Can We Really Hardwire Our Brains for More Happiness?

I loved reading Hardwiring Happiness by Dr. Rick Hanson – Neuropsychologist.  I love reading about brain science as ever since the invention of brain scanning, there are always new discoveries.  Before technology, the only way to learn about the brain was through intrusive surgery in brains with cancer tumours etc. but now the brain scanning images show the differences in brains with people who have ADHD, anxiety, depression etc.  as well as the brains of people  who meditate for several hours/day.  There is documented evidence to show that we can build a better brain. Mindfulness

“Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together”   This is Brain Neuroplasticity.

Our brains continue to grow and our experiences do matter.  I love Rick Hanson’s metaphor of our brains being a garden.  We can choose to “let it be” and just look at our garden, as is, with a combination of flowers and weeds.  We can choose to “let it go” and pull the weeds from our garden, by decreasing our negative thoughts, or we can choose to “let it in” and increase the flowers in our garden by focusing on positive experiences.  This book is about growing more flowers in our garden, having more positive thoughts in our brain which leads to an overall feeling of being more happy.

Why Do Our Brains Tend to Focus on  the Negative Thoughts More Than the Positive Thoughts?

As I explain to the participants in my “Brain Science” groups, (see below) it was very important for our ancestors, the cave people, to constantly be on alert and on the lookout for predators, in order to survive.  Thus, our brains have developed a negativity bias.  Therefore as soon as we get stressed, our mind focuses on the negative – thinking that it needs to this in order to survive.  Rick Hanson describes it as velcro – our negative experiences stick to us.  This is why the 3:1 ratio is often quoted as how many more positives we need to one negative, and ideally we need more than three positives! He also describes the positive experiences as   Teflon.  We appreciate the positive experiences for a second and then they flow through our brains like water in a sieve.  Happiness is still possible but negativity begets negativity and the negativity bias creates more vulnerability to anxiety, disappointment and hurt.  Fortunately, Rick Hanson’s method of “taking in the good” explains how we can compensate for this negativity bias.

How Do We Take in the Good and Increase Happiness?

The four steps to taking in the good are described by Rick Hanson’s acronym:  H.E.A.L    (p.60)

Step 1) Have a positive experience:  in this very moment experience something positive, or bring to mind a positive experience and try to actually feel it so that it’s different from just a positive thought

Step 2) Enrich it:  stay with this positive experience for 5-10 seconds (or even longer).  Try to really feel the feelings in your body and in your mind.    Get the neurons firing together so they wire together.

Step 3) Absorb it: Concentrate on having the experience sinking into you.  Imagine a drop of food colouring sinking into a glass of water vs.  a drop of food colouring sitting on top of oil.  Feel the experience sink into you as a jewel or golden dust and know that this is an inner resource which you can draw on in the future.

Step 4) Optional: Link positive and negative material:  If the positive experience is strong enough, bring up some negative feelings from the past.  For example, if you are currently having a very positive experience of feeling loved and included, then you could try bringing up some negative feelings of being excluded from the past.  However, if the negative thoughts and feelings take over, then Rick Hanson suggests dropping the negative thoughts and only focussing on the positive.

This practice of HEAL is connected to the practice of mindfulness.  Throughout the book, Rick Hanson describes mindful practices that can help us  to have positive experiences, enrich them and absorb them.  He recommends taking in the good, 5-10x/day, 10-30 seconds at a time.  For example, notice the comfortable chair that you are sitting in, the warmth of a cat sitting on your lap, the taste of a good meal, the clean water that we access through a simple turn of the faucet, the smell of flowers, the sound of laughter, the experience of visiting with a friend or remembering a visit with a friend.  We can’t change out past, but we can be proactive about this very moment we have right now.  While I’ve been on holiday with my family, I’ve been encouraging everyone to take in all the positive moments, to stare at a positive view with awe and appreciation for 10 seconds or more, to really taste our food, to reflect on our days when we go to sleep at night etc.

Ten years ago my dear friend experienced a family tragedy.  When her children were 2yrs and 4yrs, her husband, their father, was in a motor vehicle accident which resulted in him being in hospital for 2 years.  He was also in a coma for a period of that time.  He did survive this awful accident, but with life-changing permanent injuries.  My girlfriend works full-time and any spare time is devoted to the care of her children and husband.  She is such a positive person and I once asked her how she kept going, especially during those first couple of years after the accident.  She told me that when she went to sleep each night, she asked herself, “What is one good thing that happened today that I can think about?”  She said it usually involved an experience where she could remember their children laughing.  She would soothe herself to sleep at night, not just by thinking positive thoughts, but by recalling and in  a way re-experiencing the positive moments from the day.  As I read this book, Hardwiring  Happiness, I thought about her and how her daily night-time gratitude practice, will have impacted the neural structure in  her brain for the positive. It truly seems that the practice of HEAL has contributed to the positive and resilient person that she remains today.

Minfulness positive psychology

In conclusion, I thought this road sign was a perfect visual and reminder for us to take in the good 5-10x/day, for 5-10 seconds or more.  There is no copyright with this photograph, as I took it, therefore if you would like to use it as a screen saver, please feel free to do so 🙂



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