How to Hardwire Your Brain for Happiness

Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and the author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. He’s spoken at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. Below is a TEDx Talk he gave in 2013, wherein he shares a simple life hack for rewiring your brain for happiness. Check it out below:

What is The Negativity Bias?

Negativity bias is simply the idea that your brain is built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news (Psychology Today). According to Dr. Hanson, the brain is good at learning from bad experiences, but bad at learning from good experiences. Our ancestors had to pay a lot of attention to bad news: if they survived it, they had to remember it forever. Historically, if we were attacked by a saber tooth tiger, we needed to remember that negative experience and avoid saber tooth tigers in the future. To survive, it was more important that we remember the negative dangers than the positive (less harmful) experiences.

Nowadays, however, survival is easier than in ancient days. But unfortunately, our brains’ negativity bias continues even though we’re not constantly threatened by saber tooth tigers anymore. That’s why, if our boss pulls us aside to tell us one compliment and one criticism, we ignore the compliment and dwell on the criticism all week.

In our modern world, this negativity bias is actually more harmful than helpful, since dwelling on the negative actually hinders our happiness and success in life.

How to Overcome the Brain’s Negativity Bias

Luckily, Dr. Hanson discovered a simple yet powerful method, grounded in neuroscience, to rewire our brains. He explains how to turn past experiences into lasting structure within our brains. Here’s how it works:

When faced with a positive experience, instead of letting it pass by like usual, try taking a moment to stay with that experience. Soak it in. Tuck it away. It doesn’t need to take long—even a dozen or so seconds should do the trick.

Dr. Hanson started practicing this in college, after years of struggling with a low self-esteem in high school. Very quickly, he began feeling happier and more confident. He discovered that by doing this, he was actually changing his brain. He explains that neurons that fire together, wire together; passing mental states become lasting neural traits; and staying with these positive experiences just for a moment actually weaves them into the fabric of the brain.

The mind can change the brain to change the mind.

The power of the mind is incredible, and we can harness this power to our benefit. According to Dr. Hanson, choosing to change our brain can actually change our mind. In other words, we can have a more positive outlook—and all the benefits that accompany positivity—simply by deciding to.

Positivity begets positivity. That is, inner strengths are built from positive experiences of those strengths. So when we focus on the positive experiences we have, even if they’re fleeting, we build our brain’s muscle memory of those moments.

To get these experiences into the brain, we must overcome brain’s hardwired negativity bias. Here’s a simple acronym that Dr. Hanson shares for how to do this:

Steps to Take In the Good (H. E. A. L.)

  1. Have a good experience. Activate it. We can’t remember a positive experience and install it in our brains until we actually have one. For some, these might come more readily than others. If necessary, take active steps to make positive experiences happen in your life.
  2. Enrich the positive experience. Help install the activated mental state into your brain as a neural trait. Stay with it for a few moments rather than letting it pass by like you normally do. Remember where you are, what you were doing when it happened, and how it made you feel. Really focus on the positive experience.
  3. Absorb the experience. Sense an intent that it’s sinking into you. This will prime your memory senses, and sensitize them to the positive experience. That way, you’ll be more aware of the next positive thing that happens to you.
  4. Link the positive experience with something negative. If you can stay strong with the positive moment, it can link with the negative to soothe it, ease it, and gradually replace it. Doing this can actually heal old pain or neglect, either in adulthood or childhood.

Have It And Enjoy It

The more we take in the good, the more we’re able to identify the bad and improve it. Our brains naturally focus excessively on the bad, but we can re-wire that bias to place less importance on the negative.

Dr. Hanson closes with this profound Buddhist saying:

Do not think lightly of good, saying it will not come to me. Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little, fills oneself with good.

In other words, even though it seems insignificant and maybe even impossible, making this small change in your brain can actually propagate a huge and positive change in your life.

Are you going to try it?

About The Author

Camille Fairbanks

Camille Fairbanks was born and raised in Arizona and now resides in Lethbridge, AB. She received her BA in English from the University of Lethbridge; she now raises her children and her garden full time, and enjoys writing about minimalism and the Zero Waste lifestyle on her blog, The Non-Waster.