Why is it easier to ruminate over hurt feelings than it is to bask in the warmth of being appreciated?
Because your brain evolved to learn quickly from bad experiences, but slowly from good ones.
You can change this.
Life isn’t easy, and having a brain wired to take in the bad and ignore the good makes us worried, irritated, and stressed, instead of confident, secure, and happy. But each day is filled with opportunities to build inner strengths and Dr. Rick Hanson, an acclaimed clinical psychologist, shows what you can do to override the brain’s default pessimism.
Hardwiring Happiness lays out a simple method that uses the hidden power of everyday experiences to build new neural structures full of happiness, love, confidence, and peace. You’ll learn to see through the lies your brain tells you. Dr. Hanson’s four steps build strengths into your brain—counterbalancing its ancient negativity bias—making contentment and a powerful sense of resilience the new normal. In mere minutes each day, you can transform your brain into a refuge and power center of calm and happiness. You can hardwire in happiness.
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Q&A with Rick Hanson
Q. What does it mean to “hardwire happiness,” and why is it important?
A. Whether we are happy or sad, loving or angry, or wise or foolish depends on what’s inside the brain. Bringing good things into your brain is the key to well-being and effectiveness, psychological healing, creativity, and spiritual practice.
So, how do you get good things—such as resilience, self-worth, or love—into your brain? These inner strengths are grown mainly from positive experiences. Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.
This built-in negativity bias makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue. Plus it creates a kind of bottleneck in the brain that makes it hard to gain any lasting value from our experiences, which is disheartening and the central weakness in personal development, mindfulness training, and psychotherapy.
To solve this problem, I developed the four HEAL steps of taking in the good: Have a positive experience; Enrich it; Absorb it; and if you like, Link it to negative thoughts and feelings to soothe and eventually replace them.
Q. Is it really possible to overcome this Stone Age negativity bias? How much time does it take?
A. Your brain is constantly changing its structure based on what you think and feel; scientists call this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” When you take in the good, you take charge of this structure-building process.
Hardwiring happiness is not mere positive thinking, which is usually wasted on the brain. It’s about transforming fleeting experiences into lasting improvements in your neural net worth. It usually takes less than half a minute. Any single time you do this won’t change your life. But half a dozen times a day, day after day, you really can gradually change your brain from the inside out.
Q. What could I get out of doing this?
A. Besides building up specific inner strengths such as determination or feeling cared about, taking in the good has additional, general benefits. It’s a way to be active rather than passive—a hammer rather than a nail—at a time when people feel pushed and prodded by events and their reactions to them, a way to build oneself up when the world is wearing you down. When you take in the good, you treat yourself like you matter, which is especially important if you haven’t mattered enough to others. And over time, you could sensitize your brain to positive experiences, so it becomes more efficient at learning from them: making it like Velcro for good.
This is the good that lasts. Many little moments add up to big results over time.
Q. Some researchers believe that there is a happiness set point; do you agree?
A. This was the idea that people tend to return to their baseline after a big positive or negative experience—which was used sometimes to argue that there is no point in trying to become happier since we’ll just sink back into our old ways.
More recent research has shown that many people do gradually lift their happiness set point over time. But we have to earn this happiness. We have to do the work . . . which, in terms of taking in the good, is pretty enjoyable!
Q. Is taking in the good just another way to chase after positive experiences?
A. By incorporating these positive experiences into your brain—by building up the sense of being already happy, loved, and peaceful—you won’t have to seek out those feelings outside yourself. Your well-being will become increasingly unconditional, less dependent on external conditions like a partner being nice or having a good day at work. Experiencing that your deep needs are basically met, there’s no basis for the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm for yourself and others.
This practice (both the most pleasurable and the most powerful way to defeat the negativity bias and to build up inner strengths) brings you home—home to a comfortable intimacy with your own experience, to a confident openness to life, and to a sense of competence, even mastery, with your own mind.About the Author:
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and a New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture, and are available in 26 languages. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 100,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity that anyone with financial need can do for free.
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