Tag Archives: Hardwiring Happiness

Four Steps to Becoming Happier

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By using four simple steps to focus on the moments of joy in your life, you can increase your happiness quotient overall.

You may recall that I was reading the book Hardwiring Happiness, which holds that our brains developed in such a way that they ignore the good in favor of the bad, and that in order for us to hold onto good moments so that they actually become a part of our personal story, we have to do some work and pay attention to them. To that end, lately I’ve been making a point to be conscious of the small moments of joy so that I absorb them. I especially worked toward that awareness this past weekend, which was filled with lovely small experiences, the kind that, unfortunately, are too often easily forgotten.

“It is only possible to live happily ever after on a daily basis.” —Margaret Bonanno

Take Saturday. It was a gorgeous New England fall day, which is admittedly par for the course this time of year. What’s not typical? The early-summer temperature. My boyfriend and I (along with everyone else in the city) took advantage of that aberration and got outside to revel in our luck. The morning had been quite gray, and yesterday (Sunday) was also gray all day and then rainy too, so the gorgeous Saturday afternoon was a beautiful and very limited window of good weather. I tried to soak it in as we walked along the Charles River from Harvard Square, then into Central Square, along Mass Ave., then back to Harvard.

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Weeks Footbridge near Harvard

Here are a few things I savored: The light was absolutely beautiful on the water, and the sky was a Crayola Sky Blue, which was always my favorite color in the box. (This fall, the light has been especially amazing, and we’ve had sunsets that rival those you’ll see from the beach in the Los Angeles area. And that’s saying something.) Along the river, runners paraded past us, many dressed in the ubiquitous neon that’s now the rage. At the boathouse nearest Harvard Square, a girls’ rowing race had just finished; the girls milled about or stood at the food table, their flushed cheeks and happy faces testament to the joy of a hard and rewarding physical effort. In Central Square, my boyfriend got a cappuccino at 1369 Coffeehouse, and I went next door to the vegan cafe Life Alive for a yummy green juice (kale, celery, cucumber, ginger, lemon, wheatgrass). Then at the end of our walk, we got sandwiches at Darwin’s, an awesome sandwich shop that’s also a little market and bakery/coffeehouse. We took our food to sit on a bench in Longfellow Park, next to the statue of Longfellow, for a little impromptu picnic.

All of these moments were so nice, but as I mentioned, they were also small and easy to forget. Yet guarding against that natural tendency to forget is definitely worth the effort: Absorbing these little moments of joy can make you happier, more resilient, and more confident overall. Here are four steps to making that happen.

One

Release your tension.
Breathe in deeply, let your shoulders drop, and allow your body to relax. It’s easier to take in something good if you clear the way to receive it. In and of itself, breathing in slowly and deeply, with an especially long exhale will help you to relax and will help your body be more receptive to good things.

Two

Notice the positive.

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Inside Life Alive, located in Central Square

Bring to mind something positive (gratitude, memories of good times, an accomplishment) or notice the good experience you’re having right now. In my walk example, I noticed the gorgeous fall light, the color of the river, the healthy vibe of all the runners, the deliciousness of my green juice, and my delight at being in Life Alive, with it’s obvious celebration of vegetables, among other things. (I want to emphasize, however, that these steps apply not just to things outside of you, but also to the good things you do. For myself, it’s much easier to notice natural beauty or goodness in others than it is to congratulate myself for a job well done, so I need to work on noticing more about my own good works and accomplishment, but I suspect I’m not alone in that!)

Three

Stay with the positive feelings, and build on them.

Breathe in the experience, turn it over in your mind for five to 10 seconds longer, think about its relevance to your life, notice additional details, and so on. In other words, don’t simply let that moment of joy slip through your consciousness; instead, give it additional roots to make it easier to “plant.”

Four

Concentrate on absorbing the experience.

Imagine that this good experience is filling up your body, making it glow with warmth. See your face suffused with happiness. Know that this good experience is becoming part of you, and that you can call on it as necessary.

Of course, you can’t walk around 24/7 mooning over the beauty of the day, your coworker’s helpfulness, or your amazing multitasking skills, but slowing down often enough to build up your stores of positive experiences can go a long way to making you happier overall.

How about you? What moments of joy have you savored lately?

Related:

The Beauty of Quiet

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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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