A habit of happiness

Is it possible to change patterns of negativity in the brain by simply putting our minds to it? Can we hardwire happiness?

When I was growing up, my mother doled out particularly infuriating advice on a regular basis: “If you pretend to be happy, you might start to feel happy.” Naturally, this was met with scorn and eye-rolling by my sulky teenage self.

But now I’m older and (somewhat) wiser, I think she was on to something. The mantra ‘fake it ’til you make it’ can be applied to a range of situations in life – with varying success – so why not here? Is it possible to change patterns of negativity in the brain if we simply put our minds to it? Can we hardwire happiness?

The short answer is yes – at least, that’s what writer and psychologist Rick Hanson declares. The New York Times best-selling author is the man behind the seminal Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, published in 2013. A decade later, it remains the definitive text for those keen to learn how we can rewire our brains to live happier, more fulfilled lives.

First, we need to understand the brain’s natural negativity bias. “To help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones,” writes Hanson. This bias causes the brain to react intensely to bad news, compared to how it responds to good news – which is why it’s much easier to hold on to negativity than it is to be accepting.

The secret to rewiring your brain, according to Hanson, lies in using the hidden power of everyday experiences to build new neural structures, full of happiness, love and confidence. Transform fleeting experiences into lasting improvements in your neural net worth. “These are not million-dollar moments,” he writes. “They’re simply the cosy feeling of a favourite sweater, pleasure in a cup of coffee, warmth from a friend, satisfaction after finishing a task or love from your mate.”

To move away from dwelling on negative thoughts, Hanson recommends focusing on your inner strengths – which, he writes, “are fundamental to a happy, productive and loving life. For example, research on just one strength, positive emotions, shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds and improve resilience, wellbeing and life satisfaction.”

About a third of a person’s strengths are innate: built into their genetically based temperament, talents, mood and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. That means you get them by growing them – proof that choosing to focus on positive thoughts can, eventually, breed more positivity. “The brain is the organ that learns,” Hanson notes, “so it is designed to be changed by your experiences.”

Positive and negative emotions use different memory systems in the brain, and positive emotions don’t transfer as easily to long-term memory. That’s why it’s important to train our brains to take in the good and be wholly present for small, joyful moments. “Your experiences /matter/,” Hanson writes. “Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks.”

So, how do we achieve that?

According to Nick James, a family therapist at London-based clinic The Soke, we tend to live our lives, and see others living their lives, through stories. We get caught up in a narrative about the people around us, and about ourselves. “Our pasts contain negative and positive plot points,” says James. “Sometimes we land in a trap dwelling on the negative, and forget that we can actually choose what to focus on.

“My work as a therapist is around discovering the stories buried within a person and trying to foreground the more positive plot points. Realising that there can be a more positive story will make you wonder, ‘What do other people see? What version of me do I want to put out there?’”

To do that, James recommends speaking to people in your life who you trust: “Ask what their version of your life would look like. Ask for their help. Dialogue with friends and family can draw out the positive stories and guide you to proactively develop a more positive narrative; one that you eventually turn into habit.”

The secret to long-lasting happiness could rest on something as simple as paying attention. We all experience positive moments each day, but recognising them can be key to changing our perspective. By stopping and taking the time to appreciate these small moments of joy, we can increase their intensity and effect, thereby “wiring” them into our brains.

Harnessing practices such as mindfulness, deep breathing and gratitude can all help. “If you want to develop more gratitude, keep resting your mind on feeling thankful,” suggests Hanson. “If you want to feel more loved, look for and stay with experiences in which you feel included, seen, appreciated, liked or cherished.”

The impact that positive thinking has on overall wellness is clear. “Negative thinking puts barriers in the way, allowing us to create reasons why ‘we can’t’,” explains James. “We draw up the bridge and stop doing things, living life. Positive thinking, however, is about possibilities and understanding that we have resilience. It draws down those barriers, making life seem more possible, permitting us to take more action and believing that ‘we can’.”

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