How To Rewire Your Brain For Greater Happiness

The bad news: Our brains are wired to be negative. The good news: You can train your brain to hold on to happiness in 10 seconds.

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:

Recognize Your Negativity Bias.

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.

Don't Just think Positively. Think Realistically.

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."

Know What's Going On In The Brain.

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.

Follow The 10-Second Rule.

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."

Think Of Your Brain Like A Cassette Recorder.

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.

Why Go Through The Hassle?

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."

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[Photo by Flickr user Porsche Brosseau]

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14 Comments

  • Leila Deliman

    Thank you for focusing on actions to be taken to live a life focusing on the positive....The journey for me is often a daily struggle, but has become easier as my new habitual way of focusing includes a conscious method of listing the good vs. bad and then choosing the good.

  • Brandi Graham

    Funny This seems to be written from a person with unpositive energy. While I was reading this post I notice that there Is a lot of science which could seem valid in eyes of someone who is not not happy with themselves and wants to test some sort of theory. My method is to just relax tell yourself I am going to be happy and also tell yourself that negativity Is all created in your mind, people with negative energy will seem to gravitate towards you and even make you more miserable. You are in control of your own happiness and its funny because people try to do so many complex things such as smoking marijuana or any other absurdities when all you have to do is just tell yourself to be happy. You will get a sense of self confidence, better concentration, relaxation and your perception of the world and life will change for the better. If that doesn't work for you then ask yourself the big question,"Am I afraid of happiness" By the way I'm happy as my first time going to disney land :)

  • Thomas Hopkins

    I think that we are driven by both positive and negative experiences and memories. In fact if you recall the Pavlov bell experiment with a dog you'll see that scientists do really sick things to animals in the name of science but also it shows that we anticipate based on our experiences in life and respond to those experiences based upon our recollections like mindless cows on their way to a slaughter house. Like Pavlov's dog we anticipate kibble and then we get dissected and experimented on and tortured to death without any regard! Look at the history of what the psychiatrists did to the mental patients."Think happy thoughts or well rip out pieces of your brain and sedate you with drugs and electrocute you and keep you locked away for as long as we feel like it!" The hopes and dreams of the average mental patient was to be able to escape to freedom and some how be able to have a normal life some where without being tormented.The reality was that that would never ever be possible

  • Thomas Hopkins

    I think that we are driven by both positive and negative experiences and memories. In fact if you recall the Pavlov bell experiment with a dog you'll see that scientists do really sick things to animals in the name of science but also it shows that we anticipate based on our experiences in life and respond to those experiences based upon our recollections like mindless cows on their way to a slaughter house. Like Pavlov's dog we anticipate kibble and then we get dissected and experimented on and tortured to death without any regard! Look at the history of what the psychiatrists did to the mental patients."Think happy thoughts or well rip out pieces of your brain and sedate you with drugs and electrocute you and keep you locked away for as long as we feel like it!" The hopes and dreams of the average mental patient was to be able to escape to freedom and some how be able to have a normal life some where without being tormented.The reality was that that would never ever be possible

  • Nash Hinton

    How do you linger in a positive moment for an extended amount of time when the moment has already expired? I have something called anhedonia, so I can't enjoy a positive experience because I never have any positive experiences.

    Every time I meditate and think of something "positive", I get angrier.

  • Controlling ones thoughts is key. How do you do this? By being mindful of your thoughts, and recognizing when they are negative. Once you can do that it is possible to counteract those negative thoughts with a positive ones. I never have any positive experiences, is just a thought You can replace it with a positive one. Most programming on television is negative, especially the News. do not dwell on what is wrong with the world, it was like this before you were born, you cannot change it. Do not read or watch horror stories or violent crime dramas. Do not blame yourself when you first become aware of negative thoughts. Be gentle with yourself, just use that realization to lift yourself up. It is not always possible to counteract negative thoughts immediately, but by becoming aware of them and doing something about them will help, as you persevere over time.

    Good luck

  • Jason Ryan K

    Why does the brain scan for bad news? Why can't the brain naturally scan for positive news? Why are our brains wire to just continuously look for bad instead of good when we should have a free choice? Shouldn't it be 50/50?

  • Mark Ivar Myhre

    'Spend the time to absorb the energy from the good experience.' I remember that from some new age book about 30 years ago. it's great to see science is catching up!

  • Marx Mcdaniels

    Interesting. Obviously, the author is not writing from a vantage point of someone fleeing Central America for their life. (" But these days, we aren't exactly running from predators"). It's nice to slow down and put the good moments in your positive box for future reference.

  • Great post! I really resonate with the section that talks about stopping and taking in positive moments. We don't do that enough now of days, and I really think it can, rewire our brains, as you say to think more positively. Thanks for putting these great tips out there! Shared on Twitter!

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