Rewire Your Brain for Lasting Well-Being and Inner Strengthby Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
The brain is the organ that learns, so it's designed to be changed by your experiences. It still amazes me but it's true: Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly but surely sculpting neural structure for better or worse. Sure, most of our mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental activity—especially if it's conscious—will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. Day after day, your mind is actually building your brain (scientists call this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity”).
Inner Strengths: Growing the Good Inside Ourselves
I've hiked a lot and have often had to depend on what was in my pack. Inner strengths are the supplies you've got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. Inner strengths include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, resilience, love, or determination.
So what's the best way to develop greater happiness and other strengths? It's to simply have experiences of them, which help these good mental states become good neural traits. This is taking in the good: activating a positive experience and installing it in your brain.
You Can Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain
The science shows that each person has the power to change his or her brain for the better—what research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz calls self-directed neuroplasticity. If you don't make use of this power yourself, other forces will shape your brain for you, including pressures at work and home, technology and media, pushy people, the lingering effects of painful past experiences—and Mother Nature herself.
Why Is This So Important?
To survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors needed to be especially aware of dangers, losses, and conflicts. Consequently, the brain evolved a negativity bias that looks for bad news, reacts intensely to it, and quickly stores the experience in neural structure. We can still be happy, but this bias creates an ongoing vulnerability to stress, anxiety, disappointment, and hurt.
Inner strengths such as happiness and resilience come mainly from positive experiences. But unless we pay mindful, sustained attention to them, most positive experiences flow through our brains like water through a sieve. They're momentarily pleasant but leave little lasting value in terms of changing neural structure. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. And while the negativity bias is good for survival in harsh conditions, it's lousy for quality of life, fulfilling relationships, personal growth, and long-term health. The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to regularly take in the good.
Take in the Good in 4 Steps: H.E.A.L.
Taking in the good is the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory. It involves four simple steps (the fourth one is optional).
1) Have a positive experience.
Notice a positive experience that's already present in the foreground or background of your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone.
2) Enrich it.
Stay with the positive experience for five to 10 seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; gently encourage the experience to be more intense, and find something fresh or novel about it.
3) Absorb it.
Intend and sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Perhaps visualize it sinking into you like water into a sponge—know that it's becoming a part of you, a resource that you can take with you wherever you go.
4) Link positive and negative material. (Optional)
While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of awareness, also be aware of something negative in the background. (Whenever you want, let go of the negative and rest only in the positive.) Get a sense of the positive going into the negative: putting it in perspective, soothing it, easing it, and even replacing it – like flowers crowding out and even pulling weeds.
Step 1 activates a positive experience, and steps 2 to 4 install it in your brain.
Remember: You can take in good experiences both in the flow of daily life and during special times.
Red Brain vs. Green Brain
As the brain evolved, so did its capability to meet our three core needs—safety, satisfaction, and connection—through, respectively, three "operating systems" that avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others.
When you experience that your core needs are met in any system, it returns to its resting state, its "green," responsive mode, where your body refuels and repairs itself. Meanwhile, your brain rests in a basic sense of peace, contentment and love. You still engage life with all of its challenges, but with an underlying sense of security, fulfillment, and caring.
When your brain goes green, you are not disturbed by threat, loss, or rejection, and thus there's no real basis for aversion, grasping, or clinging. In the responsive mode, there's little or no fuel for stress, anxiety, irritation, hurt, envy or conflicts.
On the other hand, when you experience that a core need is not met, your brain quickly shifts into its "red," fight/flight/freeze reactive mode. In the red zone, your mind is colored by fear, frustration, and heartache. Taking in the good draws you out of reactive episodes and strengthens the responsive capacities of your brain.
Find Your Vitamin C
We know we can benefit from taking in the good and making it a regular part of our lives—but how can you focus on the experiences that will help you the most? If you have scurvy, for example, you need vitamin C. Similarly, some experiences are particularly valuable to take in if they address your core needs.
For example, if you feel worried, tense, or helpless, this triggers the avoiding harms system, so you'd be particularly helped by resource experiences such as protection, safety, relaxation, strength, and agency. If you feel left out, hurt, inadequate, lonely, or resentful, this involves the "attaching to others system," and your antidote experience would include belonging, self-compassion, friendship, and kindness.
Use the Power
Drawing on the hidden power of seemingly ordinary experiences, this deceptively simple practice builds resilience, heals distress and dysfunction, improves relationships, promotes physical health, and grows a durable happiness.
Start taking in the good today: Join the Hardwiring Happiness track on Happify for fun, science-based activities that will help you build your inner strengths and rewire your brain for lasting calm, contentment, and confidence.
Adapted with permission from Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, Harmony Books. Copyright © 2013 by Rick Hanson
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