiple times a day
  • You can use triggers – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – to trigger and reinforce your conditioning
  • Always keep working/taking action toward manifesting your desired outcome – diligence is the mother of good fortune
  • Acknowledge every event that furthers your vision – this reinforces the conditioning

*We often mistake wanting to own objects for what it is we really want. People often want a car – a newer, supposedly better, more expensive car. Why? What you may actually be wanting is a greater sense of freedom. Looking closer, not owning a car may give you a greater overall sense of freedom once all the variables are taken into account. Always ask yourself – what is the value or what is the feeling that I want? This will get you ever closer to what you actually want. Think outside the box.

**Describe your vision in ways that are measurable. “I am able to run 2 miles in 20 minutes  by November 14 of this year.”

By practicing this process you have, in effect, given your RAS very specific orders to preferentially filter anything from the sum of your environment that supports you fulfilling and experiencing your your preferred outcomes and vision.

Conscientiously and consistently practicing this process over time results in you experiencing connections, becoming aware of fortuitous circumstances, meeting people with whom they can form mutually beneficial alliances, and finding your environment seems to support the materialization of your vision.

And, if your vision is big enough, inspiring enough, and benefits enough people, you will probably experience others resonating with your vision and supporting your vision to become true!

Other Gratitude Practices

Mindful Appreciation

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”  ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Spending time at some point in the day to catalog and to give deep appreciation, gratitude, and thanksgiving for the blessings all around you trains your body and nervous system to relax and mind to be aware of factors all around you that promote these wonderful feelings.

This practice seems most effective when you focus on very immediate and tangible things for which you can feel appreciation, gratitude, and thankfulness.

For instance –

“I am grateful for my eyes to see; I am grateful for this air I breath that gives me life; I am grateful for this day to experience and be of service to others; I am grateful for this day to learn and become more true to my self; I am grateful for the people in my life who love me and who give me the opportunity to love.”

Try this – you will be grateful.

Heart-Focused Appreciation

This technique was developed by the HeartMath Institute. This group has published extensive peer-reviewed research that substantiates their methoids as valid and reliable for creating relaxed states and promoting health and well-being.

Heart-focused appreciation is focusing feelings of appreciation/gratitude around your heart. Often, it will help to remember – with all your senses – specific people and events for which you have a deep and lasting sense of appreciation/grsatitiude. Breathing in a regular and measured fashion (~six seconds of inspiration and six seconds of expiration). Using deep diaphragmatic  (“belly”) breathing improves the results.

Practicing heart-focused appreciation on a regular basis results in being more relaxed in stressful situations and conditions your RAS to experience events that elicit appreciation/gratitude.

Gratitude in Prayer

Be grateful in your prayer.  Be grateful for your relationships, circumstances, beliefs, and values, the challenges you face for the opportunities within them – the myriad aspects of your life.

In this way you give thanks and you honor the great gift of your mind by using your reticular activating system to bring to your consciousness more of that for which you feel grateful.

In Summary

Your mind has awe-inspiring capacities to filter the world around you for the very things you condition/program it to “look” for. Practicing gratitude consciously, passionately, and regularly promotes you to experience more of everything in your life for which you feel grateful.

Use this information well to serve you and others.

Suggested Reading

Think and Grow Rich (Napoleon Hill)

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Sharon Begley)

The Heartmath Solution (Doc Lew Childre)

Handbook to Higher Consciousness (Ken Keyes)

A Note of Thanks
Thanks to Robert Dixon, a fine and thoughtful man, who made the initial connection between gratitude and reinforcement of RAS conditioning during a lecture I was giving on the process of creating joy in September of 2009.

Endnotes

1 Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J and Atkins S (2009) Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. J Psychosom Res 66, 43-48.

2 Zahn R, Moll J, Paiva M, Garrido G, Krueger F, Huey ED and Grafman J (2009) The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI. Cereb Cortex 19, 276-283.

3 Rozanski A and Kubzansky LD (2005) Psychologic functioning and physical health: a paradigm of flexibility. Psychosom Med 67 Suppl 1, S47-S53.

4 Emmons RA and McCullough ME (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Pers Soc Psychol 84, 377-389.

5 McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tiller WA, Rein G and Watkins AD (1995) The effects of emotions on short-term power spectrum analysis of heart rate variability . Am J Cardiol 76, 1089-1093.

6 McCraty R, Barrios-Choplin B, Rozman D, Atkinson M and Watkins AD (1998) The impact of a new emotional self-management program on stress, emotions, heart rate variability, DHEA and cortisol. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 33, 151-170.

7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reticular_activating_system

8 Kinomura S, Larsson J, Gulyás B and Roland PE (1996) Activation by attention of the human reticular formation and thalamic intralaminar nuclei. Science 271, 512-515.

9 Buchwald JS, Erwin R, Van Lancker D, Guthrie D, Schwafel J and Tanguay P (1992) Midlatency auditory evoked responses: P1 abnormalities in adult autistic subjects. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 84, 164-171.

10 Drake ME, Phillips BB and Pakalnis A (1991) Auditory evoked potentials in borderline personality disorder. Clin Electroencephalogr 22, 188-192.

11 Arendt T (1991) [Syndrome of partial cholinergic deafferentation of the cortical mantle–a concept for describing the brain-behavior relationship in dementia diseases]. Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr 59, 81-91.

12 Turner BH and Knapp ME (1995) Consciousness: a neurobiological approach. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 30, 151-156.

13 Petty PG (1996) Consciousness. J Clin Neurosci 3, 16-20.

14 Newman J (1995) Thalamic contributions to attention and consciousness. Conscious Cogn 4, 172-193.

15 Heilman KM (1997) The neurobiology of emotional experience. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 9, 439-448.

16 There is an interesting video that demonstrates this phenomenon called The Awareness Test on the web. You will most likely experience the RAS’s ability to control selective attention and perceptual awareness while viewing the video.

18 Wholeness and the Implicate Order (David Bohm)

19 Conscious Acts of Creation (William Tiller)

20 Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab