Contemplative man.

Rewiring the brain for happiness

The human brain evolved over aeons to help us survive.

Our ancestors had to constantly scan the environment for very real physical threats. If they heard a rustling in the bushes they were much more likely to survive if they assumed it might be a sabre-toothed tiger until proven otherwise, than if they assumed it was a bunny rabbit and kept gazing at the pretty sunset.

This got hardwired into their brains, and even into their DNA. And this negativity bias has been passed down the generations to us, since having this negativity bias meant they were much more likely to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes.

This is why we have an innate negativity bias. Researchers estimate that we notice and remember on average seven times as many unpleasant/negative things as pleasant/positive ones. Psychologist Rick Hanson sums this up when he says that the human brain is “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

The smart ancestor did make the effort, however, to pay attention to what was actually there so that threats could be responded to on their merits and we didn’t have to keep running from the phantoms of our own imagination. So mindfulness and the ability to distinguish between imagination and reality also got hardwired in as a survival requirement. Using mindfulness, the conditioned negativity bias, like all mental habits, can be retrained. Our experience-dependent neuroplasticity means that we have ‘use-it-or-lose it’ brains. So what we practise gets hardwired in, and what we stop practising gets hardwired out.

Relating to ourselves compassionately is one way of reprogramming ourselves. The more we do it, the stronger the tend-and-befriend circuits get. And meanwhile, the fight/flight circuits (mainly the amygdala) get weaker.

There are other ways we can cultivate positive mind states as well, and we will explore these now.

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When unmindful we often stop tasting our food, noticing the scenery, hearing the birds or appreciating our partner - in short, we take life for granted and miss what it is offering. With mindfulness we do start to notice these things more but we can positively cultivate our ability to notice and enjoy life as it unfolds.

Savouring refers to increasing the intensity and duration of positive experiences and emotions. This can be done via both thoughts and actions that focus our attention on the positive experience. Put more simply, it refers to noticing and ‘hanging out’ with positive experiences. This can be done by anticipating pleasant experiences, engaging our full attention with them while they are happening, and reminiscing afterward. Mindfulness helps amplify this effect by being able to keep our attention on the pleasant sensations.

We can savour a pleasant meal, taking time to anticipate eating, really enjoying the flavours, smells and textures while we are eating, and enjoying the aftertaste. Sadly, we often rush on to the next thing instead. But we can practise savouring just by having the intention to do so. Perhaps take time to savour your next meal, and notice the effect this has.

And savouring isn’t just restricted to eating. We can savour any positive experience. For example, next time you do something enjoyable, take a moment to savour the positive feelings in the body. The trick is to use mindfulness to fully feel the positive sensations, amplifying the experience of them.

Psychologist Rick Hanson says that if we hang out with positive experiences like this for 10 seconds or more, the experience gets transferred from short-term to long-term memory, meaning we can more easily recall it later. It gets hardwired into our brains. This rewiring means that we then spontaneously notice more pleasant things in our everyday life. And then if we savour these, these get hardwired in – and the effects become exponential.

Practising savouring

Here are some ways you could practise savouring over the next week:

  • Intentionally savour your meals (anticipating, fully experiencing and then enjoying the aftertaste)
  • Notice pleasant sensations throughout the day and hang out with these
  • Seek out pleasant things to enhance this
  • Pause whenever you finish a task and savour the sense of completion/mastery (especially small things like paying bills and sending emails, which we normally don’t notice in our tendency to rush onto the next thing).

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Gratitude refers to a sense of thankfulness and appreciation for something pleasant that we have experienced (or hope to experience). There is growing evidence that practising gratitude has benefits for wellbeing and functioning, because it orients our attention to positive things and therefore helps reprogram the negativity bias.

A common gratitude practice is to keep a Gratitude Journal. For example, at the end of each day over the next week you may like to reflect on the day and write down three things that you were grateful for. They can be major or minor things – the important thing is that you stop and reflect on them, rather than just taking them for granted and continuing to focus on negative things at a ratio of 7 to 1.

To really enhance gratitude, it again helps to hang out with the experience in the body. This is something that a lot of the gratitude research fails to appreciate. For instance, you may like to take a moment right now to reflect on your day so far. What is one thing that went well or was pleasant, that you feel grateful for? If nothing comes to mind, perhaps recognise some suffering that you aren’t experiencing right now, such as chronic pain or the death of a loved one, and be grateful for that.

Focus your attention on what you are grateful for and feel the pleasant sensations in your body. Focus your attention on these sensations and hang out with them for 10 seconds (or more if you like). Notice how pleasant this is.

You may like to do this throughout the day, any time you experience something pleasant. If you choose to do this, notice the effect it has on your day (mood, motivation, etc.). Also, when you get into bed at night, if you reflect on your day, you will recall much more easily the pleasant things that happened. And you can then take some time to savour this (i.e. the experience of having had a good day).

Even if something you could otherwise view as negative occurred today, in what way could that be viewed with gratitude? For example, can you learn something from it? Did it challenge you to bring out some aspect of yourself that you value? Did it show you some aspect of yourself that you need to be aware of and work on?

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As the name suggests, this simply refers to noticing and savouring things that we like about ourselves. Many of us have a natural resistance to doing this, but it can be very helpful to do so. It is like self-compassion for pleasant experiences, and is a natural extension of savouring and gratitude.

Perhaps take a moment now to bring to mind three things that you like about yourself: qualities you have, or things that you have done well. Imagine what your best friend might say about you. Feel the pleasant sensations in your body and savour these. Perhaps be grateful that you have these qualities or have had these experiences.

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Lovingkindness refers to an attitude of goodwill - genuinely wishing for others and ourselves to be happy. Many of us experience it spontaneously in our most loving relationships, even if just with our pets or with little children. And it is also something that we can cultivate through repeated practice. A powerful way to do this is through what mindfulness practitioners often like to call ‘lovingkindness’ meditation.

When we observe things within ourselves or around us that we don’t like we tend to get emotionally reactive to them. Unfortunately these negative and oftentimes angry reactions tend to reinforce the neural circuits that generated them in the first place. The tendency to fixate attention on things we perceive as negative at the expense of noticing other things is what psychologists like to call ‘negativity bias’. Therefore lovingkindness meditation is a powerful way to reprogram the brain’s in-built reactivity and negativity bias. It is sometimes called ‘metta’ meditation but many people refer to it as ‘sending kind thoughts’, which is what it actually involves.

Lovingkindness meditation has a number of positive effects. It results in positive emotions, such as love, joy, contentment, hope and awe. This in turn prompts oxytocin release (as with self-compassion and any practice that evokes positive states of mind) and results in increased personal resources such as mindfulness, purpose, social support and life satisfaction). It also results in reduced negative emotions such as depression, as well as decreased illness symptoms.

In some ways, lovingkindness meditation is different to the mindfulness practices we have been exploring so far. Whereas mindfulness is about getting more in touch with things they way they are, lovingkindness meditation is about deliberately cultivating a positive state of mind. Sometimes people find it a bit of a strange practice, especially if they are not used to making positive wishes or relating to themselves and others in that way.

But lovingkindness is actually an inherent quality of mindfulness. When we are really present with ourselves and others, free from default mode reactivity and judgements, we spontaneously experience lovingkindness.

You may have also realised throughout the course so far that self-compassion is likewise inherently part of mindfulness too. When we pay attention to how we relate to ourselves and others - particularly when we are suffering - we notice the cost of self-criticism (the pain of the ‘second arrow’) and naturally start becoming kinder to ourselves.

So with lovingkindness meditation all we are really doing is taking this a step further. We can deliberately cultivate lovingkindness through meditation practice, and this gets hardwired in. It increasingly becomes our default setting, and we start relating to the world in kinder, gentler ways. And because our mind settles down when we do this, our mindfulness automatically deepens. So in a way, we could say that mindfulness and positive attitudes like self-compassion and lovingkindness are two sides of the same coin.

If you are interested in experiencing this, you may like to play the lovingkindness meditation.

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This article is from the free online course:

Maintaining a Mindful Life

Monash University