Brain Tweaking

This awareness will gain some momentum with the publication this month of Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson PhD, which has already gained attention in the US. Here we have that special combination of someone who writes well, understands the research inside and out – and has decades of ‘hands-on’ experience as a psychotherapist and teacher.

This is very much a ‘how to’ book, explaining in simple terms what does and doesn’t change in the brain and how to create the changes that are possible. Relative to the whole, very little is changeable, but the results of even tiny tweaks are extremely impressive and almost immediate. Fairly subtle changes in your brain can make you can feel really different – which is what makes them so worth pursuing.

Hanson presents five steps that can take any positive experience from something that happens briefly to something that lasts – so that it actually contributes to changing you. In other words, how to move transient states into enduring and useful traits. In this book, of course, we’re talking about happiness:

1. have a happy experience in the first place
2. stay with it for 10 to 20 seconds
3. feel it in your body
4. discover something novel in this experience
5. grasp the relevance of this experience to you

The reason this requires our deliberate intervention is due to the brain’s ‘negativity bias’ which makes us far better at holding on to the negative: feeling inadequate, hurt, angry, anxious, fearful, etc. Hanson explains this principle:

“Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, and (2) thinking there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once… In general, the default setting of the brain is to overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources both for coping with threats and for fulfilling opportunities.”

I find it helpful to remember that my brain’s negativity bias will cast its shadow over things. Then, I can compensate accordingly and give myself a bit of distance from those less helpful thoughts and feelings.

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