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10 ways to hardwire your brain for happiness

Rick Hanson’s new book ensures your positive experiences aren’t wasted.

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Happy Woman Sleeping in bed alone

Happiness: yours for the taking with a handful of mental techniques. (Photo by Getty Images)

“Positive thinking is very superficial,” says Rick Hanson, PhD. In his new book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, the neuropsychologist says we need to be “taking in the good.” But how? Read on to find out.

1. Take in the good
Dr. Hanson defines ‘taking in the good’ as “the deliberate internationalization of positive experiences in implicit memory.” In other words, being proactive about making positive experiences an inherent part of our memory. He’s created four steps of taking in the good, which are easy to remember with the helpful acronym, HEAL.

Have a positive experience.
Enrich it.
Absorb it.
Link positive and negative material.

2. Change your thoughts for the better
Hanson notes that our thoughts include “factual knowledge, ideas, beliefs, expectations, viewpoints, insights, images, and memories.” He says it’s important to take in thoughts that are true and beneficial to us and forget the thoughts that are untrue and damaging. “These good thoughts include seeing yourself, others, the past, and the future more accurately; understanding how your actions lead to different results; and putting things in perspective,” he writes. To change our thoughts for the better, we have to recognize that there are some things we cannot change.

3. Experience with all of your senses
“The more that you feel it in your body, the more that it has an emotional quality to it, even the more that you kind of move your body in a way that’s appropriate to the experience, the better,” notes Hanson. The richer the experience, the better.

4. Liking without wanting
Our brains tend to always be on the search for something new to want, but Hanson says that wanting results in a good experience becoming lost. Instead, we should be liking. The neuropsychologist associates ‘liking’ with “enjoying, appreciating and relishing,” whereas ‘wanting’ would include characteristics like drivenness, insistence, compulsion, pressure and craving. He says it’s important to have a good experience but not hold onto it, “You’re no longer flowing with the experience and are instead standing apart from it trying to freeze and possess it,” he writes. To make sure you’re liking without wanting, Hanson says to notice something good in an experience, and try to encourage it to last organically without trying to hold onto it.

5. Create positive experiences
It may sound daunting, but creating positive experiences doesn’t have to be. Hanson says a positive experience can be as simple as finishing a load of dishes or something more elaborate like a job promotion. He points out that when you’re creating a positive experience, everything is coming from fact: “You’re not making anything up. You’re seeing what’s true, what’s objective reality.” One way Hanson recommends turning thoughts about a good fact into a good feeling is treating ourselves as we would treat others. Imagining a good fact is part of a friend’s positive qualities can help us appreciate our own qualities. It wouldn’t be fair to deny our friend these qualities, so why would it be fair to prevent ourselves from having them too?

6. Savour your positive experiences
Hanson says when you have a positive experience to take 10 to 20 seconds to savour that moment. “The longer you hold something in your awareness, the more it can sink into your neural structure,” he says.

7. Move from states to traits
The amount of time you stay with a positive moment will help to change your brain and move that positive experience from a state (a fleeting moment) to a trait (a longstanding characteristic).

8. Why does this matter to me?
One of the five major factors Hanson says helps to turn “fleeting mental events to lasting neural structure” is personal relevance. By looking at how an experience would relate to you, the neuropsychologist says you’re “placing the experience in the context of your life.” If you think you’re feeding your ego, Hanson says think again. “[You’re] giving yourself an experience that matters just as you’d offer it to a friend who could use it.”

9. Make an intention of remembering
To really change your neural structure and how your brain receives positive experiences, Hanson says to make an intention of remembering the experience, not the event. “Taking half a dozen opportunities in a day, roughly; and less than half a minute at a time to let your good experiences actually land and come into you, and receive them and enjoy them, so increasingly you turn them into neural structure,” he says.

10. Link the positive and the negative
Reworking our brains so we don’t dwell on the negative, which we have a tendency to do, requires us to link explicit recollections and implicit memories to positive matter. One method Hanson offers is overwriting.

Overwriting explained: If something is bothering you to the point where you can’t let it go (like an argument with a friend), Hanson says be aware of both your anxiety and your feeling of being cared about by that person or someone else. He suggests sticking with both feelings for at least 15 seconds and then letting go of the anxiety while holding onto the positive feeling. If you’re still feeling worried, continue to practise holding onto the positive feelings and letting go of the negative ones. “Keep making the positive feelings stronger than the negatives ones while being aware of both of them at once,” Hanson says.

Try it out: Throughout the day take 10 to 20 seconds after a positive experience to let it really sink in your brain. As Hanson says: “Have it, enjoy it.”

For more on how to get happier in 2014 click here