Hardwire yourself for lasting happiness

Human brains are like Velcro when it comes to negative experiences, but Teflon when it comes to the good.

The negativity bias kept our ancestors alive in tough conditions but, in modern times, it is a relic of the Stone Age and can make us more prone to depression and anxiety. This is one of New York Times bestselling author and psychologist Dr Rick Hanson’s key talking points. Earlier this year I had the good fortune to meet Rick, who returns to New Zealand in January 2016.

We hosted Rick, pictured right, at the Mental Health Foundation for an afternoon tea Q and A session, which he graciously made time for among his busy teaching schedule. Everyone who attended found immense value in what Rick had to say.

Positive neuroplasticity training – rewiring our brains so that positivity is the default, not the exception

To combat the tendency to focus on the negative, Rick has developed positive neuroplasticity training (PNT). PNT uses the latest developments in neuroscience and psychology to help us learn to savour positive experiences. By learning skills to develop a more positive frame of mind, we can rewire our brain making positivity the default, not the exception.

Among other things, I remember Rick saying that in his view there are really only three ways to engage the mind:

  1. Be with it – observe the mind, experience the experience, feel the feelings, without trying to change anything. Hopefully we can do this with an attitude of curiosity and kindness toward ourselves. By being present with our experience, it may change… but we are not directly making efforts to change it.
  2. Decrease the negative – Here is where we make efforts in the mind to relax tension from the body, and release emotions like sadness or anger, let go of disturbing thoughts, and abandon problematic desires (e.g., wanting to get hammered or yell at the kids).
  3. Increase the positive – this is when we make efforts in the mind to take skillful actions, eg, sitting up straighter to be assertive, calling the doctor for an overdue check-up etc, to encourage feelings like gratitude and compassion (which develops useful perspectives and other thoughts) and to strengthen and commit to beneficial desires, such as exercising or not interrupting one’s partner.

This links nicely with the work of Mindful Aotearoa, which I will save for another day. But, for now, back to Rick.

Step 1: Be With It

Being with our mind is the first step in mindfulness practice.There is nothing weird or unusual about mindfulness. It is simply the work of noticing what the mind is up to and accepting that for what it is, eg, we may notice that we are feeling vulnerable in a certain situation. When we are mindful we train our ability to accept that feeling of vulnerability for what it is instead of denying it, wishing that it was different, or beating ourselves up for feeling that way.

The fact of the matter is that, in that moment, we are feeling a particular way. When we truly notice and accept the reality of the situation for what it is, we give ourselves a working edge for responding to the situation. We may respond by simply continuing to be with the feeling of vulnerability with kind-hearted attention This is a powerful and courageous act. By allowing the feeling of vulnerability to simply be there in our awareness we may find that it starts to shift and change of its own accord since all experience by nature is transient.  Or we may decide to be a little more active in our efforts – this is the second way to engage the mind that Rick describes. Either way, we make a choice. The power of mindfulness to notice and accept what is occurring without resistance, means we can make a conscious choice. Without mindfulness we really don’t have much option but to react out of habit.

Step 2: Decrease the negative

The next step, releasing tension associated with unpleasant experiences (what Rick describes as ”decreasing the negative”) can be greatly enhanced through a little bit of guidance from a suitably qualified mindfulness teacher. When we practice mindfulness we begin with the body – learning to notice that our body is a barometer for what is happening in the mind. We come to understand how emotion is felt in the body. When we learn how to work effectively through the body we can calm the physical tensions associated with different emotional states.

Step 3: Increase the positive

The third way to engage the mind (what Rick describes as “increasing the positive”) involves identifying what qualities are worth cultivating, such as gratitude and compassion, and which are not (hatred and self-judgement for instance) and then using strategies that help build these positive states of being. Again, it can be beneficial to work with someone who has many years’ experience doing exactly that.

Want to learn more? Sign up for international expert Dr Rick Hanson’s 2016 workshops

Mindful Aotearoa is delighted to be hosting Rick Hanson for two workshops in January 2016:

A proportion of ticket sales will be donated to the Mental Health Foundation. Early bird rates for the workshops are available until 15 November, so get in quick!

If you’re in Auckland, you’re also more than welcome to borrow his best-selling books from the Mental Health Foundation’s library.

By Grant Rix, Operations Manager, Mindful Aotearoa