Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, argues in his 2013 Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, that we can develop inner strengths—or “grow flowers in the garden of the mind”—by taking specific steps to appreciate the good experiences of one’s life.
He says our brains act like “Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good” in that we’re born with a “negativity bias” that makes it harder to learn from positive experiences; hence, our stress, anxiety, worry, etc.
But learning how to develop the less negative mental trends will lead to “experience-dependent neuroplasticity”—your brain structure changes one small step at a time. “In the saying in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together, wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain” (Greater Good).
How exactly do we take in the good and change our brains? HEAL, he says—and this stands for:
- Have a positive experience.
- Enrich it.
- Absorb it.
- Link it to negative thoughts and feelings to soothe and eventually replace them.
Focusing on having the kind of positive experience that matches a particular problem you’re having is optimal. For example, he tells Carolyn Gregoire, The Huffington Post, “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 gave you a sense of safety or a feeling of wellness.”
A few other suggestions from Hardwiring Happiness:
- Be on your own side. Often we fail to help ourselves in the same way we do for others.
- Maintain a sense of wonder. Such an attitude helps insert positive moments in the brain.
- Open your eyes and look around. “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.”
Selected Quotes from Hardwiring Happiness
By taking just a few extra seconds to stay with a positive experience—even the comfort in a single breath—you’ll help turn a passing mental state into lasting neural structure.
To survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors needed to be especially aware of dangers, losses, and conflicts. Consequently, the brain evolved a negativity bias that looks for bad news, reacts intensely to it, and quickly stores the experience in neural structure. We can still be happy, but this bias creates an ongoing vulnerability to stress, anxiety, disappointment, and hurt.
The brain is good at learning from bad experiences, but bad at learning from good ones.
Just before bed, your mind is very receptive, so no matter what went wrong that day, find something that went right, open to it, and let good feelings come and ease you into sleep.
I think the sweet spot in life is to pursue your dreams and take care of others with your whole heart while not getting fixated on or stressed out about the results. In this place, you live with purpose and passion but without losing your balance and falling into a sense of pressure, strain, or depletion. This sweet spot is very valuable, so take it in whenever you experience it.