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.

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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 🙂

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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!

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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!

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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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