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!

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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.

Reply
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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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