Smiling friends
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The news is full of ideas about how to control your carbon footprint, but recent studies in neuroscience suggest that your emotional footprint plays a bigger role in what you really leave behind.
Whatever your mood, it's contagious! See the smiling face of a loved one, and you smile inside too. Step onto a subway train full of tired, anxious commuters, and you're instantly on edge. Whether your brain is in stress or in joy, that mood radiates outward, either inspiring others with your compassion, authenticity and joy or contributing to their emotional pollution and ramping up their stress levels. Whether it is stress or joy, your emotional state travels from brain to brain and person to person and lives inside others even after you are gone.

This transfer of moods happens through special nerve cells in the brain called mirror neurons. Interestingly, this a throwback to our ancestors needing to know instantly if a person was friend or foe—if a stranger approached with a brain set on fighting and anger, your ancestor would feel the same. Without the ability to sense the intentions of others, they were in grave danger. So these mirror neurons actually download the mood of one person into the brains of others.

But your mood swings are more than contagious—that great mood and that sour one actually change the brains of those around you. All of your moods, emotions and reactions are based on the interaction of neurons that come together in specific ways to send messages to the brain. These neural networks are the wiring of the emotional brain. New wires can be created by the transfer of moods, and once the wire is laid, it can easily be triggered again and again—without the influence of the person who originally passed that emotion on. So you're shaping the wires in those around you on a daily basis—either strengthening the wires that promote joy or bolstering those that cause stress. And your wires live on in the brains of your children, and their children, which is why passing on that state of spiritual connection and compassion is vitally important for your future.

The new era of social responsibility is emotional. If you're stuck in stress, you spread emotional pollution and the extremes of action and emotion that threaten the planet.

How to leave a positive emotional footprint

Dr. Laurel Mellin
Photo: Haley Mellin
So how do you break the cycle? You can't do it with insight or knowledge—or by simply deciding to do it—because the wires that inform your actions and feelings are stored in your elusive emotional brain. It only changes when you walk the talk. The more moments of the day you spend in a brain state of joy—connected, present, compassionate—the more your brain becomes wired for joy and the easier it is to bounce back from stress and find your emotional home base in that state of connection.

A method I developed with my neuroscience colleagues over the past 30 years at the University of California, San Francisco gives you more control over your emotional brain so you can take charge of your emotions more easily. The method is based on sensing which of the five universal emotional brain states you are functioning in at any particular time and using a tool to either maintain your current brain state or move yourself into a better one. The brain states range from Brain State 1, feeling joyful and content, to Brain State 5, feeling overwhelmed, confused, lost and hungry! In Brain State 1, you are in spirit, and in Brain State 5, you're in survival mode—all about ego. You'll do whatever it takes to get what you want when you want it—without regard to others. The tools give you the power to switch your brain back to Brain State 1—regardless of your current circumstances—as easily and quickly as possible.

Each time you use these tools, you weaken the wires that promote stress and strengthen those that bring joy. The goal is to rewire your brain from stress to joy, to take your emotional life into your own hands! Once you master this, you can become your own beacon of light, with your joy finding its way into the wiring not only of people you know, but also those you don't know. It will even affect the brains of those who have yet to be born.

So when I get up in the morning, I remind myself that my job is to create more moments of joy in my day, and you should too! Make it your goal to lighten your emotional footprint on the planet and spread joy. Help others get to Brain State 1, and you can begin to create a world at 1.

Laurel Mellin is a New York Times best-selling author and an associate clinical professor of family and community medicine and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. She directs the national research coordinating center for emotional brain training (EBT) in UCSF's Center for Health and Community. Her most recent book, Wired for Joy, was released by Hay House in June 2010.

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