According to UC Berkeley-based clinical psychologist Rick Hanson, you can train your brain to experience more happiness on a daily basis through a series of short exercises performed during your workday and downtime.
In his new book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Hanson explains that evolution left humans with a tendency to pay attention to the negative rather than the positive.
Because survival depended upon immediately identifying and quickly reacting to life threats, “the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones.”
Therefore, bad experiences tend stick with us (because they seem IMPORTANT), while good experiences tend to be quickly forgotten. Over time, we thus tend to accumulate a long list of easily-recalled bad experiences, which seem vivid and significant, while we tend to forget good experiences.
For example, Hanson cites studies that good relationships require at least a 5-to-1 ratio of positive interactions to negative ones. In other words, you’ll probably dislike your boss if he doesn’t praise you at least five times more than he criticizes you.
I’d actually go further than that. I’d say some negative interactions completely ruin a relationship, at work or anywhere else. Why, I remember one boss who…
Did you notice what just happened? As I was writing this post, my brain automatically extracted a horror story that still makes me feel angry, even though the event happened nearly 20 years ago!
That horror story immediately came to mind, even though my co-workers and I had some great times back then in spite of that boss. Unfortunately, it’s the bad experience that sticks with me.
In essence, I’ve programmed myself to be upset at the years I “wasted” in that job, rather than be pleased with myself for having an interesting job that involved working with smart people and spending a huge marketing budget.
In other words, my brain (like yours too, probably) has been busy accumulating negative thoughts, experiences, and worries and sticking big red “THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!” flags on them.
Fortunately, while the human brain is prone to negativity, it’s also flexible, which is why you can reprogram it to be happy simply by taking 10 to 30 seconds to focus on how happy you feel when you’re experiencing a small pleasure.
That pleasure might be something like interacting with your children or even just the just the sense of satisfaction that comes from getting work done. You instruct your brain to stick a “THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!” flag on the little things that make you happy.
Over time (and not much time, as it happens), your brain becomes acclimatized to being happy. As Hanson explained in a recent interview in The Atlantic:
“There are certain kinds of key experiences that address key issues. For example, experiences of relaxation, of calming, of feeling protected and strong and resourced, those directly address issues of our safety system. And having internalized again and again a sense of calm, a person is going to be more able to face situations at work or in life in general without getting so rattled by them, without being locked into the reactive mode of the brain.
“In terms of our need for satisfaction, of experiences of gratitude, gladness, accomplishment, feeling successful, feeling that there’s a fullness in your life rather than an emptiness or a scarcity. As people increasingly install those traits, they’re going to be more able to deal with issues such as loss, or being thwarted, or being disappointed.”
The people I’ve known who are the happiest aren’t those who have encountered the fewest difficulties in life (trust fund kids are frequently miserable, for instance), but those who seem to be able to enjoy whatever is going on at the time.
Without really knowing what they’re doing, those people who seem “naturally happy” have actually been programming their brains to be that way.
You and I can do the same, which, IMHO, is something to be really happy about.