Based on neuropsychologist and teacher Rick Hanson’s latest book, Hardwiring Happiness
Every day, most of us don’t stick with our positive experiences long enough for them to be embedded into our brain (that is, there's not enough wiring and firing going on in our neural structure). However, we naturally tend to fixate on negative experiences. "Positive and negative emotions use different memory systems in the brain," according to Rick Hanson, and "positive emotions don’t transfer as easily to long-term memory."
Hanson argues that the problem is that we're wired to hunt for the bad stuff; as he puts it, the brain is like velcro for negative experience and teflon for positive ones. This "negativity bias" causes the brain to react very intensely to bad news, compared to how it responds to good news. Study has even shown that strong, long-lasting relationships require a five to one ratio of positive to negative interactions in order to thrive; this is due to the fact that the negative interactions affect us so much more strongly. The brain has evolved to be constantly scanning for threats, and when it finds one, to isolate it and lose sight of the big picture.
The way to "hardwire happiness" into the brain, then, is to take in the good -being present to life's tiny, joyful moments. “[Lingering on the positive] improves the encoding of passing mental states into lasting neural traits," says Hanson. "That’s the key here: we’re trying to get the good stuff into us. And that means turning our passing positive experiences into lasting emotional memories."
How to overcome your negativity bias and hardwire happiness into the brain
1) Take in the good.
We all encounter positive moments each day, and no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are, they can be instrumental in changing our perspective. But in order to do so, we must take the time to appreciate these moments of joy and increase their intensity and duration by lingering on them for longer, effectively "wiring" them into our brains.
"People don't recognize the hidden power of everyday experiences," says Hanson. "We're surrounded by opportunities --10 seconds here or 20 seconds there -- to just register useful experiences and learn from them. People don't do that when they could." When you appreciate and maximize the small, positive experiences, insecurity falls away because you’ve got the good stuff inside of yourself.”
2) Focus on the positive experiences with the greatest positive effect.
Certain experiences will have a greater positive impact. We have three fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction and connection, he explains. So if you have a safety-related issue like a health scare, you'd want to seek positive experiences that boost your feelings in that sector.
If the issue is connection-related, you should focus on small moments of positive interaction with others. And if you're anxious and feeling threatened, it would help to feel stronger and more protected inside. "You want experiences that are matched to your problem, like matching the medicine to the illness," Hanson says.
3) Be on your own side.
One of the key recipe to happiness is setting an intention for joy and then insisting upon it. We have to be on our own side - that is, stand up for ourselves. It's vital and it's one of the major steps towards happiness. The same way we tried to cheer up a friend who is upset is the way she strive to build and help ourselves. In the stead of staying anxious, unsettled, and worried, find healthy ways to keep your mind healthy.
"There's a joke in the therapy world: 'How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change,'" Hanson noted. Changing the state of mind is another way to hardwire our brains to happiness.
4) Maintain a sense of wonder.
Einstein once said, "He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle." And when it comes to taking in the good, a sense of wonder is key. Experiencing moments as fresh and new, with a childlike awe, allows them to stick in the brain for longer, potentially becoming part of our lasting emotional memory.
“The more that things seem fresh and new, the more that you’re looking at them with beginner’s mind or child’s mind, that’s going to increase brain structure because the brain is always looking for what’s new,” Hanson says.
5) Open your eyes and look around.
The secret to bliss could be as simple (and extraordinarily difficult) as paying attention. Mindfulness -- the cultivation of a focused awareness on the present moment, developed through practices like meditation and deep breathing -- is perhaps our greatest tool when it comes to increasing our capacity for happiness.
It can be very difficult to pull our attention away from the negative, which can take the form of rumination, self-criticism, obsession and anxiety, according to Hanson. But one way to change this, and to create more lasting positive memories in the brain, is to make a concerted effort to notice those little, everyday pleasant encounters: A smile from a stranger, a small gesture of caring from a friend or a little personal victory.