International bestselling author and neuropsychologist Rick Hanson is an expert in brain neuroplasticity. That’s a mouthful, but all it really means is that you have the power to change your brain through the experiences you choose to have and, by doing so, also change your state of mind to one of peace, calm, and happiness. Our brain is wired to learn quickly from bad experiences; it’s what helped us survive in challenging environments thousands of years ago. But you can override that default programming and actually build new neural structures in mere minutes each day. We spoke with Dr. Hanson about his learnings, which he delves into in his book Hardwiring Happiness and in his online video series Foundations of Well-Being. Here’s what he had to say to help you get started living a happier, healthier life today.
Books for Better Living (BBL): You delve deeply into the science of “neuroplasticity” in your book Hardwiring Happiness; this idea that the brain is the organ that learns and is designed to change based on our experiences. I think human beings tend to be awed—but also intimidated—by brain science, assuming that it’s too complicated and mysterious to really understand. How can people change their view of the brain as an unreachable, abstract organ that they have no power over?
Hanson: You’re right, the brain does seem strangely alien. And yet right now it is enabling you to read these words—or hear sounds, taste chocolate, cook a meal, hold a job, and talk with a friend. It’s actually pretty amazing. We’ve each been given this remarkable organ, the result of 600 million years of evolution of the nervous system. I feel a sense of responsibility for what I do with this gift. Do I use my brain well or badly, to help or to hurt? In particular, do I use my mind skillfully to change my brain for the better—and thus my life as well?
This gives you the remarkable power to change your own brain from the inside out. By resting your attention on what is useful, enjoyable, or beneficial to yourself and others, you naturally stimulate the neural circuitry underlying that experience. And since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” this stimulation strengthens the circuitry a little bit each time you do it. As a result, you really can deliberately grow more happiness, resilience, love, and inner peace inside.
BBL: I love how you emphasize the positive fleeting experiences in our day over the “million-dollar” moments—and the idea of relishing little moments of happiness, positivity, joy, and contentment from taking pleasure in a cup of coffee, a warm breeze, the satisfaction of finishing a task. In our increasingly fast-paced society, it seems more important than ever, but do you think that social media and our multitasking society are making it harder for people to “stop and smell the flowers”? As a society, what is the risk if we don’t embrace these kinds of moments?
Hanson: The harder a person’s life is, the more important it is to focus on the genuine opportunities for moments of accomplishment, self-respect, appreciation of others, beauty, relief, reassurance, and rest. And then slow down for a breath or two to feel something good, and feel it sinking into you, becoming a part of you that comes with you wherever you go.
We can still have busy, productive lives. But at least a few times a day, why not receive into yourself some of the good you have earned, or that is simply handed to you in the form of another person’s smile, or fresh water out of a tap, or leaves waving in the breeze?
As a practical person, I think it boils down to three things: See good facts, feel something good as a result, and take that goodness into yourself.
The brain is so fast that it takes just a handful of seconds to leave a lasting change in it. A few seconds here, half a minute there, taking in the good each time . . . in less than five minutes a day, you can make big deposits in your internal “bank account” of well-being.
BBL: In one of your Foundations of Well-Being videos, you mention that true health is not just the absence of disease, but complete physical, social, and mental well-being. That’s a very important point to underscore. Do you think that most of us tend to think of our health in terms of the former, and if so, why?
Hanson: The medical model has focused on healing illness, on moving from sick to not-sick, from “minus” up to “neutral.” That’s important, but it’s not enough. We also want to experience the “plus” of vitality, love, fulfillment, even joy. We wish being well for anyone we care about, and it is just as legitimate to wish it for ourselves.
Besides the sheer pleasure in well-being, studies show that happiness and related feelings make us stronger when times are tough, protect the body against stress, help us be kinder toward others, improve performance at work, and build reserves inside for the long marathon of years ahead. It is popular to dismiss well-being as the pursuit of new-age yuppies, but it is actually the hard-core, old-school foundation of a healthy, resilient, moral, and successful life.
BBL: You use the acronym HEAL to discuss the four steps of “taking in the good”—i.e., deliberately internalizing positive experiences. H stands for having the experience. E is for enriching. A stands for absorbing the experience, and L is for linking positive and negative material. Can you help clarify or delineate how enriching and absorbing are different via a concrete example?
Hanson: In your mind, enriching an experience feels like helping it be big and rich and lasting, while absorbing feels like receiving this experience into yourself like water coming into a sponge. In your brain, enriching means creating a large and sustained pattern of neural activation, while absorbing makes your brain more effective at encoding and consolidating that pattern of activity into a lasting change in your nervous system.
This may sound complicated, but when you do it, it feels natural and simple. Let’s say you’re talking with a friend. For enriching, you could take some seconds to stay with feeling liked or appreciated, opening to these feelings in your body. For absorbing, you could sense these feelings spreading out inside you like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa coming into your hands on a winter’s day.
BBL: In one of your Foundations of Well-Being videos you tell a story about an older woman asked by her granddaughter what she had done in her life to become so happy, successful, beloved, and wise. The woman answered that when she was young herself, she realized that each person had two wolves inside, one of love and one of hate, with everything depending on which one is fed each day—and she had chosen to feed the wolf of love. I appreciate that you underscore that as human beings, we naturally have capabilities and sometimes tendencies for grudges, prejudice, malice, violence, and war, but that we also have the power to feed the positive. How can people who have been living with the wolf of hate—who’ve been subsisting on jealousy, resentment, disdain, or aggression—turn that dynamic around?
Hanson: Huge question. And so important at all scales, from personal relationships to national politics to international conflicts.
First, we need to see clearly what tendencies we are feeding and what the results are. Tell the truth to yourself: What are the personal payoffs of holding onto grievances and looking down on others, or dismissing them as people you don’t need to understand or have compassion for? And, what are the costs? The costs to you, your children, the planet?
Second, accept that the wolf of hate is a normal part of the wolf pack inside everyone’s mind. Don’t shame yourself for it. If you hate the wolf of hate, that just feeds it. But you can indeed restrain that wolf. When you notice yourself ruminating negatively about others, try to pull out of it: look out the window, wash your face, eat a cookie, watch a kitten video on YouTube, something, anything, to break the pattern. Because our thoughts and feelings are changing the brain, for better or worse, ruminating negatively is like doing laps around a track in Hell, deepening it every time you go around it.
Third, feed the wolf of love. Start with yourself, bringing kindness and encouragement to your own stresses, burdens, worries, hurts, and weariness. Also practice compassion for others, the simple warmhearted wish that beings not suffer. Try to see the being behind the eyes of the other person: The pains there are much like your own, along with the same longings for comfort, achievement, and love. Without giving up your own rights, be the best person you can be in your relationships, which is also your best odds strategy for getting good treatment from others.
BBL: Speaking of your Foundation of Well-Being program, which helps participants grow twelve key inner strengths for lasting happiness, including self-caring, confidence, motivation, mindfulness, and intimacy via a series of videos/audio clips, quizzes, and exercises: Should people follow it chronologically, or can the videos and exercises be customized based on an individual’s unique needs?
Hanson: This online program does lay out a step-by-step path of healing and growth. But I’ve set it up so that you can also go at your own pace and just focus on whatever will help you the most. It’s a really comprehensive program, based on the science of positive neuroplasticity. You can download everything in it and keep it forever and come back to it whenever you like.
BBL: Not to get too political, but the recent presidential election—both the months leading up to it as well as the aftermath—has caused great stress and grief for so many people. I can’t help thinking that now, more than ever, calling on inner strengths is so important. Do you have any advice for how people can get out of the slump they might be in because of the current state of our divided country and turn their negativity into positivity? Based on all the learnings and teachings from your book and program, what is most directly suitable to these current circumstances (regardless of your political affiliation)?
Hanson: I have felt myself much of what you are talking about here. For me, a wise response is both to do what one can to help others while also helping oneself. A primary way to help oneself is to use each day (in the ways I’ve said here) to grow a little more determination, kindness, insight, patience, appreciation, and emotional balance inside. Whatever is happening out there in the world, no one can ever take away your own inner resources.
Take heart in the good that has been real, is currently real, and will be real. Find the facts of what is actually happening and who is actually benefiting; they’re not hard to find with a little noodling around the Internet, even though you’ll rarely hear them on the evening news. Find your own ground, the places, activities, and people that protect and feed and lift you and keep you strong. Beware of anger; in small and passing quantities, it may be like medicine, but in large or lasting quantities, it poisons the mind and relationships. Feel compassion and even outrage on behalf of others, but also take the long view. I believe in what Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
BBL: For people who are interested in “hardwiring their brains for happiness” but may not be ready to dive into a whole program just yet, what are three simple steps they can take to get started right away?
Hanson: I suggest first that you slow down to take in the good—perhaps a sense of self-worth, calming, friendship, gladness, or beauty—a few times at least in the flow of your day. Honestly, you will feel it making a big difference.
Second, after doing a regular personal activity—exercise, Pilates, meditation, walking the dog, putting your child to bed—take a breath or two to sink into the experience while it sinks into you.
Third, pick a psychological resource, an inner strength such as mindfulness, self-compassion, happiness, calm, believing that your needs also matter, or love. Look for ways to have experiences of that resource, and when you do, really take them into yourself.
Most of all, know that you really can make genuine changes inside your own brain, growing more of the good inside yourself and in your life.
Photo Credit: Brain Chernishev Maksim/Shutterstock