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Help your brain help you live the good life: Neuroplasticity and your strengths

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.: Fri, Jan 23rd 2009

workers on brainWhat does it mean to live the good life? From religious scholars to philosophers to modern day psychologists, there has been quite a bit of discussion around the timeless question of what it means to live well. What is our responsibility in our mental health and well-being? Neuroscientists have recently discovered through a process called neuroplasticity that what we focus on and how we focus on it actually affects the way our brain works. Maybe it's time to focus on  blessings versus burdens.  

After the GI's came home from WWII there was a shift in the psychological landscape to focus almost entirely on trauma and mental illness. According to a more recent approach, positive psychology focuses on strengths and virtues in life that can help foster the resources to treat stress, mental illness, and also promote well-being. When focusing on positive resources, we can create a spiral upward of broadened coping skills and continuous support. Combining this with the recent neuroscientific research, we might say that focusing on our strengths may help us rewire our brain to be more resilient in life.

Sometimes it's difficult to identify your strengths. Strengths can be anything that supports you. You may naturally be called to gratitude, empathy, optimism, hope, courage, creativity, altruism, tolerance, spirituality or even wisdom.   Focusing on strengths has been studied and shown to influence people's well-being. In a study by Robert Emmons, Ph.D., he found that people who focused on what they were grateful for versus what they were burdened by had significant increases in well-being scores.

Here's one thing to do to start rewiring your brain in a positive direction:

When you lie down at night, think about the day and consider, what are things that happened that day that you are grateful for? If you have difficulty, take a break and then try again. Rewiring your brain to support you is all about practice. Whatever we practice, we cultivate in our life. If it's worrying, we'll support an anxious outlook, if we keep thinking that there's nothing we can do to save us from depression, we'll support a depressive outlook. If we practice compassion or gratitude, we'll cultivate more strength. So try the gratitude practice tonight! If you forget to do it, don't worry about it, just let that go and invite yourself to do it again.  

As always, whether you have a comment or question that popped up in response to this, please write it below as so many can benefit from your thoughts.  

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Workô program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Suggestion for Angela - - Jul 8th 2012

Hello Angela. I don't know if you'll ever see this, as it's July 2012 and I've only just stumbled upon this article and your comment. I have suffered from depression for most of my life including through childhood. I've been suicidal a number of times (though never acted upon it) and ive had issues with alcohol.

Ive been trying for years to find the right self help, the thing that would make me a more positive person. Every time I get inspired by something new, it ends up wearing off - I have always come back to the belief that maybe my 'default setting' is negative and I can't do anything about it. I've read the stuff on neuroplasticity and I love the idea that I have the potential to. Hangs permanently for the better but I  just couldn't find the right tool to make this happen.

Until now. I found a book and it's working. Three weeks ago I wanted to take sleeping pills and never wake up. Then I found a book about how to be grateful, and have been religiously following it's day by day advice, and I promise you I feel like a new person.

The book is called 'The Magic' and it's by Rhonda Byrne who wrote 'The Secret'. I read TS years ago and it was one of those nice sounding books which got me all enthusiastic at first but I couldn't get the theories to translate into real life change.

You might be cynical or you might be willing to give it a chance. I hope you'll read the book and follow the instructions and gain as much from it as I have. Love and happiness to you.


Resources? - Angela - Jul 25th 2010

Hi :-)

I am a 26 year old woman who has clinical depression and anxiety, after suffering a total breakdown when I was 18.  In retrospect through therapy, it seems I have always been depressed even as a child.  Now I have a back injury that became a chronic pain issue.  We did a course with a multi-disciplinary pain team that taught us alot of the 'ins and outs' of how pain and mood affect each other in the nervous system.  I am now in a huge roundabout of 'my depression is worsening my pain, my pain is worsening my depression'... I take two different anti-depressents and an anti-epileptic drug, all to combat nerve pain, turn down the pain signals and of course for depression (I am taking Gabapentin for nerve pain as I am not epileptic)... that's without the pain killers (don't go there, lol)

CBT hasn't helped a great deal, I want a 'real life'... I am starting to look into 'neuroplasticity' and would love a pointer to some decent resources that I can use myself to 'help me help myself'... there are alot of people writing articles on how good it is, but as someone who is chronically depressed and wants to feel like living not just surviving, I am looking for something to show me how to use this new research to better my life.  Any suggestions would be appreciated (I know there is no magic pill, so don't worry ;-p).  I hope to help both my depression and my pain levels

Kind regards,


Can Neuroplasticity be enhanced with energy psychology self-care? - Dr. Dorothea Hover-Kramer - Feb 1st 2009

I enjoyed the article on neuroplasticity and am wondering if there is additional information available about  things people can do to enhance that quality in their cellular structures. I have learned many self-care tchniquest form energy psychology and sense that they vitalize body mind and spirit.

yoga - sfauthor - Jan 24th 2009

Nice posting. Do you know about these yoga books?

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