When Good Is Stronger Than Bad

Findings on the Taking in the Good Course

Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Read the paper on this study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal for Positive Psychology, December 6, 2021.


The Taking in the Good Course – six, 3-hour classes combining presentations, experiential activities, and written materials – teaches participants how to turn passing experiences into lasting inner strengths. The preliminary (not yet peer-reviewed) findings in a recent study conducted in collaboration with faculty from UC Berkeley and UC Davis indicate that people who completed the Taking in the Good Course experienced significantly less anxiety and depression, and significantly greater self-control, savoring, compassion, love, contentment, joy, gratitude, self-esteem, self-compassion, satisfaction with life, and overall happiness.


Resilience, positive emotions, compassion, gratitude, and other inner strengths lower stress, grow well-being and effectiveness, and heal anxiety and depression. Like any other mental capability, inner strengths are supported by structures in the brain. So, how can a person develop the neural networks that support inner strengths?

Through what’s called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” the main way to develop inner strengths is to have experiences of them; repeated feelings of gratitude make a person more grateful. As neuroscientists might say, positive neural traits are built from positive mental states.

But here’s the problem: the brain is bad at learning from good experiences but good at learning from bad ones. In a scientific paper famously titled Bad Is Stronger Than Good, Roy Baumeister and colleagues listed many ways that the human brain has a “negativity bias.” We continually look for negative information, over-react to it, and then quickly store these reactions in brain structure. For example, we learn faster from pain than from pleasure, and negative interactions have more impact on a relationship than positive ones. In effect, our brain is like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good. (See Further Reading below for more information.)

This suggests that many of the positive experiences we have in everyday life or in formal trainings are not converted into neural structure: they feel good in the moment but have little lasting value. This negativity bias kept our ancestors alive in tough conditions, but now it’s a “bug” in the Stone Age brain in the 21st century: a bottleneck that blocks good experiences from becoming inner strengths built into neural structure.

The Taking in the Good Course

To address this problem, Dr. Rick Hanson developed the Taking in the Good Course (TGC): six 3-hour classes that combine experiential exercises, presentations, discussion, home practice, and readings. Participants learn how to turn passing experiences into lasting inner strengths through the four step HEAL process: Have a positive experience, Enrich it, Absorb it, and (optional) Link the positive experience to negative material in order to soothe and even replace it. They apply these skills to positive experiences in everyday life, using one or two dozen seconds to take in a moment of relaxation, a sense of accomplishment in finishing a task, or the warmth in a friend’s smile.

During the course, participants “take in the good” (TG) to develop greater overall well-being, as well as to internalize the key resource experiences that address personal issues of stress, anxiety, irritation, frustration, loss, blue mood, loneliness, hurt, or inadequacy. The course aims at three kinds of benefits: (1) growing specific inner strengths; (2) developing the qualities implicit in TG (e.g., kindness toward oneself), and (3) increasingly sensitizing the brain to positive experiences.

Research Findings on the Course

In a pilot study, a battery of psychological tests was administered before and after the course the first two times it was offered (see List of Tests below.) After taking the course, people reported significantly:

•  Less anxiety and depression
•  More savoring and enjoyment of life, and more gratitude
•  Greater mindfulness and better self-control
•  More love and self-compassion, and higher self-esteem
•  More positive emotions and fewer negative ones
•  Greater overall happiness and satisfaction with life

Then, in a formal study, we systematically evaluated the effects of the Taking in the Good course by randomly assigning participants either to the course in the spring of 2013 or to a wait-list to take the course in the summer of 2013. Those who completed the spring course reported greater contentment, gratitude, self-esteem, savoring, and satisfaction with life compared to those who had not yet taken the course. Further, two months following course completion, participants reported greater use of reappraisal strategies to help regulate their emotions and they continued to experience greater self-esteem compared to those who had not yet taken the course (please see the graph just below).

TGC results

People on the wait-list then took the course in the summer of 2013. In the next step in our analyses, we combined participants from the spring and summer groups, and then compared their scores on the battery of tests before and after completing the course. (We also assessed the stress hormone, cortisol, but found no significant results.) Consistent with the results of the pilot study, after taking the course, people reported significantly:

• Less anxiety and depression

• More able to manage emotions

• More joy, contentment, and other positive emotions

• More love and compassion

• More gratitude

• More self-compassion

• More savoring

• Greater overall happiness


It is possible to teach people how to make good stronger than bad.


The investigators in this study included Rick Hanson, Ph.D. (The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom), Janelle M. Caponigro, M.A. (UC Berkeley), Michael R. Hagerty, Ph.D. (UC Davis), and Ann Kring, Ph.D. (UC Berkeley).

Financial support was provided by the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.

Further Reading

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K., D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370. doi: 10.1037//1089-2680.5.4.323

Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychological Review, 5(4), 296-320.

Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York: Random House.

Hanson, R., Shapiro, S., Hutton-Thamm, E., Hagerty M.R., & Sullivan, K.P., (2021), Learning to learn from positive experiences, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.2006759

Supporting Handouts
Blocks to Taking in the Good

Lists of Tests

Pilot Study
Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, 1988)

Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI; Bryant, 2003)

Mindfulness and Attention Scale (MAAS; Brown & Ryan, 2003)

Self-Compassion Scale – Short (SCS; Raes, 2011)

Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ; Gross, & John, 2003)

Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6; McCullough et al., 2002)

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES; Rosenberg, 1965)

Personal Growth Initiative Scale (PGIS; Robitscheck, 2009)

Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener, 1985)

NEO Five-Factor Inventory – Openness Subscale (Costa & McCrae, 1989)

Positive Rumination Scale (Feldman et al., 2008)

Event Reaction Questionnaire (Higgins et al., 2001)

Dispositional Positive Emotion Scales (Shiota et al., 2006)

Psychological Well-Being Scales, select subscales (Ryff, 1998)

Subject Happiness Scale (Lyubomirsky, 1999)

Beck Anxiety Inventory (1993)

Beck Depression Inventory (Beck, 1996)

Formal Study

Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, 1988)

Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI; Bryant, 2003)

Mindfulness and Attention Scale (MAAS; Brown & Ryan, 2003)

Self-Compassion Scale – Short (SCS; Raes, 2011)

Emotion Regulation Questionnaire (ERQ; Gross, & John, 2003)

Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6; McCullough et al., 2002)

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES; Rosenberg, 1965)

Satisfaction With Life Scale (Diener, 1985)

Positive Rumination Scale (Feldman et al., 2008)

Dispositional Positive Emotion Scales (Shiota et al., 2006)

Subject Happiness Scale (Lyubomirsky, 1999)

Beck Anxiety Inventory (1993)

Beck Depression Inventory (Beck, 1996)

Salivary cortisol was assessed through Genova Diagnostics.

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.

Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. His books have been published in 29 languages and include NeurodharmaResilient, Hardwiring HappinessBuddha’s BrainJust One Thing, and Mother Nurture – with 900,000 copies in English alone. His free newsletters have 215,000 subscribers and his online programs have scholarships available for those with financial need. He’s lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, his work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. He began meditating in 1974 and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He and his wife live in northern California and have two adult children. He loves wilderness and taking a break from emails.

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