Can You Rewire Your Brain For Happiness?

Can You Rewire Your Brain For Happiness?

Think not lightly of good, saying “It will not come to me.”

Drop by drop is the water pot filled.

Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little,

Fills oneself with good.

— Dhammapada 9,122

As you may know, our brain changes all the time, regardless of whether we are aware of it. How does it change? Through our experiences and the lasting traits they leave in our brain.  What influence can we have on this? Through our awareness: what we pay attention to, what we dwell on, what we rest our mind on… is the primary shaper of our brain. So the good news is this: we can actually rewire our brain! The bad news is: through our evolution as a species, we have built a negativity bias, so negative experiences and information have a five times more chance to have a durable impact than the positive ones. Luckily for us, there is an antidote: nurturing the good in us – meaning not only multiplying the positive experiences but actually converting them into actual learning for our brains. This is what neuropsychologist Rick Hanson calls “taking in the good” and “hardwiring happiness”, i.e. rewiring the brain for happiness.

How do we do this? Building on Rick Hanson’s work, the latest developments in neuroscience and in mindfulness practices, as well as what the roller coaster of life is teaching me over and over, here is the process that I have been applying to my own life (and also started sharing in my weekly meditation class).

The first step in cultivating the good is to be aware of it in my daily life, making sure that I am noticing those small instances where the good is / creating those experiences when needed, and being grateful for them. In that process, I am also identifying what is deeply nurturing me (a walk outside to connect with nature, a poem, more rest and sleep, reaching out to spiritual sisters and brothers, meditating on a daily basis, connecting with my spirit guides, and dancing…).

Then, I am revisiting those experiences over and over (so journaling if needed, developing a daily gratitude practice, etc.), personalizing them, repeating them, so that they become an anchor that I can go back to, even when I am in the middle of a crisis (hence the daily practices and rituals that I like so much!). Repetition is part of how our brain learns and how we can change our neuro-structure.

Then, I make sure that I am pausing and letting the good sink into me with the intention of “filling my pot” (this is where gratitude and intention come back into play). In a recent training with Rick Hanson, he insisted on this step so that any positive experience can be converted into actual learning, and I can see why. I want my brain to have registered how the good feels, looks, sounds, etc., and be able to get back to that feeling on demand.

A very personal addition to this intention – that I am learning to be better at – is to ask (the Universe, Spirits…) for support, requesting the knowledge (or information) and energies to serve my positive presence in the World. In other words, I am asking Spirits to help me be myself and be the good that I want in my life.

Now, how does that help when I am having a negative (or unpleasant, or worse…) experience that is really pushing all my buttons at once? As for everybody else, the roller coaster that life can be gives me many opportunities to practice and feel those things on a very experiential level. The most recent experience had to do with a dear member of my blood family. It was in a way all the more hurtful because it was re-awakening very old and deep wounds and traumas. So, this was a very concrete and direct opportunity to experience how I could re-shape my brain, so to speak.

First step: Pausing and acknowledging what is with compassion – My own personal experience as well as my experience with clients (both as a healer and a mentor) have taught me that pretending to ignore the negative and jumping into replacing it with the positive does not always work. Because of our brain’s negativity bias, it is way more easily impressed by the bad than the good. So, being with what is, I allow myself to breathe deeply again (have you noticed that we often tend to stop breathing when something in us is hurting?), to recognize and acknowledge with compassion what might be hurting. The research shows that by the simple act of pausing and observing what is happening, we calm down the alarm system and we activate different parts of the brain.

Then I get back to at least one major good experience in me and to the feeling of it and I let it sink in. I go back to how it feels to be deeply supported by spirits, connected with nature, loved by my friends… my brain has stocked images, sensations, words… that I have deeply felt and can get back to.

And what if my mind keeps playing the same disc over and over again? I disengage:

–       Recognizing what is not mine to hold (in other words, not taking everything so personally)

–       Letting go of the judgments about what’s happening inwardly (and the frustration that may go with it: “oh no, I am not back there again!!!”)

–       Looking at it as another opportunity to learn and grow (as I am always trying new tools and new tactics), as well as be more compassionate with others (as I know what it is to start over and over again!)

–       Looking at the novelty in each episode (as the truth is that it is actually never the same).

All of this means that I am letting my brain know that it can also register this as a positive experience, even when I cannot see it yet. If my mind insists on the alert mode, I thank her very much for trying to protect me but let her know that now is time to change the story…

For more guidelines on that dimension, see my posts on Moving Beyond Setbacks and How To Re-Write Your Story.

 … And I go back to the positive feeling (i.e. the positive impact in my brain of positive experiences). Some days, my water pot gets filled drop by drop, some days it is overflowing. But no matter what, it is never empty and that’s what keeps me going.

 And what about you? How are you taking in the good? As usual, I will be happy to hear what you think and what you have experienced for yourself. So don’t hesitate to leave your comments below…

 

Béatrice | Contemporary Shamanic Healer
allowingthelight@gmail.com

 

Many thanks to Rick Hanson for his inspiration and Pam Sanders for her editing… 

 

Béatrice Pouligny
Allowing The Light
October 2013

4 Comments

  1. Luci October 25, 2013 at 1:13 am - Reply

    Beatrice, this is lovely.
    An inspiring read. And thanks for your honesty and openness with your experiences so that we can all benefit.

    • Beatrice1 October 25, 2013 at 1:36 am - Reply

      Thanks Luci. Glad that you got inspired and… it actually also works! Be well, B.

  2. Sandra Melone October 27, 2013 at 10:36 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Beautiful Beatrice, for the richness of your experience and for sharing such useful methods and tools to help us all. Much appreciated. Breeeeeeathe.

    • Beatrice1 October 28, 2013 at 9:56 pm - Reply

      Thank you Sandra! Sometimes I wish I would not have that many experience based learning but… I must say that seeing experience validated by the latest neurological research is really exciting! Let’s rewire our brains for our greatest happiness and… to make the World a better place for all! Breathing… B.

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