Hardwiring Happiness

A lot of what we offer on these pages about happiness is conceptual awareness. It’s priceless to know what happiness is and isn’t, why to broaden the concept, and to look at its different types to look more closely at each.
On these pages there is a multitude of resources for your own personal research into happiness. Some things will give you results right away. Some things take longer to put into practice.
Gratitude is an inevitable and powerful aspect of building happiness and joy. It’s so important that we have a whole section about it on this website.
There is a trending book within positive psychology that works closely with gratitude as it pertains to happiness: Hardwiring Happiness by Chris Hanson.

"This book is about one simple thing: the hidden power of everyday positive experiences to change your brain -- and therefore your life -- for the better."

How Your Brain Works

Hanson has worked as a neuropsychologist for over 40 years, testing his theories and practicing them on patients. Luckily, his book and the approach within it is very simple.
The book has a powerful overarching premise. Our brains are like machines that build themselves. Every time we make a thought, even have a feeling or sensation, we lay bricks to build the neural pathways in our brain. These roads become easier for future thoughts and feelings to travel down.
Our brains are were molded by ancient survival mechanisms to be like “Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good”.
“To pass on their genes, our reptilian, mammalian, primate, hominid, and human ancestors had to get things that were pleasurable, such as the “carrots” of shelter, food, and sex. Meanwhile, they had to stay away from things that were painful, such as the “sticks” of predators, starvation, and aggression from others of their species. Carrots and sticks are both important, but there’s a vital difference between them. From a survival standpoint, sticks have more urgency and impact than carrots.” –pg 20
So. We are creatures of ‘Eat lunch today, don’t be lunch right now’.
Our brains evolved a strong negativity bias. It looks for bad news and reacts intensely to it, quickly storing it in neural structure. We can still be happy, but it requires vigilance. We face a natural susceptibility to fear, stress, anxiety, disappointment, and hurt.
Hanson goes on and on with examples and research showing how we routinely overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities and resources. What’s more, repeated negative experiences not only habituate themselves, but increase their own sensitivity.

Inner Strengths

While our nature has endowed us each with some vulnerabilities, it has also given us Inner Stengths and the ability to grow them. These are like the supplies you have in your pack as you travel the road of life.
“They include positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. […] self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions. [He also uses the word strength broadly to include positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation.”
The key about these Inner Strengths is that they’re not fleeting mental states, but rather stable traits. One of the great beauties of life is that we can foster and grow these traits. We can grow as people.
The inevitable challenges of living will face us, and we are afforded the opportunity to grow and foster the strengths to face them.
“Finding out how  to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn. That’s what this book is all about.”

Taking In the Good

“In essence,” Hanson states, “You can manage your mind in three primary ways: let be, let go, let in.”

Let it BE

You can simply stand in the garden and enjoy it, taking it in for what it is. This could be like either like the “Perspective” type of happiness, or even the “Ephemeral“, possible with Engagement. Gratitude, playing an inseparable role here, has it’s own section on the site as well.

Let it GO

You can pull weeds, doing your best to uproot the negative aspects of your brain.

Let it IN

Thirdly, you can grow flowers, increasing your positivity and enhancing your inner strengths.
We know that the brain takes its shape from whatever the mind rests upon: if one keeps resting their mind on doubts, hurt, and stresses, then their brain is shaped into greater vulnerability of these things. Whatever we give our attention, we give the shape of our brain. Learn more about building a habit of gratitude here.
Considering this, the thesis of Hardwiring Happiness is as follows:

“The best way to develop greater happiness and other inner strengths is to have experiences of them, and then help thse good mental states become good neural traits. This is taking in the good: activation a positive experience and installing it in your brain.”

Hanson provides a method for doing this, and an acronym to aid in remembering it:

H.E.A.L.

  1. Have a positive experience.

  2. Enrich it.

  3. Absorb it.

  4. Link positive and negative material.

Step one activates a positive experience, and steps 2 to 4 install it in your brain.
Equipping and using this method is a skill. It can be practiced and learned, always improving. A great part about it is that it can be trained all the time: either in the flow of daily activity or during special times like meals, before bed, etc.
Having a Positive Experience.
Take Notice – Pleasant sensations are all around you, all the time. Whether deep and complex, like appreciating a loved one, or simple and immediate, like having less pain in your shoulder today, all of these are opportunities to sink into positive experience. They can dwell in the background or the foreground of your experiences. Go looking for them! It is a worthwhile journey.
Create Positive Experience – Search for good facts. You can find them all over: in your current setting, recent events, ongoing conditions, your personal qualities, the past, the future, in sharing, in the bad, in others, in your imagination. The list goes on.
Enrich a Positive Experience.
One of the surest ways to enrich a positive experience is to increase its duration. Deliberately apply your attention to the experience and then sustain it. Give yourself gentle instructions: “Stay with this. I’m on my own side. Let’s make this last a bit longer.” Name the experience. Start from particularly stimulating and obvious positive experiences, and eventually move to more subtle noticings.
Absorb an Experience.
Visualize the experience sinking into you. Sense it coming into your body. Let yourself  be changed by it. Even if it seems unrelated or exaggerated, routinely give yourself this absorption. You can deepen its neural traces by embodying it to its very fullest.
Link Positive and Negative:
Hold both positive and negative in awareness while keeping the positive more prominent and not getting hijacked by the negative. Gradually, the positive will more and more easily soothe and even replace the negative. Unpleasant experiences are part of life, and sometimes have value. Don’t let the natural negativity bias turn a negative experience into negative material. For more related to this, see Tonglen.

Tying to Gratitude

In our section on gratitude, there is much to be found that ties to Hanson’s H.E.A.L. method:

Having a positive experience is akin to recognition of the feeling of gratitude.  Instances of joy, often arriving as small bursts in otherwise static scenarios, can be fleeting and reactionary. In fact they are opportunities to notice more. Bring these positive experiences to the forefront of your mind, absorbing them in your short-term memory. This familiar noticing of a parcel of gratitude with get easier over time.

Also discussed in our gratitude section are some pragmatic ways to Enrich and Absorb positive experience. Starting a gratitude journal, keeping a gratitude jar, or modeling an attitude of gratitude for those around you are all viable ways of furthering the HEAL method.

You are right on your way now. Putting the methods on this page into practice is like laying new avenues in your mind one brick at a time. Your brain and how it fires its signals is what makes your life happy or not. So, you’re doing the good and worthwhile work of building a better brain, step by step.
“Most positive experiences are relatively brief and mild. But taking in half a dozen of them a day, half a minute or less at a time, will add up to something big for you.”
You can pick up Chris Hanson’s book on Amazon if you want to learn more. Simply click the image.