[People] ought to know that from nothing else but the brain
come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows,
grief, despondency, and lamentations. —Hippocrates
In the book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, author Dan Buettner says one of the powerful forces that can often deter each of us from authentic happiness is our brain’s hardwiring. Our brains are designed with a negativity bias. In other words, our brains quickly learn from bad experiences, but not so much from the good ones. This is one way we protect ourselves from repeating painful moments. The good news, however, is that we can overcome the brain’s negativity bias and train our brains for the better.
Recently, I had the honor and pleasure of being invited to speak at a health conference in Sydney, Australia. My presentation was about how we can become better at using our mind to change the brain for the better, to help ourselves and others. In other words, what we can do to hardwire happiness. It was my first time to Sydney and I had a lovely time in such a lovely city. I’ll share my picture postcards in upcoming posts, but for now, I’ll get back to the “meat” of the matter, the brain—the approximately 3.5 lbs of tofu-like substance in the “coconut” (our head).
Our brain is the most important organ in our body. It’s about 2% of our body weight. It consumes about 20% of the oxygen in our blood and consumes about 25% of glucose circulating in our blood. So it’s hungry, it’s busy, and it’s roughly as metabolically active when we’re sound asleep as when we’re concentrating hard and doing a lot of mental activity. Because our brain is ready to go 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it consumes a lot of supplies. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to what we eat and how we treat our brain. It’s important to exercise it and keep it healthy. It needs a lot of building material and what happens in it determines what we think, feel, say and do.
Many studies show that our experiences are continually changing our brain, one way or another. As the brain is the organ that learns, it is designed to change by our experiences. It’s amazing but whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly but surely sculpting neural structure. Our flows of thought leave traces in the brain, not only in temporary but lasting ways. This has to do with what is called experienced-dependent neuroplasticity, a hot area of research these days. The term neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to be plastic, malleable, and changeable over time.
Research has shown that we tend to remember the super high points and/or disappointingly low points of any day or event, while the hundreds of positive moments and experiences in between go largely unnoticed. Each day is replete with ample opportunity to build inner strengths (virtues, capabilities, attitudes, positive emotions, etc.), but our brain is wired to ignore and waste them. This is one reason why its easier to be harder on yourself than other people and why you can feel like you haven’t accomplished much despite getting hundreds of things done.
If you’re like me, you probably go through the day quickly moving from one activity to another, without too much time for thought and reflection. For instance, when was the last time you stopped to take 5-10 seconds to feel and take in just one of the positive moments that happen in even the most hectic day? Considering life’s challenges, if we routinely take in the bad while ignoring the good, we can easily become more worried, stressed, anxious and irritable instead of more confident, secure and happy.
So how do you grow the good things inside, how do you grow happiness inside? How do you grow feeling love inside, especially if you’ve had some set backs in that area? How do you grow feelings of worth? How do you help a child grow feelings of confidence to sleep alone in their bedroom? If you want to feel more compassionate to others, have repeated experiences of compassion. If you want to feel more determined or stronger or assertive, have multiple experiences of determination, of getting through tough times. We get inner strengths by growing them; we grow them by having experiences of them. According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, all it takes is spending more time lingering on the positive in order to train your brain to naturally focus on happy moments over time.
Think of your brain as a garden. You can look at it and appreciate it. You can also pull weeds and then leave it alone until more weeds grow. But if you really want your garden to flourish, you need to not only pull weeds, but also find ways to plant new and beautiful things (positive experiences) in the garden so its not overcome by weeds. To overcome the negative experiences (weeds), we should find ways to experience positive emotions, and most importantly, take time to acknowledge and appreciate the many small, positive experiences that happen everyday.
Through targeted mental activity we can stimulate neural substrates of happiness, compassion and confidence. When you stimulate them you strengthen them. This way we can actually grow capacity inside ourselves in terms of what we really care about.
The brain is constantly changing its structure based on what flows through our consciousness and how we relate to what’s flowing through our consciousness. The question then becomes, is it changing for better or for worse? Also, who or what is doing the changing—the forces outside of us? The people we live with? Media? The pace of technology and modern life? The legacy inside us from our own upbringing or, are we going to deliberately use the power of experience-dependent neuroplasticity to change our brains for the better? Which direction will the changes go? Which wolf will you feed?
Thanks for joining me for this book club.
Resources: Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, both by neuropsychologist and author Dr. Rick Hanson.