Train your brain to focus on positive experiences

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine).

The Neuroscience of Happiness

Best-sell­ing author Rick Han­son explains how we can rewire
our brains for last­ing happiness
By Michael Bergeisen

We’ve all been there: obsess­ing over a faux pas we com­mit­ted at a par­ty, infu­ri­at­ed by an unkind word from a col­league, rumi­nat­ing over a tough break-up with a spouse or friend. We suf­fer some misfortune—big or small, real or imagined—and the pain or humil­i­a­tion sticks with us for hours, days, or even years afterward.

The mind is like Vel­cro for neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences,” psy­chol­o­gist Rick Han­son is fond of say­ing, “and Teflon for pos­i­tive ones.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Draw­ing on some of the lat­est find­ings from neu­ro­science, Han­son has spent years explor­ing how we can over­come our brain’s nat­ur­al “neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias” and learn to inter­nal­ize pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences more deeply—while min­i­miz­ing the harm­ful phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of dwelling on the negative.

For years, research has shown that, over time, our expe­ri­ences lit­er­al­ly reshape our brains and can change our ner­vous sys­tems, for bet­ter or worse. Now, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and psy­chol­o­gists like Han­son are zero­ing in on how we can take advan­tage of this “plas­tic­i­ty” of the brain to cul­ti­vate and sus­tain pos­i­tive emotions.

In his recent book, the best-sell­ing Buddha’s Brain: The Prac­ti­cal Neu­ro­science of Hap­pi­ness, Love, and Wis­dom, Han­son describes spe­cif­ic prac­tices that can pro­mote last­ing joy, equa­nim­i­ty, and compassion—and backs it all up with sound science.

Han­son recent­ly spoke with host Michael Bergeisen about some of these very prac­ti­cal, research-based steps we can all take to rewire our brains for last­ing hap­pi­ness. Below we present a con­densed ver­sion of the discussion.

Michael Bergeisen: Most of us think of the human brain as either unchang­ing or los­ing pow­er and strength as we get old­er, but the cen­tral theme of your new book is that we each have the capac­i­ty to change our brain for the bet­ter to make our­selves hap­pi­er, more peace­ful, and more kind. How can we do this exactly?

Rick Han­son: We’ve all known as we’ve gone through life that our minds have changed. In oth­er words, we’ve learned things as we go through life, we picked up new skills, we’ve had expe­ri­ences, we remem­ber them. All that men­tal activ­i­ty means that we’ve changed our brain. That’s not break­ing news. In oth­er words, it’s long been known that as the mind changes, the brain must be chang­ing as well.

What is break­ing news is that in the last 20 years, the sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of the brain has lit­er­al­ly dou­bled. And that has giv­en us much more clar­i­ty about the link­ages between the mind and the brain, which then gives us this amaz­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty to change our brain to change our mind—so that we feel bet­ter, we’re hap­pi­er, we’re less prone to suf­fer­ing, we’re kinder, we’re bet­ter to peo­ple around us, we’re more effec­tive at home and work, and we have more sense of a kind of inner peace and con­nect­ed­ness with all things.

MB: Can you give us an exam­ple of a prac­tice that has this effect on the mind and hence the brain?

RH: When­ev­er you are aware of your own body sen­sa­tions. For exam­ple, when you pay atten­tion to your breath­ing, or if you golf, or if you’re a dancer, or if you do some­thing like yoga, or Tai Chi, or if you meditate—in all those cas­es, you’re pay­ing atten­tion to the inter­nal sen­sa­tions of your body. Well, as it turns out, a part of the brain called the insula—there are two of them actually—track the inter­nal state of the body, which means also that they’re inti­mate­ly involved in sens­ing your feelings.

Research has shown that as peo­ple acti­vate their insu­la more, such as through med­i­ta­tion, the insu­la actu­al­ly gets thick­er. In oth­er words, neu­rons make more and more con­nec­tions with each oth­er, which actu­al­ly mea­sur­ably thick­ens your insula.

MB: And what is the ben­e­fit of that?

RH: It’s a demon­stra­tion that they are mak­ing more con­nec­tions with each oth­er. So as a result, peo­ple then become more in touch with them­selves, which is good. But even beyond that, research has shown that the insu­la is also cru­cial for empa­thy. Because when we get a sense of the emo­tions of oth­er peo­ple, we actu­al­ly light up the same neur­al cir­cuits in our own brain—they light up as if we’re access­ing those feel­ings ourselves.

So the point is, that if you can strength­en the insu­la, that will both make you more able to be aware of your­self and also help you be more empath­ic toward others.

The clas­sic line in neur­al psy­chol­o­gy is, “As neu­rons fire togeth­er they wire togeth­er.” The seem­ing­ly imma­te­r­i­al and ephemer­al flow of the thoughts and feel­ings through your mind leaves behind traces in your brain. So the take­away point is to be very thought­ful about what you think about all day long. A lot of us think about crud all day long. We’re wor­ry­ing about this, we’re plan­ning that, we’re obsess­ing over some­thing bad that might hap­pen that hasn’t even hap­pened, what­ev­er. Or we’re think­ing about what a los­er we are, how we just nev­er get any­where in life, or peo­ple don’t love us, or we get mistreated—and there’s a place for that if it’s productive.

But much of the time, we’re just run­ning those movies in the men­tal sim­u­la­tor. The prob­lem is, as we run those movies, they’re leav­ing behind traces of neur­al struc­ture that are neg­a­tivis­tic, depres­sive, pes­simistic, and very self-critical.

MB: So we ini­tial­ly talked about the more pos­i­tive aspects of the brain. Now you’ve start­ed iden­ti­fy­ing parts of the brain that have a more neg­a­tive slant. And in your book, you do talk about this neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias in our brains. Can you describe that a bit more?

RH: Our ances­tors, the ones who lived to pass on their genes, got bet­ter and bet­ter and bet­ter at mak­ing a cru­cial deci­sion many times a day about whether to approach some­thing or avoid it. Approach the pleas­ant, avoid the unpleas­ant. Approach the car­rot, duck the stick.

Alright, now the prob­lem is that sticks are much more impor­tant to pay atten­tion to in the wild than car­rots because if you miss a car­rot today, you’ll get anoth­er chance at one tomor­row, but if you don’t avoid a stick today—Wham!—you’re not gonna get a crack at a car­rot tomorrow.

So we’ve devel­oped what’s called in sci­ence a “neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias,” which means that the brain, to help us sur­vive, pref­er­en­tial­ly looks for, reacts to, stores, and then recalls neg­a­tive infor­ma­tion over pos­i­tive infor­ma­tion. For exam­ple, there’s a pret­ty famous find­ing in the realm of rela­tion­ship psy­chol­o­gy from John Gottman, of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, that it takes at least five pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions to make up for just one neg­a­tive one. In oth­er words, in effect, a neg­a­tive inter­ac­tion in an impor­tant rela­tion­ship is five times more pow­er­ful than a pos­i­tive inter­ac­tion. That’s an exam­ple of the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias at work.

So then the real­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion becomes: How can you over­come it? That’s why, for me, tak­ing in the good is an absolute­ly cru­cial skill to devel­op, and a won­der­ful way to bal­ance this unfair tilt embed­ded in your own ner­vous system.

MB: What do you mean by “tak­ing in the good”?

RH: The brain is like Vel­cro for neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences but Teflon for pos­i­tive experiences.

For most of us, as we go through the day, most of the moments in life are either neu­tral or pos­i­tive. The prob­lem is that neu­tral or pos­i­tive moments get remem­bered with stan­dard mem­o­ry sys­tems, which is to say they’re most­ly in-and-out. But neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences are instant­ly reg­is­tered and intense­ly focused on, based on the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias of the brain. Then they get stored in what’s called “implic­it memory”—not so much mem­o­ry for events, like what I did on my sum­mer vaca­tion, but rather the feel­ing of being alive. And that implic­it mem­o­ry bank gets shad­ed in a dark­er and dark­er way by the slow­ly accu­mu­lat­ing residue of neg­a­tive experiences.

To coun­ter­act that, we need to active­ly build up pos­i­tive implic­it mem­o­ries to bal­ance this unfair accu­mu­la­tion of neg­a­tive implic­it mem­o­ries. And the way to do that is three steps for sure with an option­al fourth step.

The first step is to turn pos­i­tive events into pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences. All kinds of good things hap­pen in our dai­ly life that we hard­ly notice at all, and if we do, we don’t feel it. Some­one pays us a com­pli­ment, we hard­ly pay atten­tion to it, or we deflect it. So instead of thatm you turn pos­i­tive events into pos­i­tive experiences.

Sec­ond, real­ly savor it. In oth­er words, the way to remem­ber some­thing is to make it intense, felt in the body, and last­ing. That’s how we give those neu­rons lots and lots time to fire togeth­er so they start wiring togeth­er. So rather than notic­ing it and feel­ing good for a cou­ple of sec­onds, stay with it. Rel­ish it, enjoy it, for 10, 20, or 30 sec­onds, so it real­ly starts devel­op­ing neur­al structure.

The third step is to sense and intend that this pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence is sink­ing into you and becom­ing a part of you. In oth­er words, it’s becom­ing woven into the fab­ric of your brain and yourself.

For bonus points, if you’re so inclined, it’s often very pow­er­ful to take a cur­rent pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence and have it kind of go down inside to an old place of pain. Do not do this if you have a trau­ma his­to­ry and you get flood­ed if you think about old pain. The method is to have the old painful mate­r­i­al be in the back­ground of aware­ness while the cur­rent pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence that is its anti­dote is promi­nent and strong in a fore­ground of aware­ness, and hold both those things in mind for 10 or 20 or 30 sec­onds straight. If you can’t do that, don’t wor­ry about this fourth step. But if you can do that, wow, this fourth step is real­ly pow­er­ful. Hon­est­ly over many years, it’s how I filled my own hole in the heart.

MB: Your book is filled with prac­tices that peo­ple can try to boost their feel­ings of love and hap­pi­ness and equa­nim­i­ty. Do you use any of these prac­tices on a reg­u­lar basis?

RH: Oh yeah. My wife wish­es I used more, but anyway.

MB: Can you iden­ti­fy one and per­haps describe the effect that you’ve seen it have on your mind and brain?

RH: Yeah, I’ll men­tion two, actually.

One is the impor­tance of focus­ing on pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences, because of the neg­a­tiv­i­ty bias of the brain, and also because pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence has so many ben­e­fits. It’s so good for the immune sys­tem. It’s so good for con­cen­tra­tion. Pos­i­tive emo­tion­al states help steady the mind for a com­plex rea­son involv­ing dopamine. So in dai­ly life, I look for pos­i­tive emo­tion and I real­ly try to allow it to be there and to kind of sink into it, to wel­come it.

Sec­ond, I’ve real­ly come to appre­ci­ate how extreme­ly sen­si­tive we are to threat. If you think about it, in life there are two big mis­takes you can make: You can either think there is a tiger there when there is not. Or you can think there is no tiger, but there real­ly is one. Of those two mis­takes, which one do most peo­ple make most the time? It’s the first one. We think there’s a tiger there when there real­ly is no tiger. Or it’s a baby tiger, or it’s a paper tiger, or it’s a tiger in chains. And we go through life feel­ing threat­ened all the time.

So I’ve become very alert to need­less threat. I don’t want to make the sec­ond mistake—in oth­er words, I want to see clear­ly and be dis­cern­ing about what is tru­ly a threat over there. But I don’t want to be bam­boo­zled or mis­guid­ed either by my own men­tal process­es or by exter­nal mes­sages into think­ing that there’s a threat there when there real­ly isn’t one.

And relat­ed to that, I’ve also become much more thought­ful about not being threat­en­ing to oth­er peo­ple need­less­ly. I don’t mean walk­ing on egg shells, avoid­ing telling the truth when it’s appro­pri­ate and use­ful and all the rest of that. But what I do mean is being thought­ful about how I give peo­ple an alarm sig­nal some­times when I don’t real­ly mean to.

MB: Let me come back to anoth­er very con­crete aspect of your book, and that’s some­thing that you call “the two darts of suf­fer­ing.” Can you talk a lit­tle bit about what those two darts are and whether they’re tied to our ner­vous sys­tem in any way?

RH: Sure. Well, the metaphor is the Bud­dha. He said that things hap­pen in life that are painful and dif­fi­cult. At a phys­i­cal lev­el, we’re all exposed to aging and dis­ease and death, and because we’re intense­ly social ani­mals who love, we’re also exposed to sor­row when peo­ple we love die or are threat­ened or are in pain. Those are the first darts of life; you can’t escape them.

Then the Bud­dha point­ed out that we com­pound the pain through self-inflict­ed wounds, in oth­er words, that we throw “sec­ond darts” at our­selves. For exam­ple, we get upset that we’re in pain or some­body says some­thing cru­el to us, which is a first dart, and it pierces us and hurts, but then we brood over it for the rest of the day, inflict­ing all kinds of sec­ond darts upon ourselves.

When a first dart lands, it’s real­ly impor­tant to try to auto­mat­i­cal­ly start acti­vat­ing the parasym­pa­thet­ic wing of the ner­vous sys­tem, because first darts trig­ger the stress response—the “fight or flight” wing of the ner­vous sys­tem. So as much as you can, start try­ing to get auto­mat­ic around tak­ing deep breaths, calm­ing your­self down, imag­in­ing that you’re safe, or as safe as pos­si­ble, bring­ing to mind oth­er resources, remind­ing your­self you’ve got­ten through these sit­u­a­tions in the past, call­ing to mind pos­i­tive emo­tions that are the anti­dote to what­ev­er has hap­pened right then and there—whatever works for you.

It’s decep­tive­ly sim­ple, but if one takes in the good a hand­ful of times every­day, relat­ed to real­ly small things, that’s going to make a per­ma­nent change in your ner­vous sys­tem, prob­a­bly in a mat­ter of days.

–  Michael Bergeisen is the host of “The Greater Good Pod­cast.” The Greater Good Mag­a­zine, based at UC-Berke­ley, is a quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

Relat­ed articles:
Enhance Hap­pi­ness and Health by Cul­ti­vat­ing Grat­i­tude: Inter­view with Robert Emmons
The Ten Habits of High­ly Effec­tive Brains


  1. rock hard abs on October 9, 2010 at 6:10

    I agree with this post. We should focus on pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences because it real­ly help us a lot. Think­ing of neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences will only drain our ener­gy and our hopes to strive on some­thing more.

  2. shane doyle on October 15, 2010 at 10:16

    Excel­lent, i am going to try and succeed!

  3. David Dickinson on October 28, 2010 at 3:58

    Great arti­cle. Cog­ni­tive aware­ness tech­niques are much bet­ter than block­ing stress and anx­i­ety with psy­chotrop­ic drugs, in my view. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we have a long ways to go before this is accept­ed by the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty in Canada.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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