How to Build a Happier Brain

A neuropsychological approach to happiness, by meeting core needs (safety, satisfaction, and connection) and training neurons to overcome a negativity bias
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(perpetualplum/flickr)

There is a motif, in fiction and in life, of people having wonderful things happen to them, but still ending up unhappy. We can adapt to anything, it seems—you can get your dream job, marry a wonderful human, finally get 1 million dollars or Twitter followers—eventually we acclimate and find new things to complain about.

If you want to look at it on a micro level, take an average day. You go to work; make some money; eat some food; interact with friends, family or co-workers; go home; and watch some TV. Nothing particularly bad happens, but you still can’t shake a feeling of stress, or worry, or inadequacy, or loneliness.

According to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, a member of U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center's advisory board, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives. True, life can be hard, and legitimately terrible sometimes. Hanson’s book (a sort of self-help manual grounded in research on learning and brain structure) doesn’t suggest that we avoid dwelling on negative experiences altogether—that would be impossible. Instead, he advocates training our brains to appreciate positive experiences when we do have them, by taking the time to focus on them and install them in the brain.

I spoke with Hanson about this practice, which he calls “taking in the good,” and how evolution optimized our brains for survival, but not necessarily happiness.

“Taking in the good” is the central idea of your book. Can you explain what that is as a practice and how it works in the brain?

The simple idea is that we we all want to have good things inside ourselves: happiness, resilience, love, confidence, and so forth. The question is, how do we actually grow those, in terms of the brain? It’s really important to have positive experiences of these things that we want to grow, and then really help them sink in, because if we don’t help them sink in, they don’t become neural structure very effectively. So what my book’s about is taking the extra 10, 20, 30 seconds to enable everyday experiences to convert to neural structure so that increasingly, you have these strengths with you wherever you go.

Do you want to explain how that actually works in terms of brain structure? What is the connection between having this good experience and making tangible changes in the brain?

There’s a classic saying: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." What that means is that repeated patterns of mental activity build neural structure. This process occurs through a lot of different mechanisms, including sensitizing existing synapses and building new synapses, as well as bringing more blood to busy regions. The problem is that the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences. We learn immediately from pain—you know, “once burned, twice shy.” Unfortunately, the brain is relatively poor at turning positive experiences into emotional learning neural structure.

On page one of the intro you said: “Positive thinking … is usually wasted on the brain.” Can you explain how positive thinking is different from taking in the good?

That’s a central, central question. First, positive thinking by definition is conceptual and generally verbal. And most conceptual or verbal material doesn’t have a lot of impact on how we actually feel or function over the course of the day. I know a lot of people who have this kind of positive, look on the bright side yappity yap, but deep down they’re very frightened, angry, sad, disappointed, hurt, or lonely. It hasn’t sunk in. Think of all the people who tell you why the world is a good place, but they’re still jerks.

I think positive thinking’s helpful, but in my view, it’s not so much as positive thinking as clear thinking. I think it’s important to be able to see the whole picture, the whole mosaic of reality. Both the tiles that are negative, as well as the tiles that are neutral and positive. Unfortunately, we have brains that are incentivized toward seeing the negative tiles, so if anything, deliberately looking for the positive tiles just kind of levels the playing field. But deep down, I’m a little leery of the term positive thinking because I think it could imply that we’re overlooking the negative, and I think it’s important to face the negative.

The second reason why I think most positive thinking is wasted on the brain goes to this fundamental distinction between activation and installation. When people are having positive thinking or even most positive experiences, the person is not taking the extra 10, 20 seconds to heighten the installation into neural structure. So it’s not just positive thinking that’s wasted on the brain; it’s most positive experiences that are wasted on the brain.

Why did our brains evolve to focus on the negative?

As our ancestors evolved, they needed to pass on their genes. And day-to-day threats like predators or natural hazards had more urgency and impact for survival. On the other hand, positive experiences like food, shelter, or mating opportunities, those are good, but if you fail to have one of those good experiences today, as an animal, you would have a chance at one tomorrow. But if that animal or early human failed to avoid that predator today, they could literally die as a result.

That’s why the brain today has what scientists call a negativity bias. I describe it as like Velcro for the bad, Teflon for the good. For example, negative information about someone is more memorable than positive information, which is why negative ads dominate politics. In relationships, studies show that a good, strong relationship needs at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.

Positive experiences use standard memory systems: moving from short-term buffers to long-term storage. But to move from a short-term buffer to long-term storage, an experience needs to be held in that short-term buffer long enough for it to transfer to long-term storage—but how often do we actually do that? We might be having one passing, normal, everyday positive experience after another: getting something done, look outside and flowers are blooming, children are laughing, chocolate tastes great, but these experiences are not transferring to storage or leading to any lasting value.

(mape_s/flickr

When you’re trying to avoid these threats, that’s what you call, in the book, “reactive mode” for the brain. But even though we’re wired to dwell on negative things, you still say the default state is still the relaxed or “responsive mode,” right?

Let’s take the example of zebras, borrowing from Robert Sapolsky’s great book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Zebras in the wild spend most of their time in a state of relative well-being. Sometimes they’re hungry, but often they’re in a fairly relaxed place; they’re eating grass, they’re with each other in the herd. They’re in the responsive mode of the brain, what I call the green zone. Then all of a sudden, a bunch of lions attack. All the zebras go into to the reactive mode, they have this burst of fight-or-flight stress, they go into the red zone, and then this episode of stress, as Sapolsky writes, ends quickly one way or another. And then they go back to the responsive mode.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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