Courting Happiness by Savoring the Good Moments

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Making a point to spend some time “downloading” all the good things that happen to you—great or small—can help you become happier overall, improve your resilience, and boost the likelihood that you will follow your dreams.

When something good happens to you, do you take a few moments to enjoy it, or do you simply go on with your day? If you want to court happiness, you should make a point to practice the former, according to Hardwiring Happiness, by Rick Hanson.

Hanson says that from an evolutionary standpoint the brain’s default mode is to scan for the bad and hold onto it and let the good things go as if they never happened:

Unless it’s intense or novel, most good news has little or no lasting effect on implicit memory systems in the brain. This happens for three reasons. First, we tend to look past the good news because we’re busy solving problems or scanning for something to worry about. Ordinary good facts are all around—birds are calling, people are smiling, hearts are still beating—and we don’t give them much attention. Second, when we do recognize a good fact, it often fails to become a good experience. We finish a task—good fact—and then shift to the next one with little sense of accomplishment. Someone offers a compliment, and it’s brushed aside…Third, even if you do notice a good fact and even if it does become a good experience, it probably does not get converted into neural structure, stored in implicit memory….In effect, you have to keep resting your mind on a positive experience for it to shape your brain.

There are physiological and evolutionary reasons why our brains developed with a bias to notice the bad, but the primary function of that development was protection. To help our ancestors survive, the brain developed its “negativity bias” so humans could stay hyperalert to danger and keep safe from very real predators and dangers by “overlearning” from bad experiences, according to Hanson. But in our modern world, with the constant overload of information, technology, everyday stressors, and so on, there are major ramifications for not working to override that natural tendency. Modern life is rife with provocations to feel stressed, and thus, for your amygdala to send out alarm signals to your hypothalamus and your sympathetic nervous systems, which then triggers calls for stress hormones, which triggers your hippocampus to stamp this negative event in your memory. Over time these reactions can shrink your hippocampus, which has a number of consequences that make stress easier to produce and perspective harder to find. In English?

You know those days when you love the whole world, everyone is nice to you, and the things that usually bother you barely even register? Those are the days when you are in responsive mode; you have what Hanson calls “green brain.” In this mode you more easily meet challenges without becoming disturbed by them. You’ve probably also had the opposite experience: Days when everything gets to you, people seem rude and inconsiderate, you handle minor incidents with inappropriate emotional responses, and so on. This reactive mode, which Hanson has dubbed “red brain,” has big costs. He writes: “It sucks up resources that could have been used for pleasure and ease, and for personal healing and growth. It makes us hunker down, muzzle self-expression, and dream smaller dreams.”

It’s the “dream smaller dreams” that really drives the point home, I think. Those words just sound so incredibly sad. When you’re in that reactive, red brain mode, you’re trying to protect yourself, narrow your world, not risk the vulnerability of putting yourself out there.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson details the physiology behind our emotional states and what we can do to create brains that are more often in the “green” zone, thus strengthening our self-esteem, confidence, and, of course, happiness. But the foundational activity to court good things is simply this: Pay attention to them. In order to boost your brain’s stickiness for positive experiences, revel in good things both large and small, present, past, and future.

So when the Starbucks barista is extra nice to you, when your partner surprises you with a treat, when you have a good workout session, when you grab a few moments to read, when the crackling fire reminds you of loved ones, let your mind rest on these positive details.

Life is rarely about big events. Instead, it’s primarily composed of small moments woven together into the fabric that symbolizes your life. Be sure you take time to slow down, be present, breathe, and weave those good moments into your fabric so they aren’t dropped to the floor as if they never existed.

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15 Comments

Filed under Health/Wellness, Writing/Books

15 responses to “Courting Happiness by Savoring the Good Moments

  1. This is so interesting. I was literally just thinking about this yesterday — why it is that I have several pretty good things going on but I only think of the bad. I will definitely be checking out Hardwiring Happiness to see if I can shift more into the green zone. (The photo of the rower is amazing, too… so peaceful!)

    • Thank you on the photo comment, Julia! The Charles was particularly beautiful last weekend. Definitely check it out. It gets technical, but I also think that’s so helpful. And since you have a MEH, I’m sure you’re science-savvy anyway.

  2. I absolutely adore this post! I love it when someone uses science to explain emotion. This makes perfect sense to me. Years of depression have proved to me that it’s true the more we feel something the easier it becomes to keep feeling it. Basically the “sad” grooves in our neural pathways become more deeply worn, making it harder to climb out of them. So of course using the “happy” pathways more often would wear those grooves deeper as well, making it easier to slip back into them. It seems so obvious to me now, but I had never thought of it in these terms before. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Thank you, Annie! I’m so glad it spoke to you. Just before the part I excerpted he talks about depression. Summary: (physiologically speaking) easy to get, hard to rid (b/c you need more positives to offset the negative). I definitely recommend the book. Obviously, this post is a *very* simplified version of what he covers.

  3. Run, Karla, Run

    This is a great post and it’s a great remind to practice “green braining” it throughout the day. You’re right, it’s so easy to dwell on the negative. But the positive can be so uplifting. When I was a kid and my sister and I got into a fight (usually over something really silly), my mom would make us each say 10 nice things to/about the other. It was instantly healing. Cheers to green brains!

  4. I agree with this thoughtful post so much . . . I have so much to say that I don’t even know where to start . . . so I started by pinning the quote so more people can find their way here.

    • Ah, Nina, thank you and I definitely agree smaller treats. I read a tweet today where the author was bundling up and treating herself to wandering through indie bookstores. Love that.

      I look forward to your essay.

  5. I’m in the middle of an essay for Brain, Child about the power of a “day cation” here and there rather than waiting for a vacation. It’s exactly in line with what you’re talking about. I advocate finding something special in each week–or even each day if possible. Some people put off small joys thinking they’ll be some big payoff if it’s all done at once. There’s no need to live that way.

  6. Hallie Sawyer

    Whoa. I was just contemplating why I seem to have so many more negative memories than good ones. This explains it! It is as if my bad moments are yelling while my good moments are barely whispering. I need to change that so thanks for this thought-provoking post. I have lots to ponder!

  7. Pingback: Four Steps to Becoming Happier | Books+Body

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