Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson
As humans, we’re drawn to negative information. We like to hear bad news. We have the tendency to pay more attention to the bad than the good. Scientists have discovered that a structure of the brain determines whether we focus on the happy or unhappy thoughts. In his book, Rick Hanson presents simple techniques that we can use to rewire the brain’s negative bias into positive bias.
Bad experiences trigger stronger emotions than good experiences. We tend to focus on negative feedback. For example, when a friend gives us constructive criticism, we tend to focus on the negative part of that criticism. In fact, in 2001, Roy Baumaster, a psychologist, conducted a study where he determined that people paid more attention to non-happy faces than happy faces.
The amygdala of the brain affects our tendency to focus on sad or happy thoughts. It stimulates the nucleus accumbent that leads us to complete our goals. People with happy amygdala are optimistic. However, the majority of people have sad amygdalas. They tend to have fear-based thoughts that release cortisol and adrenaline in the blood. This makes then overly anxious.
Our brain is constantly changing with each experience that we have. A terrible childhood can contribute to a sad amygdala. However, there are techniques that we can use to learn to be happy. For example, psychologists have their clients imagine that they are surrounded by a loving family and that they are part of a positive environment. Such exercises reinforce positive thinking.
During prehistoric times, humans were in constant danger. The panicked response helped them survive. Today, we keep paying attention to negative things and are stressed out about our jobs, politics, relationships, etc.
Our tendency to focus on negative information is called negative bias. When this occurs, our nervous system becomes alerted. We go into flight or fight mode. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood. We become anxious and on edge. We start shouting at the people around us. Some people find it calming to go on a walk when that happens. That decreases the heart rate, blood pressure, and stress.
There are some techniques that you can use to be positive. In the morning, breathe some fresh air. Focus on the positive in the morning and set that frame of mind for the rest of the day. At the end of the day, think about the positives of that day, write some notes, and add that to a box. At the end of the year, review that box.
Rewire your brain’s negative bias into positive bias. Try to savor the good moments. For example, think back to a positive experience. Think about how you felt. Imagine the surroundings. The people around you. The smile on your face. The feeling flowing through you. Work on staying positive. If you see yourself going negative, switch back to positivity. Know that that’s your brain’s negative bias taking hold. Don’t let it win!
Positive experiences help overcome old traumas. For example, the author tells the story of a woman who lost her cat. Instead of focusing on her lost, she savored all the positive moments with her cat and that helped her heal. The author himself was diagnosed with cancer. He focused on the positivity of the experience - how precious life really was and to cherish every moment.
There are always ways to be happy. You can always rewire your brain to be happy. If you need a positive experience to help you heal, you can imagine one. You can also find happiness in the simple pleasures of life. As the author was writing his book, he found some happiness with his keyboard, which he cherished. Giving back to people also makes people happy. Feeling happy for a friend multiplies happiness.
In prehistoric times, negative bias helped humans survive. Today, it gets in the way of our happiness. We can rewire our brain’s negative bias to positive bias by practicing some techniques. Hardwiring Happiness lays out simple techniques that you can use to build new neural structures full of happiness, love, confidence, and peace.
About the Author
Rick Hanson is a New York Times bestselling author. He has written and given speeches about the essential inner skills of personal wellbeing, psychological growth, and contemplative practices, relationships, family life, and raising children. He graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 1974. He founded a successful seminar company, worked for a mathematician on probabilistic risk analyses, and did management consulting. He received a Ph.D in clinical psychology from Wright Institute in 1991. His dissertation was titled: “Gratifying control: Mothers offering alternatives to toddlers.”