Hardwire Yourself to Be Happy

Wish you felt more cheerful more often? This simple three-minutes-a-day practice can change your outlook and make you feel more positive

by Judy Jones
hardwiring for happiness image
Photograph: Illustrated by Gary Taxali

One surefire way to be happier: Rewire your brain using an easy, enjoyable process that takes only minutes a day. Don’t laugh. While this may sound like the hype in an infomercial, it’s actually the latest advice from the front lines of brain science. Recent studies suggest that happiness, far from being an unattainable dream, results from certain habits that can be sculpted into the very tissue of our brains. All it takes is a little practice, says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and an advisory-board member at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

This rewiring is possible because of what scientists call neuroplasticity, loosely defined as the brain’s ability to change its structure in response to thoughts, feelings and life experiences. “All mental activity is based on the underlying actions of billions of nerve cells that continually signal each other through vast networks of connections,” Hanson says. “This complex activity is constantly changing your brain. Working connections get more blood circulation and become more sensitive. In a process that could be called the survival of the busiest, intense, prolonged or repeated mental activity leaves a lasting imprint, while less active connections wither away.” That’s why you’ll be better at speaking a foreign language if you do it every day rather than once a year.

The key to rewiring for happiness is focusing on positive experiences and memories. “The brain is primarily shaped by what you pay attention to,” Hanson says. “This means that by directing your attention, you can deliberately create and prolong the kinds of experiences that will shape your brain so that you are happier.”

More asked Hanson to explain this self-transformation method, which he presents in his latest book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

MORE: Why is happiness so elusive for many people?
RH: The human brain has a negativity bias. It’s engineered to note pleasant experiences only in passing, if at all, while it is very good at fully absorbing negative experiences and turning them into something unpleasant, like a growing anxiety, a blue mood or feelings of inadequacy. In other words, negative reactions become a habit. Think about your relationship with a coworker, family member or roommate. Ten things may happen in a day with that person. Five are positive, four are neutral, and one is negative. Which is the one you’re going to think about when you’re going to sleep? It’s almost always the negative one. Along the same lines, there’s a lot of research showing that a good long-term relationship needs at least a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. In effect, that means one negative interaction is as powerful as five good ones!

MORE: Why would people have a negativity bias in the first place?
RH: Evolution. Our Stone Age ancestors had to get good stuff, such as food, shelter, mating opportunities, etc., and avoid bad stuff, such as predators, natural hazards and aggression between groups. Good stuff differs from bad stuff in its urgency and impact. If you fail to get that good stuff today, you’ll have another chance tomorrow, but if you fail to avoid the bad stuff today, you’re toast. So our brains evolved a negativity bias that allows them to learn much more quickly from negative experiences than from positive ones. As a result, good experiences tend to bounce off the brain, while bad ones go right in.

MORE: That’s fascinating! What can we do to alter the bias?
RH: Using a simple method outlined in my book, you can turn your brain into Velcro for the good and Teflon for the bad instead of the other way around. If you do, eventually the good experiences will be woven into the fabric of your brain.

MORE: Quick! What’s the method? I want to be happier!

First published in the July/August 2014 issue

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