It’s probably obvious that I spend a lot of time thinking about how all of us can get and stay happier on a regular basis. Fortunately I’m not alone in this quest because there are hundreds of books and lots of other websites devoted to this topic as well. My last post explained why I think leaning towards happiness is so important. Today I thought it would be helpful to provide even more information about growing and sustaining our happiness based upon the science behind how our minds work. Fortunately I’m reading a new book called, Hardwiring Happiness that helps do just that.
Hardwiring Happiness – The New Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence is a book written by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. author, neuropsychologist, speaker and Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. Hanson uses his background in neuropsychology to clearly explain that, “Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is surely sculpting neural structure.” This clearly repeats what sages have been saying for centuries with, “you are what you think;” “you become what you repeatedly dwell upon;” “it is done unto you as you believe;” etc. Now finally there is science to prove that, “Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain—for better or for worse.”
Make no mistake, Hanson is not the only person who studies and promotes this idea. Jeffery M. Schwartz, M.D. and co-author of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force uses his background as a professor of neuropsychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine to back up his claims. Schwartz says, “Cerebral conditions may determine the nature of what’s thrown into one’s minds, but we have the power to choose which aspects of that experience to focus on. The brain may determine the content of our experience, but the mind chooses which aspect of that experience receives attention.” From a practical perspective, Schwartz uses his understanding of “brain science” to help those suffering from OCD. By showing that OCD patients are capable of redirecting their compulsive actions into more normal actions and behaviors, they learn to effectively alter their brains’ neuronal circuitry.
I first became fascinated by the new brain science of Neuroplasiticity after reading, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. In an earlier post about how we can train our brains for a long and healthy life, I was intrigued by our brain’s ability to learn and adapt. Doidge said, “It doesn’t simply learn; it is always learning how to learn.” He goes on to describe it saying that our brain, “…is not an inanimate vessel that we fill; rather it is more like living creature with an appetite, one that can grow and change itself with proper nourishment and exercise.” Additionally, this constant change and growth competes for space and resources inside our brains. If we don’t use it, we lose it.” Our brains will eliminate mental skills we don’t use regularly, then replace them, and expand any other mental habits we focus on instead.
This explains why change is so difficult. If we make a habit of anything, good or bad, it is hardwired into our neural pathways and it becomes a default mode of thinking. Then anytime we want to make a change we must slowly but surely work on our mental skills as consistently as working our flabby muscles at the gym if we’ve done nothing more than be a couch potato in the past. Most of us know that the best way to get into shape is to get moving, exercise and stick with a practice.
Unfortunately, not as many of us realize that the best way to stay mentally sharp is to keep our brains active, passionately involved, and continue to do it no matter how long we live. Of course, as Doidge explains, “That is why ‘unlearning’ is often harder than learning, and why early childhood education is so important—it’s best to get it right early, before the ‘bad habit’ gets a competitive edge.”
In addition to the plasticity of our brains needing constant reinforcement and training we also need to be consciously aware of our brains tendency to go to fear. Evolution has equipped us all with a negativity bias that has kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years. We impulsively look out for things that can harm us or our loved ones, so much so, that the following statements by Hanson in regards to our negativity bias are true:
- Your brain has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive.
- Negative stimuli are perceived more rapidly and easily than positive stimuli.
- …the default setting of the brain is to overestimate threats, and underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources both for coping with threats and for fulfilling opportunities.”
- Over time, negative experiences make the amygdala even more sensitive to the negative…. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious circle.
Not only does our innate negativity bias amplify and immediately draw our attention to it, it actually decreases the positive. Rather than allow us to experience and dwell in those things that increase the quality of our life (like love, peace and joy), the tendency to constantly be monitoring the negative can fill our life with worries, frustrations, hurts, sorrows and conflicts.
That’s why it is so important, according to Rick Hanson to “level the playing field.” If our minds go to the negative in order to ensure our survival, then we must consciously, for more than an equal amount of time, think and feel the positive in order to counter-act that primal negative tendency.
Only after we have effectively worked the muscle of our neural plasticity into a positive frame of reference, can we consider happiness a habit. Even then, like the muscles in our bodies, we must constantly exercise them to keep them in shape and condition. That’s one big reason I keep writing about it here on this blog. What I’ve learned about brain science and happiness is that tilting toward happiness needs to be more than just a nice thought now and then–actually none of us can hear and think about it too much. Staying positive, looking for the good and generating happiness 365 days a year is a SMART way to live.