How To Rewire Your Brain For Happiness

Our brains naturally hold on to negative experiences more than positive ones. These 3 strategies will help you learn to focus on the positive.
November 13, 2013

In Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says our brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. That built-in negativity bias helps keep us safe.

This means that we readily notice and internalize anything negative that happens to us during the course of a day, while glossing over anything positive because we're busy solving problems or scanning for something to worry about. For example, as entrepreneurs, we often tend to overestimate the threats and underestimate the opportunities for our businesses.

In business relationships with partners, employees or colleagues, trust is often a delicate fiber that connects us and can easily be broken. As Hanson puts it, "Uncomfortable experiences are immediately fast-tracked into memory stores: Once burned, twice shy ... Strong dislikes are acquired faster than strong likes ... Something bad about a person is better remembered than something good."

Rewiring Our Brain

It pays to become adept at knowing how to reshape our brain so we counteract our default to the negative. In his book, Hanson reveals how to do just that—how to train our brain to hardwire all the positive experiences, to "take in the good" that happens every day in our life. This involves turning a positive event into a positive experience.

We can make this happen if we take 10, 20 or 30 seconds to savor the positive moment. And there are many of them during the course of a day, Hanson says, but we just don't notice them. These brief seconds of paying attention to what has happened and relishing it makes the positive experience sink in so it can develop into a neural structure. The more we do this, the better we become at balancing our hardwired negativity bias with an ability to take in the good.

Drawing on years of research in neuroscience, Hanson shows that to build inner strength into our brain, we need to meet three core needs: safety, satisfaction and connection. Learning which positive experiences can satisfy these core needs every day goes a long way toward helping us cultivate positive emotions and hardwiring contentment and peace so we can focus on a successful life.

The following three tactics, which help fulfill your core needs, can help you concentrate on the positive.

Practice Being Calm

You can boost your sense of safety by regularly focusing on experiences that make you feel calm. Calm is an attitude of composure that lets us function at our best in stressful, harried or charged situations. It's means moving away from a crisis-driven mindset.

We often miss opportunities to practice calmness because we're used to being "on" all the time. For example, calmness isn't rushing from one airport gate to another when there's ample time for making our connecting flight. It's taking a real break from your business during the day to have an uninterrupted meal. It's waking up an hour earlier so you don't have to rush through traffic. It's giving your child an extra 10 minutes' of peaceful attention in the morning. 

Create such moments during your day to experience calmness, and intentionally focus on the experience for a few seconds to relish how it feels. Repeatedly internalizing experiences that bring a sense of calm to your life helps you build that emotional muscle so you're better able to face situations in your business or personal life without feeling pressured or rattled by them.

Raise Your Satisfaction Awareness

When you're feeling satisfied, you're more likely to experience such feelings as gratitude, gladness, accomplishment and contentment. These are powerful antidotes to the negativity bias in our brain. So it's important to become more aware of what satisfaction means for you, and then take the time to savor the experience when it happens.

For instance, it may be closing a sale or completing a project ahead of time. Or it may be as simple as learning something new every day. You need to be clear about whatever it is that brings you satisfaction so you can create more of these opportunities but, more important, so you can savor them when they do happen.

If you need inspiration in this regard, consider how Rich Jones, CEO of Open Watch, a company that builds tech solutions for independent media groups and nonprofits, goes about it. In "Hacker Lifestyle: How I Feel Satisfied With Every Day," Jones offers a simple three-pronged approach that works for him: "Every day," he says, "I simply force myself to do 3 things: Get paid. Get fit. Make something cool." What are the three things that make you feel satisfied as an entrepreneur?

Value The People In Your Life

You can strengthen your sense of feeling connected by regularly focusing on experiences during the day in which you feel cared about or valued. You can also focus on experiences that make you feel like a good person, such as when you feel compassion or when you're doing something kind for others.

Marshall Goldsmith, voted one of North America's top 50 Thinkers in 2011 by the Harvard Business Review, says that when asking older people who are dying what advice they'd have for others, one of the themes that consistently comes up is to focus on friends and family. You may have wonderful business associates now, but when you're 95 years old and you look around your death bed, very few of your business associates or fellow employees will be there waving goodbye. Your friends and family will probably be the only people who care for you and be there for you in the end.

As psychologist William James once said, "The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated." Don't let the daily preoccupations with your business cause you to miss the appreciation you receive from those closest to you.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd. and the author of two books, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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