Four-Step Plan to Keep Your Brain Happy
Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, discusses his formula for joy
In his new book, bestselling author Dr. Rick Hanson lays out a simple method for using everyday experiences to build new neural structures full of happiness, love, confidence, and peace. His four steps build strengths into your brain— balancing its ancient negativity bias—making contentment and a powerful sense of resilience the new normal. In mere minutes each day, we can transform our brains into refuges and power centers of calm and happiness. Read the Q&A below to learn more, and perhaps, find happiness.
What does it mean to “hardwire happiness,” and why is it important?
Whether we are happy or sad, loving or angry, or wise or foolish depends on what’s inside the brain. Bringing good things into your brain is the key to well-being and effectiveness, psychological healing, creativity, and spiritual practice.
So, how do you get good things—such as resilience, self-worth, or love—into your brain? These inner strengths are grown mainly from positive experiences. Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.
This built-in negativity bias makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue. Plus it creates a kind of bottleneck in the brain that makes it hard to gain any lasting value from our experiences, which is disheartening and the central weakness in personal development, mindfulness training, and psychotherapy.
To solve this problem, I developed the four HEAL steps of taking in the good: Have a positive experience; Enrich it; Absorb it; and if you like, Link it to negative thoughts and feelings to soothe and eventually replace them.
Most days have lots of little positive experiences, from the pleasure in a cup of coffee to the warmth in a friend’s smile, from the satisfaction in finishing a tricky e-mail to the relief in finally flopping into bad after a long day. But we typically race past them on to the next thing.
Instead, in just a dozen seconds or so, you can turn fleeting experiences into lasting inner strengths woven into your own nervous system. This is hardwiring happiness—which gradually lifts your mood, soothes anxiety, and deepens resilience and well-being. It also improves relationships, because as many studies have shown, when your own cup runneth over, you have more to offer others.
Is it really possible to overcome this Stone Age negativity bias? How much time does it take?
Your brain is constantly changing its structure based on what you think and feel; scientists call this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” When you take in the good, you take charge of this structure-building process.
Hardwiring happiness is not mere positive thinking, which is usually wasted on the brain. It’s about transforming fleeting experiences into lasting improvements in your neural net worth. It usually takes less than half a minute. Any single time you do this won’t change your life. But half a dozen times a day, day after day, you really can gradually change your brain from the inside out.
What could I get out of doing this?
Besides building up specific inner strengths such as determination or feeling cared about, taking in the good has additional, general benefits. It’s a way to be active rather than passive—a hammer rather than a nail—at a time when people feel pushed and prodded by events and their reactions to them, a way to build oneself up when the world is wearing you down. When you take in the good, you treat yourself like you matter, which is especially important if you haven’t mattered enough to others. And over time, you could sensitize your brain to positive experiences, so it becomes more efficient at learning from them: making it like Velcro for good.
This is the good that lasts. Many little moments add up to big results over time.
What is the first step that we can take to reclaim some peace and regain some balance in our lives?
The first step is to recognize that you really do have the power to change your brain for the better—and then use that power a few times each day to bring more comfort, ease, gratitude, energy, contentment, and kindness into yourself.
Some researchers believe that there is a happiness set point; do you agree?
This was the idea that people tend to return to their baseline after a big positive or negative experience—which was used sometimes to argue that there is no point in trying to become happier since we’ll just sink back into our old ways.
More recent research has shown that many people do gradually lift their happiness set point over time. But we have to earn this happiness. We have to do the work . . . which, in terms of taking in the good, is pretty enjoyable!
What stops people from “taking in the good,” and what can be done to overcome it?
I think there are two major hurdles. First, many people have a belief deep down that they don’t actually deserve to be happy. To deal with this, it can help to think of a good friend who has a life like your own. What would you wish for your friend? Would it be fair and kind to wish that your friend took in good experiences and became happier and stronger as a result? Well, it would also be fair and kind to wish this for yourself.
Second, people—me included—can become busy and distracted. It helps to appreciate that your brain is constantly changing . . . with a bias toward changing for the worse. Lots of forces—stresses, the economy, other people, the lasting effects of childhood—are pushing on us to change the brain in bad ways. So we need to make an effort a few times a day to change the brain for the better.
Is taking in the good just another way to chase after positive experiences?
By incorporating these positive experiences into your brain—by building up the sense of being already happy, loved, and peaceful—you won’t have to seek out those feelings outside yourself. Your well-being will become increasingly unconditional, less dependent on external conditions like a partner being nice or having a good day at work. Experiencing that your deep needs are basically met, there’s no basis for the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm for yourself and others.
This practice (both the most pleasurable and the most powerful way to defeat the negativity bias and to build up inner strengths) brings you home—home to a comfortable intimacy with your own experience, to a confident openness to life, and to a sense of competence, even mastery, with your own mind.