Hardwiring the Brain for Happiness


Take a second to think about the past week. What stands out to you?

You might find yourself ruminating on the challenging or uncomfortable parts of your week—paying a late bill, having a difficult conversation at work—rather than all the positive moments you’ve had, however small.

If you find it harder to bring up the positive moments of your life than the negative, you’re certainly not alone. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the negativity bias. It’s rooted in our evolution, where our ancestors relied on taking bad news more seriously than good news in order to survive.

Even though our species (for the most part) no longer has to outrun wild animals, our brains are still hardwired to cling to the bad of life instead of the good. But as many of us know, negative thinking comes with a slew of negative health effects. Plus, science shows that the children in our lives can “catch” and be negatively impacted by our stress, worry and anxiety.

According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, however, we can use the science of neuroplasticity to train our brains to “take in the good.” In his 2013 book, Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Hanson illustrates how through changing our frame of mind we can, in turn, reframe our brain. From there, our re-trained brain is primed to take on a more positive state of mind, and reap the physical [1]and mental[2] benefits of positive and present thinking—and, ultimately, Heart-Mind well-being.

It is well understood in neuroscience that neurons that fire together wire together—or, in other words, the areas of our brains that we use the most often become stronger. Knowing this, Dr. Hanson writes that we can take advantage of fleeting, everyday positive moments to combat our innate negativity biases.

In Hardwiring Happiness Dr. Hanson outlines a four-step method (HEAL) to get in the habit of taking in the good:

Have a positive experience. Notice something positive that’s happening to you (say, your colleague invited you for coffee), or create a positive experience for yourself by reminiscing on something that brings your gratitude or joy (for example, recognize a task you’ve completed and are proud of).

Enrich it. Stay with this positive feeling for at least five seconds. Encourage the positive feeling to become intense, recognize how it’s relevant and how it nourishes you.

Absorb it. Let this experience sink into your mind—or as Dr. Hanson writes—“place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart.”

Link the positive experience with something negative. (This step is optional.) Use your current, vivid feeling of positivity to heal old pain. For example, if you’re currently feeling included and liked, you can touch on a past time when you felt lonely.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Hanson offers four easy steps to help children take in the good in their lives:

1.  Give them the tools

Dr. Hanson suggests discussing with children six and older how the brain is like “Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.” Through doing this, they can come to understand that they can act to keep “the bad stuff” out of their brain. For teenagers and children who enjoy being independent, Dr. Hanson suggests explaining the four HEAL steps, and sharing your own experiences with using it.

2. Recognize a happy moment

For example, if your child mentions that they enjoyed sitting with other kids at lunch, spend a moment to reflect with the child on how it felt good to be included. You don’t have to explicitly mention HEAL here—just model the steps of taking in the good.

3. Walk through the steps together

“If we value inner skills,” Dr. Hanson writes, “then we can teach them to children as much as we can ask them to learn the multiplication table.” We can explicitly teach the HEAL steps while putting a child to bed or at the beginning of the school day. Ask the child or children to reflect on something good, enrich that feeling by letting it grow big and strong inside of them, then absorbing it “like putting a jewel in the treasure chest of the heart,” as Dr. Hanson writes.

4. Encourage self-HEAL-ing

Once the child understands HEAL or what it means to “take in the good,” encourage them to practice it on their own, like when kids are nice to them at school, or when they successfully complete a task. At the end of the day, ask the child if they took in the good that day. If they did, ask them how it felt—if not, ask them why they decided not to. 

Various studies have shown that positive thinking training can improve health outcomes for various conditions, from HIV pathogenesis to inflammation.

A 2017 study by Laura G. Kiken, Kristjen B. Lundberg and Barbara L. Fredrickson shows that an individual's mindfulness and ability to "savour the moment" enhances their psychological well-being and life satisfaction.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.