Can you train your brain for happiness?


First aired on Spark (24/11/13)

Can you train your brain for happiness? The brain's default setting is to remember negative experiences more than positive ones, but neuropsychologist Rick Hanson argues in his new book, Hardwiring Happiness, that we can balance that tendency by focusing on the positive experiences we have.

"We are more evolved in our brains to learn from negative experiences than we are from positive ones," Hanson told host Nora Young in a recent interview on Spark. "So the brain is trained, basically, for survival purposes, to look for bad news, zero in on it when it finds it and then overreact to it and store the whole experience in emotional memory."


Positive experiences, on the other hand, tend not to be stored in the same way. "The good facts of everyday life we tend to overlook," Hanson said. "Or even if we notice them, we don't particularly feel anything. And even if we feel anything we don't internalize that experience as a way to build up the inner strengths we all need." The brain's negativity had an evolutionary advantage for our Stone Age ancestors, but isn't as useful in the 21st century.

According to Hanson, the default setting of the brain can be changed by altering neural pathways. "What we think and feel and how we focus our attention can gradually change neural structure and function," he explained. Thus, we can use our attention "to register positive experiences and help them convert from passing mental states into lasting neural traits' and so "we can compensate for the negativity bias of the brain."

Hanson went on to describe how that process actually occurs. "The longer we stay with an experience, the more intensely we feel it," he said, citing Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb's saying that "neurons that fire together, wire together."

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Hanson gave the example of finishing an email or getting the kids to bed. "Instead of just letting that experience wash through the brain, like water sheeting over a driveway, take a dozen or two dozen seconds to really savour it, bask in it, relish it, enjoy it," he said. This supports "the processes in the brain that encode a momentary mental state into some kind of lasting neural structure. If you're not changing your brain, there's no lasting value. You're not learning anything from the experience."

Hanson emphasized that he is not advocating that people suppress negative feelings or overlook the bad things in the world. But because negativity is the brain's default setting, focusing on the positive can have a balancing effect. "The point is not to have positive thinking or negative thinking but realistic thinking."

Hanson offered a practical exercise as illustration. "One thing you could do is notice anything that's mildly positive in your experience," he said. "Bring to the foreground of awareness something that's already present in your mind, and see what it's like to really receive effect to create a kind of sanctuary in your mind so you protect this positive experience over a dozen seconds, while you really, really let it in."