The Neuroscience of Happiness: An Interview with Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
I am delighted to bring to you neuropsychologist, meditation teacher and author of the hit new book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson, Ph.D. Rick is co-founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, which also publishes the monthly Wise Brain Bulletin and hosts the WiseBrain.org website. He is also author of the Meditations for Happiness audio download and co-author of the Meditations to Change Your Brain CD set.
Today Rick talks to us about how we can use our minds to change our brains, to help our minds in everyday life.
Elisha: You quote a popular phrase that came from Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb, saying that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Can you let us in on the significance of this quote?
Rick: Hebb and others were trying to understand how we learn things, from remembering what we had for breakfast to the emotional learning that is the residue of happiness – at one end of the spectrum – and trauma, at the other end. In other words, how does mental activity change neural structure? A pretty important question! Hebb developed the theory, since borne out in its essence by subsequent research, that it is the simultaneity of firing (within a few thousandths of a second) of neurons that are connected with each other that leads to strengthening existing synapses – which are the junctions between neurons – and to building new ones.
For example, if you routinely dwell on your resentments and regrets, the neurons involved in that particular mental activity will fire busily together, and automatically start wiring together as well. Which will add one more bit of neural structure to feeling discontented, mistreated, angry, or sorrowful. On the other hand, if you regularly focus on the good facts around you and inside you – like your own good qualities, such as patience, determination, or kindness – then the neurons involved will wire together, stitching more resilience, hopefulness, confidence, and happiness into the fabric of your brain and your self.
Any single time you do either of these will usually not make much difference, but the gradually accumulating wiring of one or the other will definitely add up over time. As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.
In the traditional phrase, the mind takes the shape of what it rests upon. Modern neuropsychology is starting to shed light on how, exactly, this happens – how the fleeting flow of thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, sorrow and suffering, gradually, inexorably sculpt the brain. This is neuroplasticity, most of which involves the slow sifting of the residues of lived experience into the brain and therefore the mind.
The takeaway point is to be both careful with the mental activities one indulges in past the point of usefulness, and hopeful about how – with the insights of modern brain science informed by the hard-won lessons of the contemplative traditions – you truly can use your mind to change your mind for the better … with ripples fanning out to benefit everyone else whose life you touch.
Elisha: In your book you mention how our brains emphasize negative experiences. Why is this and what can we do about it to create greater balance?
Rick: As human beings, our home base – what we usually default to when we are not in pain, hungry, upset, or chemically disturbed – is what I call the Five C’s: conscious, calm, contented, caring, and creative. But as we evolved, we also developed the capacity to be driven from home by the crack of a twig or a voice raised in anger. That’s because it is usually more important for survival to avoid “sticks” – threats such as predators or aggression from others of our own species – than it is to gain “carrots” such as food, shelter, or mating.
The result is what scientists call a “negativity bias” in the brain. It’s like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. This is a great strategy for passing on gene copies – which is the engine of biological evolution – but a lousy one for quality of life. The brain is tilted toward survival, but tilted against happiness.
Therefore, just to level the playing field, we need to tilt toward ourselves – getting on our own side, not against others, but for ourselves – and toward good facts and good experiences. And we need to help ourselves see the world clearly – not ignoring the actual threats that are out there, but waking up from the paranoid trance that thinks it’s always Threat Level Orange.
Elisha: You have a chapter in your book called “Taking in the Good”; tell us a bit about what this is and why it is important to our lives.
Rick: To reverse the negativity bias, and to help your brain become Velcro for positive experiences, and Teflon for negative ones, try these three simple steps of taking in the good:
- Look for good facts about the world and yourself, and register them as good experiences (move from the conceptual to the experiential).
- Savor the good experience for 10-20-30 seconds in a row:
- Sense that it is filling your body.
- As you can, intensify it; really enjoy it!
- Make it last
- Sense and intend that this positive experience is sinking into you, becoming a part of you, a resource you can take wherever you go.
Try to do this several times a day. Most of the good experiences you will take in will be fairly mild, and that’s to be expected. But as you do this, you will gradually change your own brain for greater inner strength, happiness, love, and wisdom.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was caught in what seemed like perpetual distress, how might you interact with them and what advice could you give them?
Rick: I’d start with compassion, and with opening to and trying to understand whatever was going on with the person. “First of all, do no harm.”
Then I might explore whether the person had compassion for herself (for simplicity, let’s say the person is female), whether her own suffering mattered to her, and whether she was on her own side with regard to doing something about it. While this may seem obvious, it is actually a missing link for many people. I’d also wonder who loved her, who cared about her, and try to encourage more of that in her life, and more sense of that caring from others inside her own awareness.
Assuming she is willing to take sensible actions – inside her head and outside, in the world – to help things get better, I’d want to explore:
- What could be done in the world (including her relationships) to improve things. (I think that dealing with a person’s environment is very important, and often left out in personal growth and spiritual practice.)
- What could be done inside her body to make things better. (When someone is distressed, that wears on health, plus distress, anxiety, anger, depressed mood, etc., is often worsened by physical health problems.)
- What skills and practices would help things inside her mind. The details of this would depend on the sources of her distress. To simplify a lot of things, there are three fundamental phases of psychological healing and growth: Let be; let go; let in. In other words (1) open up to the experience as it is (mindfulness training helps a ton here); when it’s right, shift to the second phase, (2) releasing the painful, negative experiences through various methods (e.g. relaxing the body, venting, challenging erroneous negative thoughts, and (3) replacing what’s been released with positive alternative experiences (such as replacing feelings of rejection in relationships with factually based experiences of being loved).
Then more than anything, I’d encourage her to keep going! There is always something a person can do – in the world, in his or her body, or in his or her mind – to help things get better.
Thank you so much, Rick, for your words of wisdom!
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Goldstein, E. (2010). The Neuroscience of Happiness: An Interview with Rick Hanson, Ph.D.. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2010/03/training-your-brain-for-the-better-an-interview-with-rick-hanson-ph-d/