The sun is out, blissfully hot and I am in the sea. Saltwater stings my eyes as I swim away from shore. I stop suddenly and flip over onto my back. My legs float up and I starfish while staring up at the sky. I connect with myself, with all of my past selves, and all of my future selves. Then I send compassion, forgiveness, and love, as I’ve done many times before. I am consciously taking this tiny step to strengthen my resilience and feel happier.
One of the most exciting discoveries in recent neuroscience is our mind’s capacity to reshape our brains, no matter how old we are. Until recently, neuroscientists believed that our brains were fully developed before adulthood. Our genes and childhood experiences shaped our mental capacities up to about our teen years. After that, the brains we had were the ones we were stuck with.
This assumption was mostly based on information gathered from detailed but static brain images. Then something amazing happened. Scientists discovered a way to conduct brain scans while our brains are functioning. These live scans uncovered our brain’s incredible capacity for change, known as neuroplasticity.
In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Neuroscientist Rick Hansen explains how our brain’s neuroplasticity works and how we can use it to build resilience and feel happier over time.
Our mental activities shape our brain like a river shapes the land.
All mental activities – sights, sounds, thoughts, emotions, and both conscious and unconscious processes – are the result of firing neurons. Most neurons flow through the brain and make no lasting impact. But intense, prolonged, or repeated neural activity leaves an enduring imprint through which future neurons are likely to flow. Like a river shapes land, the more we think and feel a certain way, the deeper the river channel becomes, and the more likely we are to think and feel the same way in the future.
Our brains are hardwired with a negative bias.
Our ancestors did not have to be happy to survive, but they did need to be sensitive to threat, loss, and conflict. So, negative experiences are more likely to leave a lasting impact on our brains than positive ones. This may explain, in part, why a difficult life event such as divorce, can result in long-term depression. It is totally natural to have negative thoughts and feelings about a distressing event.
However, if we have difficult early life experiences as well, negative thoughts and feelings are more likely to linger. Habitual negative thinking causes persistent low mood. Prolonged low mood can develop into a neural trait resulting in a stable tendency towards depression. Negative neural traits affect our sleep patterns, memory, hormones, and our immune system.
The good news: neuroplasticity applies to positive emotional states as well.
We all experience instances of joy, contentment, and gratitude in our lives. Hanson suggests that when we pay mindful, sustained attention to even the smallest of positive experiences, we create a positive mental state and build positive neural pathways. When we habitually attend to positive experiences, we not only increase the likelihood of future positive feelings, we strengthen our resilience to negative experiences.
This is not ‘positive thinking.’
Negative thoughts and feelings are not only healthy, but they are essential for our survival. For example, emotions such as anxiety and grief motivate us to seek safety and connection. Consciously attending to our positive experiences does not aim to block out negative emotions. Rather it helps us to counterbalance, refuel and repair the negative toll that life stress has on our brains.
4 Ways to Rewire Your Brain to Feel Happier
Attending to positive experiences, or what Hansen calls ‘taking in the good,’ refers to more than just focusing on external events. An experience can also be an idea or memory. When we spend time consciously thinking about something positive, noticing how it makes us feel, taking several breaths, allowing it to sink in, we internalize its positive effects. To take in the good, Hansen suggests these four steps (the last of which is optional) in order to feel happier.
1. Have or create a positive experience.
Having a positive experience means enjoying a situation, event, or object long enough to activate a positive mental state. Become aware of physical pleasure, an accomplishment, or positive feelings of being close to someone. Or you can also spend some time thinking about things for which you are grateful.
2. Enrich the experience.
Stay with the positive feelings for 10 seconds or longer. Engage your senses: sense it in your body, let it fill your mind, and enjoy it. Intensify it by becoming aware of why you find it pleasurable, why it is personally relevant, or how it will make a positive impact on your life.
3. Absorb the experience.
Visualize and sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Feel it soothing you. Know that the experience is a resource you can use.
4. Link the positive experience to negative or anxiety-provoking material.
While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of your awareness, also become aware of a negative experience in the background. For example, if you feel that you have a sense of belonging in the present experience, you can conjure a time when you felt lonely in the past.
I would add several suggestions to Hansen’s fourth step. In the beginning, I suggest conjuring a non-traumatic experience or an experience that is not overly upsetting to you. Practice self-compassion while doing this. Look back on your past self in the difficult situation and show compassion, love, and (if needed) forgiveness, as you would a dear friend.
Practicing self-compassion while taking in the good not only increases your capacity for happiness, it strengthens your resilience, increasing your ability to bounce back from future difficulties. Plus, when you practice these steps often, you get the added bonus of heightened sensitivity to the many positive instances in your life right now.
Antonio Damasio. (1996). Descartes’ Error.
Paul Gilbert. (2010). The Compassionate Mind.
Daniel Goleman. (1996). Emotional Intelligence.
Rick Hanson. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness. The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence.
Karla McLaren. (2013). The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill.
Dan Siegel. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
Bessel van der Kolk. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma