Hardwiring happiness

In the midst of the full and crazy life of being a busy parent, it’s easy to get bogged down by negative experiences. I’m totally guilty of this in those moments when I find myself dwelling on …

  • The one bit of critical feedback I’ve received, instead of many positive ones.
  • The batch of burnt cookies I made, instead of all of the other dozens that turned out just fine.
  • The instances in which my children were fighting or misbehaving, instead of all the times they’ve made me proud with their choices.
  • The one thing my husband didn’t remember to do, instead of the many things he’s done for our family.

The science behind negativity

I know I’m not alone. In fact, our brains are actually wired to think like this! 

In his book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness, psychologist Rick Hanson explains that scientists believe our brains have what’s called a “negativity bias.” 

This phenomenon goes back to our prehistoric brains, which needed to be highly attuned to danger and adept at making concrete connections — to avoid bad things — for survival. 

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” Hanson said.

According to Hanson, our brains have specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in our emotional memory. Most positive experiences, meanwhile, don’t register as anything beyond standard-issue events, so most positive experiences “flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time.”

What I found especially interesting is that if we keep a positive experience in our awareness for several seconds in a row, the positive experience has the potential to transfer from our short-term memory and into long-term memory.

Hanson encourages us to work to overcome, or at least offset, our negativity bias through mindful awareness and taking time focus on positive experiences.

Here are some strategies from the book that we can use to wire our brains for positivity:

Seek out the positive

Make a conscious effort to look for positive aspects of everyday experiences. Be intentional with your efforts to notice the good in both the world and in yourself. 

As you do this, pay attention to any resistance you encounter within yourself and acknowledge any instinctual attempts to dismiss or deny these positive feelings — but make a conscious effort to not focus on them. Hanson recommends practicing this at least a half dozen times a day to turn it into a habit.

Soak it in! 

Attend to positive experiences. Give yourself ample time — at least 20 to 30 seconds — to fully enjoy that moment. 

I’ve been experimenting with these tips and practicing with different situations, such as savoring my morning cup of coffee as well as soaking in similar simple, yet positive, experiences with my children and spouse. 

I also take a lot of pictures. I take photos of my children, sunrises and sunsets, good food, dewdrops on leaves and flowers. I photograph anything that I see through the lens of my camera that hints at simplicity, abundance and overall goodness.

I take these images and habitually upload them to my computer, and often post them on my blog (see below) or Instagram (@megtdevine). When I need a positive boost or reminder of the happiest moments in my life, I look at the images. I smile, I laugh and yes, sometimes I cry, reflecting on all the good in my life.

Continue taking charge

Hanson explains that by elongating our our positive sensations, we allow more neurons to fire and wire together in response to the stimulus. This solidifies the experience in our memory. As we fill our memory with more positive experiences, through this kind of savoring, we can become less reliant on external positive stimuli to make us feel happiness. 

Hanson emphasizes the importance of accepting that negativity is an inherent part of the human experience. But he adds that — with a greater understanding of how our brain works and application of mindful strategies — we all have the potential to hardwire our brain for happiness.

Megan Devine is an elementary school teacher who lives with her husband and four school-age children in Northeastern Minnesota. Follow her blog — Kids, Lakes, Loons and Pines — at megdevine.com.