This week Dr. Rick Hanson is returning to Healthy You Radio to discuss his new book, “Hardwiring Happiness.” Grounded in brain science, psychology, and contemplative wisdom, ‘Hardwiring Happiness’ shows readers how to build a better brain from the inside out, using the hidden power of seemingly ordinary experiences. By taking just a few extra seconds to stay with a positive experience – from the pleasure of a deep breath to a sense of calm, satisfaction, and love – you turn good moments into a great brain, full of strength, health, and happiness. That’s what it means to take in the good.
Taking in the good resets the brain back to its natural resting state – its Responsive mode – which refuels and repairs the body, makes us feel peaceful, happy, and loved, and helps us act with confidence and compassion. This deceptively simple practice increases health and longevity, heals distress and dysfunction, deepens resilience and well-being, turbo charges personal development (e.g., executive coaching, spiritual practice), improves relationships, and promotes a more humane and peaceful world. And as many studies have shown, when your own cup runneth over, you have more to offer others.
The recent science of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” shows that the mind sculpts the brain; in the classic saying: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The three basic steps of taking in the good – have a positive experience, extend it, and absorb it – activate a useful mental state and then install it as a neural trait. And in the optional fourth step – holding both positive and negative material in awareness at the same time – positive neural circuits gradually replace negative ones; in the garden of the brain, flowers crowd out weeds. Consequently, you can take in the particular good you need, such as feeling alright rather than anxious, at ease rather than irritable, glad and grateful rather than sad, connected rather than separated, loved rather than mistreated, worthy rather than inadequate, motivated rather than stuck, resourced rather than running on empty.
This is not mere positive thinking, which is usually wasted on the brain. It’s about transforming fleeting experiences into lasting improvements in your neural net worth. Taking in the good takes charge of this structure-building process. It’s a way to be active rather than passive – a hammer rather than a nail – at a time when people feel pushed and prodded by events and their reactions to them.
It is this deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory – our inner storehouse, which determines how we feel, think, and act – and whether we create health or illness, happiness or suffering, and effectiveness or dysfunction for ourselves and others. Therefore, learning how to shape the contents of this storehouse – literally changing the structure of your brain – is the absolute foundation of everyday well-being and productivity, healing old pain, personal growth and spiritual practice, long-term health, and loving relationships
Our brain reacts like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones, and evolved this way to help our ancestors to survive and pass on their genes – but today it is more like a design flaw that ignites stress reactions, distorts perceptions, fuels anxiety, wears down health, and creates conflicts in couples and families, organizations, and the wider world. This is the fight-or-flight Reactive mode of the brain. Taking in the good corrects this caveman bias for 21st century life, and gradually installs positive feelings, beliefs, and behaviors into the brain and the self. Besides building specific resources inside you, this practice has the inherent added benefits of being active rather than passive, and treating yourself like you matter. And over time, it will sensitize your brain to the positive, making it like Velcro for good.
And if a critical mass of human brains can make this adaptation, then all of us and our children will be able to live together in peace.