As a survival mechanism, the human brain is wired to remember negative events more strongly than positive ones. An expert neurologist discusses changes in thinking that can create more positive physical brain pathways, making us happier.
Dr. Rick Hanson, author, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence
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16-22 Hardwiring Happiness
Nancy Benson: Why is it that a person’s mood can be ruined by one small, negative event? Maybe we’ve had a good day, been very productive at work, had a nice lunch and even a few laughs with friends. But then somebody tosses an insult at us and we can think of nothing else the rest of the day. Clouds gather over our disposition and maybe we even lose sleep over it. Why do we dwell on the negative and forget about the positive? Well, apparently it’s only natural. Our brains are built to remember bad experiences much more strongly than good ones.
Dr. Rick Hanson: That’s what scientists call the brain’s negativity bias, which evolved because our ancestors needed to first and foremost, live to see the sun rise. So the brain today looks for bad news, hyper-focuses on it, overreacts to it, and then store the whole messy experience in emotional memory.
Benson: That’s neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm and confidence. He says a strong memory for bad things is a survival mechanism.
Hanson: The brain reacts more intensely to unpleasant sounds or sights than it does to equally loud or bright, pleasant sounds or sights. Second, the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala is primed in general to focus on bad news, so we have a particular part of the brain that registers good news but really reacts to bad news. And then third, memory systems in the brain are very primed and specialized to record negative experiences so that we learn from them for survival.
Benson: Positive experiences, on the other hand, are the primary way to build up inner strengths like happiness, resilience and character values. Those all reinforce finding food or a mate, but Hanson says they’re nothing our stone age ancestors could use for more critical needs… Like not getting eaten. So the brain never developed efficient neural pathways to accentuate the positive.
Hanson: If you don’t get a positive experience today or if you don’t get food today, you’ll have a chance at food tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid that predator today or that lethal aggression inside her between her primate band then, whoop, no more rewards forever.
Benson: Hanson says most people’s lives are actually not that terrible. But we think about the negative far more than it actually shows up in our lives.
Hanson: Research shows that most people say that many, if not the majority of the minutes in their day are mildly pleasant or at least neutral. To me, that question is not, “How can we have more positive experiences?” That’s almost a trivial question. The central question is, “How do we not waste them? How do we turn these positive experiences into some kind of lasting value inside?” Which really means getting the brain to encode them, to weave them into the neural structure.
Benson: The way to do that, Hanson says, is by consciously focusing on positive things in our day- the kind of events most people never think about.
Hanson: Most people have most minutes of most days full of positive facts all around. If you could be happy that others are happy then you can be always happy because someone is always happy somewhere, for example. Also, simple physical pleasures. The smell of good coffee, what if feels like to get into air conditioning on a hot and muggy day or to put on a warm jacket when it’s cold, or the recognition of good qualities inside yourself, or a feeling of friendliness or connection with other people. Or simply getting stuff done- a load of laundry, dishes washed, emails sent out, they’re completed. There’s so many opportunities for positive experiences of safety and satisfaction and connection, our three overarching needs.
Benson: Hanson advocates a process with the acronym HEAL. First, have the experience. Then enrich and absorb it. Finally, link the positive to the negative, contrasting the two. Hanson says it’s pretty simple, as long as you remember to do it whenever something good happens.
Hanson: Take the extra 10 or 20 seconds to stay with the experience. Let’s suppose that you’re in a work environment and someone has paid you a compliment, including a fairly casual compliment on a 0-10 scale, it’s a one or a two. So it’s appropriate to have a one or a two scale-type positive experience, but it’s still real. So for the next 10 or 20 seconds, draw on the research that shows that the longer we sustain something in our awareness, the more it sinks in, the more it becomes a part of us, something good that we can then take with us wherever we go. So stay with it if you can, help it become more intense, this positive experience. It’s a private act, nobody needs to know that you’re having a good time inside for 10 or 20 or 30 seconds straight. Try to feel it more in your body. In the famous saying in neuroscience, “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” so therefore try to get as many neurons firing for as long as possible and with a felt sense throughout your body.
Benson: Eventually, exercising these “positive pathways” will create a physical change in the brain. Counteracting the negative bias put there by nature and creating a more sunny disposition.
Hanson: Bit by bit, synapse by synapse, one experience at a time, we gradually change the brain. It’s not an overnight process, which for me is what makes it authentic and legitimate. It’s not a quick fix, but it does mean that half a dozen times a day, less than half a minute at a time, you actually have the opportunity to bring something good inside yourself, help it land, and help it kind of stick to your mental ribs, which I think is a really important thing these days when so many people feel sort of pushed around by events and their reactions to them and feel somewhat like they’re running on empty. What I’m talking about is how to top off your tank, how to get more of the good things into yourself.
Benson: Now, Hanson admits some people may think we’re all supposed to be like Pollyanna… Unrealistically and insufferably finding sunshine in the deepest tragedy. But he says ignoring reality is the farthest thing from his mind.
Hanson: While I think that objection is understandable, it’s just not true. What I’m talking about is not a positive focus or a negative focus but a realistic focus. In other words, see the challenges in life, see the things that could be a lot better in the world outside or in the world in your own home, see those things and do what you can for those things. But also appreciate that we’ve got a stone age brain that’s actually biased toward the negative, so if you in effect deliberately look for those facts that are the authentic basis for a legitimate positive experience and then you help yourself actually not waste that positive experience but in fact take it into yourself, you’re just leveling the playing field that is tilted toward raw survival based on the Stone Age brain but tilt it against quality of life and long-term health and wellbeing.
Benson: Hanson says within a few days, most people start to notice a difference in attitude. They begin to treat themselves like they matter, taking an active role in life and not waiting to be passively pushed around. Before long, he says, positivity becomes second nature because the wiring in our brain has changed. We just need to give positive brain paths a little more use.
You can find out more about Dr. Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness, through his website… RickHanson.net.
Our production director is Sean Waldron.
I’m Nancy Benson.