Lastly, in terms of our need for connection, the more that people can have a sense of inclusion or a sense of being seen, or appreciated, or liked or loved; the more that people can cultivate the traits of being compassionate, kind, and loving themselves, the more that they’re going to be able to stay in a responsive mode of the brain, even if they deal with issues in this connection system like being rejected or devalued or left out by somebody else.
Do people differ in the sort of mode that they tend to be in, reactive or responsive, based on their personal history or personality?
The short answer, I’m sure, is yes. There’s a general finding in psychology that, on average, about a third of our personal characteristics are innate, and roughly two-thirds are acquired one way or another. And so, it’s true, I think, that some people are just by tendency more reactive, more sensitive, fiery. They come out of the box that way. On the other hand, anybody can gradually develop themselves over time through repeatedly internalizing positive experiences and also learning from negative ones. There’s been research on the development of resilience, as well as many anecdotal tales of people who were very reactive because they grew up in a reactive environment—a lot of poverty or chaos in their home or within the family—but then over time, become increasingly sturdy and even-keeled as they navigate the storms of life.
You said in the book that regular exercise can be a factor; can you explain how that helps?
It’s interesting, and I’m someone that doesn’t like exercise. Research shows that exercise is a very good physical health factor obviously, but it also confers mental health benefits. For example, regular exercise is roughly as powerful on average for mild depression as medication is, studies show.
People who are depressed, mildly to moderately depressed, are still having positive experiences, but they’re not changing from them; they’re not learning from them. One of the theories about why exercise seems to have such a powerful effect on depression in terms of lifting the mood, is that exercise promotes the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved with learning—both learning from specific life experiences, as well as learning how to put things into context, see things in the bigger picture. It’s possible that as exercise promotes the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, people become more able to cope with life and make use of positive experiences.
Taking in the good seemed like something you started to do on your own in college, and then later you found that research supported the practice, is that right?
A lot of people stumble upon something that works for them, and then later on they find out there’s a lot of research that’s related to it. For me, the research that’s relevant is on learning, both cognitive learning and especially emotional learning. How do people grow psychologically? The research on that shows that it’s a two-stage process of activation and installation. Also as a long-time clinician, I began to think about how relatively good we are as clinicians at activating positive mental states, but how bad we generally are at helping people actually install those activated states into neural structure. That was a real wake-up call for me, as a therapist.