Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could hack into our own brains and rewire them to be happier?
Science has shown we actually can thanks to a phenomenon called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. "It’s a fancy term to say the brain learns from our experiences," says Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness. "As we understand better and better how this brain works, it gives us more power to change our mind for the better."
Hanson assures he isn't just talking new-age mumbo jumbo. "This is not just 'smell the roses,'" he says. "I am talking about positive neuroplasticity. I am talking about learning. … The brain is changing based on what flows through it."
Understanding how our brains function can help us better control them. Here are some key takeaways from Hanson on how our brains work when it comes to wiring for happiness:
Our brains are awesome at overlearning from negative experiences. "The brain continuously scans for bad news," says Hanson. "As soon as it finds the bad news, it overly focuses on it."
Think of where we've evolved from and this starts to make a lot of sense. "Our ancestors evolved in really harsh conditions," he says. Negativity bias is really good for animals surviving in the wild. It's what Hanson calls the "eat lunch don’t be lunch" mentality. But these days, we aren't exactly running from predators, yet our brains are still functioning as if we're in the wild.
Try not to overlearn from your negative experiences. That means if you get a performance review from your boss, for example, and he tells you countless positive things about your work and one bit of criticism, don't obsess (as we often tend to) on the one negative thing. "The brain is like a garden, except its soil is very fertile for weeds," says Hanson.
There's a lot of good stuff happening in our lives, but we don't always let ourselves stop and notice it. Rewiring your brain for greater happiness isn't simply about positive thinking. "I don’t believe in positive thinking," says Hanson. "I believe in realistic thinking."
Realistic thinking means noticing the good things that happen to us as they occur and letting ourselves experience them. "We tend to not even notice a good fact when its there," he says. "The boss actually said 19 good things about you, but you're obsessing over the one bad thing."
Say you're in a meeting and you get acknowledged for something you've said or called out for the great work you've done. In that moment of being valued, neuro-psychologically there is a particular activation of synapses—the tiny connections between cells that allow neurons to pass on electrical and chemical signals.
"When we talk about the neural basis for feeling valued, we are talking about an activated coalition of billions of synapses," says Hanson. "As they fire together, they start wiring together."
When those synapses are firing, they become more sensitive and new synopses start to form. That means the next time you feel valued, the positive feelings experienced in that moment will be a little stronger.
It's important to let yourself linger in the moment of a positive experience—not just because it feels good (though that should be reason enough), but because you're actually helping rewire your brain in that moment. For most people, it's hard to have positive experiences for more than few seconds. Think about how quickly you push away a compliment rather than letting yourself really feel good about it. But brushing aside positive experiences rather than internalizing them literally doesn't allow you to transfer the positive feelings associated from your short- to long-term memory, says Hanson.
"People tend to be really good at having that beneficial state of mind in the first place, but they don’t take the extra 10 seconds required for the transfer to occur from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage," he says. "Really get those neurons firing together so that they wire this growing inner strength in your brain."
Making a change in your brain is a two-stage process and it doesn't happen overnight, to be sure. You first have to allow yourself to have certain positive thoughts or experiences, play them out fully in your brain and let them register. "The brain is old-school," says Hanson. "It's like a cassette recorder. You record the song by playing it."
The changes associated with this are gradual. Think of it kind of like an interest rate. "An annualized interest rate of 5% or 6% is not great, but that small percentage accumulating every day over time can make a big difference," says Hanson.
Our brains are working just fine, you might be thinking. Why mess with something that's not broken? But the fact of the matter is happiness isn't something that happens to you. It's something you can teach your brain to experience more fully.
"We should not fool ourselves," says Hanson. "We've got a brain that is pulled together to help lizards, mice, and monkeys get through the day and pass on their genes. We've got a brain that's like Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. Be muscular from the inside out. Grow the good stuff inside yourself."