Hardwiring for Happiness. How We Can Change Our Brain, Mind & Personality.

Hardwiring for Happiness: How We Can Change Our Brain, Mind and Personality

We’ve always known that the human brain is pretty excellent – but with research in the field of neuroplasticity, it just keeps getting better. Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to heal itself, grow new neurons and be shaped by our deliberate efforts. The science is gathering huge momentum in the mainstream, and well it should. Some things are just too good to keep quiet. 

Positive mental experiences such as happiness, compassion and accomplishment (to name a few) can actually change our brain structure. The more we can fully experience positive feelings, the more those experiences can be hardwired into our brain and have a lasting effect. This is important. Let me explain why. 

There’s this thing we humans do that tends to bring us unstuck and it’s this: We pay attention to bad information quicker than we pay attention to the good. Bad feelings, bad experiences, bad feedback – we’re drawn to it and tend to let it stick to the insides of our head like honey – thick, sticky and hard to shift just by wishing it would go.

Like positive experiences, negative experiences will also change the structure of our brain – but even more so than anything positive will.  If we have a good experience and an equally powerful bad one – it’s the bad one that will curl around our thoughts and keep us up up at night.

Try this quick test: Imagine that you’ve won $1,000 – a crispy pile of good looking notes just for you. How would that feel? Well of course it would feel brilliant, right? Now imagine that you’ve lost $1,000. Gone. Just like that. Never coming back. How does that feel? It’s very likely that your distress around losing the money would outweigh the happiness you would feel about winning it. That’s the negativity bias. And it’s real. We all do it – anyone who is any version of human.  

A negative bias? Why oh why?

Once upon a time the negativity bias would have been a lifesaver – literally. The existence of the negativity bias makes sense when you think of it in evolutionary terms. Paying attention to the bad would have served our ancestors well, keeping them safe from wild animals and any other potential threat. It would have been much more important for them to stay clear of danger (by paying attention to warnings from the environment) than to pay attention to the things that made them feel good. Fast forward to a time where we’re less likely to be dinner, and the negativity bias is not as useful as it once may have been.

Here’s the good news: We can actually diminish the effect of the negativity bias.

Wiring our brain for happiness.

Yep. We actually can. Here’s how:

  1. Feel the good. (AND enjoy it.)

    This method is based on the work of neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD. By creating an experience that feels good and then staying with the feeling for 10 to 20 seconds, we can actually change our brain. Change. Our. Brain. (Things that make you go, ‘What!’). After 10 to 20 seconds, the thought starts to change into an experience and the more often we do this, the more that positive experience will be hardwired into our brain. There are three steps to this:

    1.  Have a good experience.  This can be as simple as thinking about something that makes you happy. It could be someone who loves you, or who you love. A pet. A text that thrilled you. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to make you feel good.

    2.  Enrich the experience. Let the experience grow. Enjoy it and allow yourself to feel the full effect of it for 10-20 seconds.

    3. Absorb it. Feel it sinking into you and let it become a part of you. After a short while, the thought will change into a feeling. This is where your neurons start to fire and the experience becomes wired into your brain.

    One 10-20 second experience won’t change your life, but continuously repeating the exercise will. The more you can get your neurons firing by letting positive experiences soak into you, the more you’ll be rewiring your brain with that positive experience.  

  2. Use the good to soothe something bad.

    This is another one from the work of Dr Rick Hanson. Link the positive experience you have with something negative. You don’t want to be swept away by the negative so you have to be gentle with this. Don’t start with a negative experience that’s highly charged, at least until you get used to this technique.

    After you’ve done steps 1-3 above (have the experience, enrich, absorb), here’s something else to try. Link  something negative that you’d like to soften, to your positive feeling. It’s important to stay strong with the positive to avoid having the negative take over. Bring in the negative while your experiencing the positive. Let them happen together. When you’re ready, let the positive move into the negative and soothe it. Keep strong with the positive and don’t let the negative take over. Slowly, let the negative be softened by your positive experience. This method can be used to heal old pain.

  3. Keep a gratitude journal. (I know. Everyone’s telling you to do this, right? And with good reason.)

    Gratitude is heroic. It just is. It can ease stress, anxiety and depression and supercharge relationships – amongst other things.

    Sometime during the day, write down three things you’re grateful for. This will orient you towards appreciating what you have, rather than wishing for what you don’t. It’s powerful. Rather than writing them down and closing your book, stay with them for 10-20 seconds so the appreciation you feel can find it’s way into you. Don’t be teflon for your happy thoughts. Stay with them, feel them and let the feelings that go with them settle into you.

  4. 5:1 (The ratio to remember. 5 good experiences to every bad.) 

    It takes five positive experiences to neutralise a negative one. This goes for anything that happens to you personally and in your relationships. Now that you know about the negativity bias, you’ll understand why sometimes relationships need an extra hard push to get them out of a rut. 5:1 is an average figure. Of course, if the negative emotional experience is a solid one, need more than five. It’s also the reason relationships need an average of 5 good experiences to neutralise the effect of every one bad experience – because we’re wired to pay attention to the bad.

  5. Have your ‘happy stuff’ ready and waiting.

    Negative things aren’t always going to come with a glaring warning and a permission note. They’re just not. Be ready when they do come by having a store of positive things to neutralise them. This is a gem by happiness expert, Gretchen Rubin. Find the happy things that work for you and keep them within easy reach. Maybe it’s a memory, a text from someone wonderful, a quote or a photo on your phone. Anything that will quickly lift your mood when it’s knocked around a little.  For me it’s words. I have the words – quotes – that lift me when something bad comes at me with its slap hand ready. Music works for me too. Find what it is for you and keep it within easy reach. Maybe it’s a memory, a text from someone wonderful, a quote or a photo on your phone. Anything that will quickly lift your mood when it’s knocked around a little.  

  6. Do something physical.

    Exercise works in a couple of ways to neutralise the negative bias. First, exercise causes endorphins to be released. These are the feel good chemicals and they can work towards reversing the negative effect of a bad experience. If it’s hard to change your mind from negative to positive, let your brain look after itself by unlocking its happy hormones. Second, exercise in itself is a good experience. When you’re done, let yourself feel proud and accomplished for having done something good for yourself. You know how this works. Savour the experience for long enough to have it melt into you.

In the same way that lots of little bad things will add up and sweep us away before we know it, lots of good little things will add up to something bigger if we let it. We just have to be more deliberate with the good ones. Good change doesn’t often come with fireworks. It happens moment by moment, little by little.

It’s not the big moments that make our lives breathe. It’s the little ones – the little ones that could slip by us no trouble at all and the little ones we can learn to control. The more little moments we make our own and use them with purpose, the more we can direct ourselves to head in the direction of something wonderful.

(Image Credit: Unsplash | Bao-Quan Nguyen)

33 Comments

Janet

I am so glad I have found this site. I am trying to retrain my brain. I have depression and anxiety. Medicine can only do so much.
I am trying not to let fear take over my life and thoughts. To think positive and stay in the moment. Trying to make myself do things. This is really hard. Because I don’t want to go out of my house. Once I get out of the house I am fine. Baby steps.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Janet, I’m so glad you found this site too. I can hear the strength in you. You know what to do and as hard as it is you are doing it. That takes guts. You’re so right about the baby steps – it’s the only way. It doesn’t matter how tiny or slow the steps are, what matters is that you are taking them.

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Ang Honeyb

I’m so appreciative (gratitude) to have access to such inspiring material. As a therapist I encourage my clients to focus on the positive & to keep a gratitude journal but I don’t always ‘practice what I preach’.
Whenever I read a post on here it really helps to ‘ground me’ & shift my focus to what’s important in MY life. Thank you so much.

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Broderick

Thank you for writing such insightful and easy to understand articles, with suggestions I can use for myself and others. I am a father of two, a Strength & Conditioning Coach for young athletes, and a Mindfulness practitioner. I incorporate Mindfulness techniques into my training programs, encouraging young athletes to be more mentally resilient, positive, etc.

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you’re finding the articles useful.Thank you for letting me know! I’m such a huge fan of mindfulness – it can make such a difference, can’t it. I I always love to hear about the different ways it’s being used.

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Tanya

I breathe when I read these articles. Such a wealth of information. At the moment I am struggling to find ways to help my eldest child and am so grateful to have stumbled across this site. We now have a starting point. Thank you

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Jenn James

I am a parent coach and will be starting a blog soon. What is the procedure to share these excellent articles on one’s blog?

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Brian

Instead of writing a gratitude journal, we talk as a family at dinner, each taking a turn telling things that made them happy today. My 11 yr old didn’t like it at first, however he is slowing coming around.

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Mati

Grateful for this website and these daily accessible and abundantly helpful articles. Who can’t use a roadmap toward good mental health? Thank you for helping to heal our broken world, one article at a time.

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Shelly Brockman

I love this article, Karen. One of the first things I have my clients do is take a happiness inventory. It’s amazing how bringing awareness can so dramatically shift your focus. I always enjoy reading your posts. Thank you for sharing your wisdom 🙂

Reply
heysigmund

Thanks Shelly. A happiness inventory – what a great idea. Awareness is so key to change isn’t it. So pleased you’re enjoying the posts!

Reply
Chris

Great article. I love your site. newsletter, and 30 day journey!
Rick Hansen’s book “Buddha’s Brain” is great at explaining the process of neuroplasticity. Dr Herbert Benson’s work from the early 70’s also talked about the power of positive emotions to get you to the Relaxation Response; and The Institute of HeartMath research shows the power of Heart Energy. So nice to have science getting on board with what native cultures have known for centuries. Thank you for such wonderful insight stated so well!

Reply
heysigmund

Thank you. I’m so pleased you found us here. It’s interesting isn’t it that there’s so much scientific attention around now on practices that have been around for centuries. It’s so good to see that science is finally opening up to it. There so much more to learn and the ancient practices have so much to teach us – there’s a reason they’ve been around for as long as they have. Thank you for taking the time to let me know about the research.

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Nelly

I’ve been feeling rather ungrateful of late. Thank you for tips on how to create a better space for me and those around me

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Kate

I’m feeling very grateful for having access to information such as this. Thank you. At the age of 43, I’m learning so much more about the brain and mind which I can then pass on to my children.

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heysigmund

I’m so pleased you’re finding the articles useful. You’re kids are really lucky to have the benefit of your openness to the information.

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Rashmi

I loved this post. U r doing a great service in these times when family is living in different countries and so many of us have to fend for our own support system — such measures are certainly helpful.
Thanks a lot

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sarita cupp

i love your website! as an educator and parent and human I find your articles very enlightening!

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heysigmund

Thank you. It’s easy to do isn’t it, fall of the gratitude journal – I’ve done it myself! Good to have a reminder – they seem to come along when you need them. Glad you’re back on board!

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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