Newsletter – October 2013

Hardwiring Happiness

I am truly delighted to enthusiastically recommend Rick Hanson’s newest book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence.  Those of you who have already enjoyed <em”>Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom and Just One Thing know that Rick is a gifted streamliner of brain science, offering practical tools that “train your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick focuses on the power of positive experiences to create lasting changes in the brain.  Not the million dollar moments but simply the cozy feeling of a favorite sweater, pleasure in a cup of coffee, warmth from a friend, satisfaction after finishing a task, or love from your mate. And walks you through the steps of savoring and soaking in those moments so that they change the neural circuitry of the brain to support more confidence, ease, comfort, self-worth and feeling cared about.

“If you don’t take those extra seconds to enjoy and stay with the experience, it passes through you like wind through the trees, momentarily pleasant but with no lasting value.”

Rick offers practical exercises and tools to “take in the good” in ways that will create lasting changes in the brain, with an easily understandable framework of the neuroscience that validates the power of these tools to “transform fleeting experiences into lasting improvements in your neural net worth.”

May these reflections and tools be useful to you and yours.

Reflections

Part One of Hardwiring Happiness is an overview of how the brain works and why, because of the brain’s negativity bias – in Rick’s phrase – Velcro for bad experiences, Teflon for good ones –  simply having a good experience isn’t enough to install it in the brain’s long-term memory.

We need to learn how to cultivate and “soak in” the experience for it to have lasting effect on the brain’s neural circuitry.

(Chapter 2: Velcro for the Bad, is the best description ever of the evolutionary roots and earlier benefits of the brain’s negativity bias; a must read.  Highlights: the negativity bias 1) makes you reactive when conditions are challenging; 2) feel uneasy, dissatisfied, and disconnected even when conditions are fine; 3) over-learn from bad experiences; 4) become quickly sensitized toward reactivity; and 5) return slowly to the responsive mode even when the coast is clear.

In contrast, cultivating a responsivity bias now helps you stay centered, strong, healthy and happy: 1) you begin to meet life’s challenges without fear, frustration, or heartache; 2) you begin to experience yourself as all right, right now; that there are always grounds for gratitude and gladness, and that you are cared about and worthy; 3) as the mind concentrates on the positive, you create a buffer against negativity in general; 4) the brain becomes sensitized to the positive; the positive “sticks” better; 5) you become better able to recover from reactive states in general.)

And there is great benefit to creating those changes in your neural circuitry in terms of impact on your overall health, coping skills, sense of well-being and self-worth.  When you use positive experiences to meet basic needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection, you create experiences of inner peace, contentment and love that make you a happier – and more competent, more successful – camper.

Part Two offers proven ways to convert passing mental states into enduring neural structure most effectively, summarized in Rick’s handy acronym HEAL:

Have a positive experience (notice what’s already happening) or create it

Enrich the experience – amplify the experience in duration and intensity, even for the length of a single breath

Absorb the experience – let the goodness of the experience sink into you, throughout your body and mind

Link the positive experience with previous negative experiences (if you choose to) to replace or rewire the negative.

(See Exercises to Practice below for specific instructions in each step.)

Rick describes the enduring traits these tools develop as the inner strengths you keep in your backpack as you navigate the twisting and often hard road of life: positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. And other backpack essentials identified by researchers as enduring sources of well-being and wise and effective action in the world: self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive function.

A tall order for simple practices you can do a few seconds at a time, many times a day.  That’s why Rick’s framework of what’s happening in the brain when we do these practices is so helpful, and so motivating.

“The brain is the organ that learns, so it is designed to be changed by your experiences….Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly but surely sculpting neural structure.”  These changes come about because of experience-dependent neuroplasticity.  That all intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure.  Passing mental states become enduring neural traits.  Thus your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks.  Turbo-charged by conscious attention, your experiences matter.

If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt.  On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions – someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head – pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood and a sense of worth.

The practices offered in Hardwiring Happiness show you how to activate mental states that you can install as neural traits.  You are turning everyday good experiences into good neural structure.  Rick anchors these practices, in a very understandable way, in the avoiding, approaching and attaching systems of the reptilian, mammalian and human brain that allow us to move from a reactive “red zone” to the responsive “green zone” and allow us to tailor the practices to specific needs around avoiding, approaching and attaching.  (I.e., feeling at ease rather than irritable, resourced rather than running on empty, and loved rather than mistreated.)

And thus, the three ways of being with experience – observing it (letting it be), deliberately letting go of the negative and intentionally cultivating (letting in) the positive, follow a natural sequence.  We can observe and accept our experience for what it is, even if it’s painful.  Second, when it feels right – which could be a matter of seconds with a familiar worry or a matter of months or years with the loss of a loved one –  we begin letting go of whatever is negative. Then, when there has been a release of some or all of what was negative, we can replace it with something positive: remembering what it’s like to be with someone who appreciates you and then staying with the experience for ten or twenty seconds.

Using a garden as a metaphor, you can observe the garden, pull weeds, and/or plant flowers.  Hardwiring Happiness focuses on planting the flowers, cultivating theresponsitivity bias  which not only grow flowers in your mind but grow new neural circuits in your brain.

Though not organized as a separate Part Three, the final chapters 9 and 10, Good Uses and 21 Jewels, apply the practices of H.E.A.L to many everyday situations:  letting good lessons land, wanting what’s good for you, filling the hole in your heart, lifting a blue mood, feeding relationships, HEALing children, helping others, etc.  Practical, useful, do-able.

As Rick summarizes at one point: these practices become a way to be active rather than passive – a hammer rather than a nail – at a time when many people feel pushed and prodded by events and their reactions to them.  It’s a way to treat yourself like you matter, which is especially important if others haven’t.  These practices bring you into the present moment and reduce rumination, that repetitive rehashing of things in your mind that fosters mental and physical health problems.

In another beautiful metaphor, Rick speaks of taking in the good as a way to deepen the keel of your sailboat so that you are less jostled by worldly winds and can recover more quickly from big storms. You can now safely head out into deeper waters in pursuit of your dreams.

Taking in the good is not about chasing after pleasure or chasing away pain.  It’s about bringing the chase to an end.  As your positive mental states become positive neural traits, you’ll gradually rest in a happiness that emerges naturally inside you.  All of which can be simple yet tremendous supports to creativity, self-actualization, spiritual practice and overall aliveness and wholeness.

Poetry and Quotes to Inspire

Think not lightly of good, saying, “It will not come to me.”
Drop by drop is the water pot filled.
Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little,
Fills oneself with good.
– Dhammapada 9.122

* * * * *

Tend to the moments, and the years will take care of themselves.
– Tibetan proverb

* * * * *

Good, the more communicated, the more abundant grows.
– John Milton, Paradise Lost

* * * * *

Based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, change is not only possible, but is actually the rule rather than the exception.  It’s really just a question of which influences we’re going to choose for our brain.
– Richard Davidson

* * * * *

The principle activities of brains are making changes in themselves.
– Marvin Minksy

* * * * *

Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of our mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.
– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

* * * * *

All sentient beings developed through natural selection in such a way that pleasant sensations serve as their guide, and especially the pleasure derived from sociability and from loving our families.
– Charles Darwin

* * * * *

I am larger, better than I thought.
I did not know I held so much goodness.
– Walt Whitman

Stories to Learn From

[Rick’s story from Chapter 1: Growing Good:]

Going through school, I was a year or two younger than the other kids in my grade, a shy, skinny, nerdy boy with glasses.  Nothing awful happened to me, but it felt like I was watching everyone else through a wall of glass.  An outsider, ignored, unwanted, put down.  My troubles were small compared to those of many other people.  But we all have natural needs to feel seen and valued, especially as children.  When these needs aren’t met, it’s like living on a thin soup.  You’ll survive, but you won’t feel fully nourished.  For me, it felt like there was an empty place inside, a hole in my heart.

But while I was in college, I stumbled on something that seemed remarkable then, and still seems remarkable to be now.  Some small thing would be happening.  It could be a few guys saying, “Come on, let’s go get pizza,” or a young woman smiling at me.  Not a big deal.  But I found that if I let the good fact become a good experience, not just an idea, and then stayed with it for at least a few breaths, not brushing it off or moving on fast to something else, it felt like something good was sinking into me, becoming a part of me.  In effect, I was taking in the good – a dozen seconds at a time.  It was quick, easy, and enjoyable.  And I started feeling better.

In the beginning the hole in my heard seemed as big as an empty swimming pool.  But taking in a few experiences each day of being included, appreciated, or cared about felt like tossing a few buckets of water into the pool.  Day after day, bucket after bucket, month after month, I was gradually filling that hole in my heart.  This practice lifted my mood and made me feel increasingly at ease, cheerful, and confident.

Many years later, after becoming a psychologist, I learned why doing this seemingly small practice had made such a large difference for me.  I’d been weaving inner strengths into the fabric of my brain, my mind, and my life – which is what I mean by “hardwiring happiness.”

* * * * *

[from Chapter 4: HEAL Yourself:]

A friend of mine suddenly lost her relationship after more than a decade of happiness with her partner.  He was the love of her life.  After he left, she felt empty and despairing.  She talked with her friends, exercised, meditated, and saw a therapist, all of which helped.  But her grief still felt intense, and sometimes overwhelming.

Then she decided to add taking in the good to the other things she was doing to feel better, and something began to shift.  “When I went for a run,” she told me later, “I felt good.  When I stayed with how this felt, it was like the good feelings were soaking into my mind from the body up.”  The same thing happened when she took a hot bath and let the relaxation sink in, or took the extra seconds to enjoy the satisfaction she felt when she finished a project at work.  “My sadness and hopelessness began to pass away.”  After a few weeks, she said that taking in good feelings a few times each day had played a real role in easing her sense of loss.  “I honestly feel it helped me learn to be happy again.”

Her story is pretty dramatic, but it’s true.  My friend didn’t try to paper over her hurt and sadness with positive thinking.  She let her grief be, and slowly, over many months, it let go.  Along the way, when she could, she let in positive experiences of vitality, relaxation, satisfaction, and eventually joy.

When you tilt toward the good, you’re not denying or resisting the bad.  You’re simply acknowledging, enjoying, and using the good.  You’re aware of the whole truth, all the tiles of the mosaic of ife, not only the negative ones.  You recognize the good in yourself, in others, in the world, and in the future we can make together.  And when you choose to, you take it in.

* * * * *

[from Chapter 5: Take Notice:]

One woman used these methods to help herself change how she got her kids ready for school:

“My seven- and nine-year-old daughters love to sleep in, so getting them up has never been easy, and we’d usually have a rushed, hectic, cranky morning.  Eventually I decided to learn a different way.  I started going in early to each of their rooms.  I lean over next to their sleeping little bodies to give them a good, long sniff as I kiss them on the cheek.  They still smell like babies, and I know this will not last forever.  These motherly feelings sink into me, which makes me comfortable with this way of waking my girls.  I take in the goodness of their baby small and hold it in my heart for a few moments, while they’re still sleeping.  It makes me so happy!  Then I playfully, gently rub their hair and back and wake them, and the sweetness I feel doing this becomes a part of me.  This almost always results in a happy, pleasant wake-up, with smiles and hugs.  And I get to savor the moments that will be gone much too soon.”

Exercises to Practice

Taking in the good is the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory.  Step 1 of H.E.A.L activates a positive mental state and Steps 2, 3, and 4 install it in your brain.

1.  HAVE a positive experience: notice what’s already in the foreground or background of your awareness – the smell of your cup of coffee, the warm breeze on your cheek – or create the experience by thinking about things for which you’re grateful, bring to mind a friend, recognize a task you’ve completed.   It’s important that you experience the experience – becoming present for the felt sense of it in your body, not merely thinking about it.

2.  ENRICH the experience: savor the feeling of the experience in your body for 5, 10, 20, 30 seconds.  Enjoy the experience; amplify the intensity of it.  The more multi-modal the experience (sensations, feelings, thoughts), the more easily it installs in your long-term memory.  Explore the experience to find its relevance to you, how it could nourish you, make a difference in your life.  Noticing what’s new about this experience helps enrich its meaning, too.

3.  ABSORB the experience: allow a felt sense of the warm glow of the experience to sink into you; let it really “land” in your inner landscape.   Now it is becoming an inner resource you can take with you wherever you go and use whenever you need to.

4.  LINK the positive experience with negative memories.  This step is optional; it is the basis of rewiring previous negative experiences or trauma.  It is explained thoroughly in Chapter 8: Flowers Pulling Weeds.

Rick offers the following example of using the first three steps of HEAL to cultivate a sense of being for yourself:

1.  HAVE:  Notice any quality of being for yourself already present in the foreground or background of awareness.  Perhaps you can sense or feel a determination to take care of your own needs, or good wishes for yourself.  Or create this feeling.  Bring to mind a time when you were strong on your own behalf, when you self-advocated or were kind to yourself.  If it’s hard to get on our own side, start by remembering the experience of being for someone else.  Feel what this is like, and then see if you can bring the same attitude to yourself.  Perhaps get an image or memory of yourself as a young, vulnerable child and see if you can feel supportive toward that young person.

2.  ENRICH: Open to this feeling.  Let it fill your body and mind and become more intense.  Stay with it, help it last, make a sanctuary for it in your mind.  Notice different aspects of the experience.  Imagine how you would sit or stand or speak if you were on your own side and then let your posture or facial expression shift in this direction.  Be aware of how being on your own side would matter for you at home or work.

3.  ABSORB:  Sense and intend that this feeling of being on your own side is sinking into you and you sink into it.  Let this good experience become a part of you.  Give yourself over to it.   Let being kind toward yourself, wishing yourself well, be increasingly how you treat yourself.

* * * * *

I especially like Rick’s suggestion that we can self-activate the creating of a positive experience by turning a good fact into a good experience.  We routinely notice good facts about our lives but don’t have any feelings about them.  The feelings are what allow us to move from an idea to an embodied experience, moving from the menu to the meal, which the brain can install as a nourishing resource.  He offers many categories of facts we can turn into good experiences that can then be installed to change our neural circuitry.  Among them:

Current Settings: something you are doing skillfully in the moment (like reading the words of this newsletter), something you are touching or hearing (and the fact that you can touch and hear).

Recent Events: splashing water on your face in the morning or snuggling into a pillow at night.  Maybe 1’s or 2’s on a scale of 0-10, but 5-10-20 seconds a day, many times a day, is enough to begin the process of rewiring your brain toward the positive and the resourced. Noticing and feeling good about things we might take for granted – doing the laundry or taking the car in for a tune-up.  All good facts that become good experiences of satisfaction or pride.  Even noticing bad things that didn’t happen can become positive facts and experiences.

The Past: we can evoke a treasure chest of memories of previous pleasures, previous successes, previous miracles in our lives.  Even when they blend together – many walks in the neighborhood or many sunsets from our favorite viewpoint – these treasures from the past can reinforce positive changes in our brains now

Ongoing Conditions: the kitchen faucet works, the garbage/recycling is picked up every week, national parks exist in their grandeur whether you have time to visit them or not, your right to vote is protected by law, the planet spins through its seasons without any help from any of us.

The Future:  imagining, rehearsing, anticipating positive, even delightful, experiences to come still shape the circuitry of our brains now, in powerful and productive ways. Don’t overlook this resource in the busy-ness of now.

Your Personal Qualities:  essential to claim rather than minimize the goodness you’ve already cultivated over the years – a sense of fairness, a sense of humor, capacities for patience, compassion, determination, even if you don’t experience them every moment of every day.  There are many moments when you do experience them; you need to notice and take in the good of that.

Finding the Good in the Bad:  learning lessons from mistakes and losses, reframing difficulties, even tragedies, in light of new perspectives and new gratitudes, is a powerful way to put the brakes on negativity and take in the good.  Rick shares his own learnings from his diagnosis/treatment of a malignant melanoma in his right ear.  Finding the meaning and new opportunities for health and appreciation of health became a transformative experience of taking in the good.

Sharing Good with Others: you can amplify the goodness of any of the above experiences by sharing it with others.

Resources

Rick has always freely offered many, many resources on his website. You’ll find links to his audio talks, video interviews with prominent scientists, meditation teachers and authors, articles and scientific papers, guided meditations, and calendar of speaking events.  If you pre-order Hardwiring Happiness by October 8, 2013, you will receive a free download of Rick’s multi-media presentation Your Best Brain.