A Q&A with neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of the book “Hardwiring Happiness.”
Thrive Global: Based on neuroscience, why is it so difficult for us to focus on the good? And so easy for us to dwell on negativity?
Rick Hanson: The brain has evolved a negativity bias. The basic idea is that the brain we have today is the end result of 600 billion years of evolution of the nervous system. During that long run, our ancestors needed to get “carrots” (food) and to avoid “sticks” (predators). If you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll have a chance to get it tomorrow, but if you fail to avoid a stick today — no more carrots forever. In terms of raw survival, negative experiences generally have more urgency and impact. Thus, we have evolved a negativity bias that does five things.
- We routinely scan for bad news in the world, in our relationships and in our own bodies and minds.
- When we find anything that might be alarming, our brain zeros in on it, losing sight of the big picture just to deal with it.
- We overreact to negative stimuli. For example, if you surprise someone with $100, they’re going to be happy, but it’ll probably be a pretty mild, passing experience. If you realize someone has stolen $100 from you, that will land really hard.
- Our brain fast tracks a negative experience into emotional memory. For example, a negative interaction in a relationship has a much larger impact than many positive interactions. That’s one reason why we need to have many more positive interactions with the people we’re close with, including at work, to have a strong relationship with them.
- Negative experiences sensitize the brain to future negative experiences, strengthening our negativity bias over time. Our brain is Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.
TG: Why is it important for our well-being to maintain a sense of wonder at work and in life?
RH: First, wonder and awe draw us into gratitude. By experiencing nature, they broaden our perspective. Neurologically, wonder and awe tend to move our gaze out toward the horizon line, and as we do that, we have more of a natural sense of being a part of everything and a reduced sense of self-centered preoccupations. The positive emotions that ripple out from wonder and awe have many well-researched beneficial effects, including buffering us against stress, protecting our cardiovascular system against trauma and strengthening our immune system. In general, happiness has been shown to add months and sometimes years to a person’s life.
Additionally, wonder and awe increase neuroplasticity. Neurotrophic factors, which heighten the formation of new neural structures, are heightened in their activity through playfulness, which comes with that childlike sense of wonder and awe. Cultivating wonder and awe steepens our personal learning curve, which is useful for businesses. One of the absolute best things that differentiates winners from losers in the marketplace is how leaders contribute to steepening the growth curve of the people they work with. Cultivating a sense of wonder and awe can do that.
TG: What are some ways to rewire our brain for happiness?
RH: 1) Six or more times a day, slow down and take in the good. Enjoy your cat crawling in your lap, the comfort of a shower, a cup of coffee, getting something done at work. When you’re having that kind of beneficial experience, do three things inside your mind that are known to increase the registration of an experience as a lasting change in the nervous system.
First, stay with the experience for a breath or two. There’s a famous saying in neuroscience: neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that the longer we keep those neurons firing together, the more they’re going to tend to wire together. Second, try to feel the experience in your body. Wonder or awe can be merely conceptual, and that’s good, but it has even greater impact when you feel them in your body. Third, focus on what’s rewarding about it. Doing so increases dopamine and norepinephrine activity in the hippocampus — the front end of most learning and growth that flags our experiences as keepers for long-term storage.
2) Know what you’re trying to grow in yourself. Focus on one to three key strengths you’re trying to develop. It could be patience, self-worth or a greater sense of “not my problem,” if you’re someone who feels responsible for everyone else’s problems.
3) Reset to green several times a day. In other words, when we feel like one or more of our three fundamental needs — safety, satisfaction and connection — is not being met, we get stressed. Most people go through their day having many little moments in which they don’t feel safe enough, satisfied enough or connected enough. To some extent, that’s natural and it’s important to deal with real challenges, but most of the time, we can afford to feel safer, more contented and more loved than we routinely feel. Therefore, there are opportunities every day to register a sufficient sense of safety, satisfaction and connection, so the brain can default to green zone, in which you feel a fundamental sense of peace, contentment and love.