What is the secret to lasting happiness? If you ask a neuropsychologist like Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, the answer is simple: “The neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Say what? For all of the non-neuroscientists who are reading (or typing) this, let’s start with some basic brain science. The human brain is not a static organ. Rather, our brain continues to change, grow, and adapt until we die. In fact, studies have shown that new neurons (brain cells) and neural pathways (a series of neurons connected together to enable a signal to be sent from one brain region to another) are generated throughout our life.
Your brain is constantly changing its structure based on what you think and feel. According to Dr. Hanson, “[t]he longer the neurons fire, the more of them that fire, and the more intensely they fire, the more they’re going to wire that inner strength –- that happiness, gratitude, feeling confident, feeling successful, feeling loved and lovable.” So, when you take in the good (self-worth, love, resilience), you take charge of this structure-building process. However, on a daily basis, most of us don’t stay with our positive experiences long enough for them to be built into our neural structure (meaning there’s not enough firing and wiring going on).
Instead, we naturally tend to fixate on negative experiences. According to Dr. Hanson, the brain evolved a “negativity bias” to help our ancestors survive. To put it simply, the worried, pessimistic caveman who thought a lion was around every corner was the one that survived. The happy-go-lucky caveman who didn’t worry about things like lions …. well, he got eaten.
This “negativity bias” causes the brain to react very intensely to bad news, compared to how it responds to good news. In effect, it’s like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. As a result, says Dr. Hanson, the negativity bias “makes it hard for us to learn from our positive experiences, even though learning from your positive experiences is the primary way to grow inner strength.”
So how do we overcome this negativity bias and grow inner strength? We need to take in the good, and be really present to life’s tiny, joyful moments. “[Lingering on the positive] improves the encoding of passing mental states into lasting neural traits,” says Dr. Hanson. “That’s the key here: we’re trying to get the good stuff into us. And that means turning our passing positive experiences into lasting emotional memories.”
Here are some tips for hardwiring happiness into the brain and optimizing your potential for joy.
Take in the good.
We all encounter positive moments each day, and no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are, they can be instrumental in changing our perspective. But in order to do so, we must take the time to appreciate these moments of joy and increase their intensity and duration by lingering on them for longer, effectively “wiring” them into our brains.
“People don’t recognize the hidden power of everyday experiences,” says Dr. Hanson. “We’re surrounded by opportunities — 10 seconds here or 20 seconds there — to just register useful experiences and learn from them. People don’t do that when they could.”
When you appreciate and maximize the small, positive experiences, he says, “increasingly there’s a sense of being filled up already inside, or already feeling safe inside, or already feeling loved and liked and respected. So we have less of a sense of striving … Insecurity falls away because you’ve got the good stuff inside of yourself.”
Focus on the positive experiences with the greatest personal impact.
Certain experiences will have a greater positive effect depending on your individual negativity bias at the time. For instance, if you’re worried about a health scare, you need experiences that address this worry — so rather than seeking success or praise at work, you’d want to look for things that give you a sense of safety or a feeling of wellness. “You want experiences that are matched to your problem, like matching the medicine to the illness,” Dr. Hanson says.
We have three fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction and connection, he explains. So if you have a safety-related issue like a health scare, you’d want to seek positive experiences that boost your feelings in that sector. If the issue is connection-related, you should focus on small moments of positive interaction with others. And if you’re anxious and feeling threatened, it would help to feel stronger and more protected inside.
Be on your own side.
An essential ingredient of happiness is setting an intention for joy and then insisting upon it.
“We don’t get on our own side; we don’t take a stand in which we are for ourselves, and that’s foundational,” says Dr. Hanson. He explains that if someone we love is upset or worried, we try to help them move beyond that state of mind. But when we are upset or worried ourselves, we often don’t help ourselves the same way. Instead, we tend to stay upset and ruminate over things longer than we need to.
“There’s a joke in the therapy world: ‘How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.’ It’s lame, and it’s profound, because right there is square one.”
Maintain a sense of wonder.
Einstein once said, “He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.” And when it comes to taking in the good, a sense of wonder is key. Experiencing moments as fresh and new, with a childlike awe, allows them to stick in the brain for longer, potentially becoming part of our lasting emotional memory.
“The more that things seem fresh and new, the more that you’re looking at them with beginner’s mind or child’s mind, that’s going to increase brain structure because the brain is always looking for what’s new,” Dr. Hanson says.
Open your eyes and look around.
The secret to bliss could be as simple (and extraordinarily difficult) as paying attention. Mindfulness — the cultivation of a focused awareness on the present moment, developed through practices like meditation and deep breathing — is perhaps our greatest tool when it comes to increasing our capacity for happiness. “I think of attention as the combination of spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon, and then shuuup! It sucks it into our brain,” Dr. Hanson says. “The problem is, most people don’t have very good control over that spotlight, and they have a hard time pulling it away from what’s not helpful.”
It can be very difficult to pull our attention away from the negative, which can take the form of rumination, self-criticism, obsession and anxiety. But one way to change this, and to create more lasting positive memories in the brain, is to make a concerted effort to notice those little, everyday pleasant encounters: A smile from a stranger, a small gesture of caring from a friend or a little personal victory. “Mindfulness is a great way to get control over your spotlight,” explains Dr. Hanson, who is also a longtime meditation teacher and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. “It can help you stay with — for 10 or 20 seconds at a time — these positive experiences, and it can help you be present in your own life, so that you’re showing up for the good experiences that are here for you.”
So, the mind can change the brain can change the mind for the better. We can learn to take in the good and weave it into the fabric of our brain. When we do that, passing positive mental states (joy, gratitude, compassion, love) become lasting neural traits.