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.

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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