How to Hardwire Your Brain for Happiness

How to Hardwire Your Brain for Happiness

We can outwit our brain’s negative circuitry and tilt ourselves toward the good in life.

The inner strengths we all need to cope with life and enjoy it – strengths like resilience, positive emotions, confidence, and feeling loved – are based on underlying neural structures.

Most inner strengths come from positive experiences. But to help our ancestors survive in harsh conditions, the brain evolved what scientists call a “negativity bias” that rapidly turns negative experiences into neural structure.

Meanwhile, most positive experiences wash through the brain like water through a sieve, momentarily pleasant but with no lasting value. In effect, the brain is like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.

Consequently, the negativity bias creates a kind of bottleneck that makes it hard to get inner strengths into the brain. We end up feeling a lot more frazzled, worried, irritated, lonely, and blue than we deserve to. Plus it’s harder and slower to heal from painful experiences (sometimes reaching back to childhood), to let go of stress, to learn new relationship skills, or to become more confident and contented.

This is why I developed the four simple HEAL steps, which are based on the science of emotional learning: how to change your brain for the better.

These steps take just a few minutes a day in the flow of life, but they gradually weave specific inner strengths into your brain, such as calm, determination, self-worth, optimism, gratitude, self-compassion, and feeling loved.Ha

And there are some nice bonus benefits: using these HEAL steps, you’ll be treating yourself like you matter, you’ll be active rather than passive, and you’ll be gradually sensitizing your brain to positive experiences so it will get faster at turning these into lasting inner strengths.

Simple Practices

Let good facts become good experiences!

Good facts include positive events – like finishing a batch of e-mails or getting a compliment – and positive aspects of the world and yourself.

Most good facts are ordinary and relatively minor – but they are still real. You are not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but simply recognizing something that is actual and true.

When you’re aware of a good fact – either something that currently exists or has happened in the past – let yourself feel good about it.

So often in life a good thing happens – flowers are blooming, someone is nice, a goal’s been attained – and you know it, but you don’t feel it.

This time, let the good fact affect you, stay with it for ten, twenty, even thirty seconds in a row, and then sense that this experience is sinking into you. Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day.

It usually takes only half a minute or so – there is always time to take in the good! You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).

Feeling Better

Almost any time you use the HEAL steps to take in the good, you will feel better in the moment. Really!

It’s not magic: you are simply staying with a positive experience in the privacy of your own mind, helping it last, protecting it, feeling it in your body, letting it become more intense and weave its way into you. This will naturally bring good feelings at the time.

Additionally, through the power of what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity, you’ll be gradually changing your brain from the inside out.

This is real change, not a quick fix, and not mere positive thinking, which is usually wasted on the brain. Your hardiness and happiness will shift step by step in a positive direction. It will feel real and authentic – because it is.

In a deep sense, by building up the sense of being already happy, loved, and peaceful, you won’t have to search for those feelings outside yourself. Your well-being will become increasingly unconditional, less dependent on external conditions like a partner being nice or a good day at work.

In turn, this will create positive cycles: feeling better, you will act better, so you’ll be more successful and others will treat you better, which will help you feel even better.

It’s good to get good at taking in the good!

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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