Book Notes: Hardwiring Happiness

DISCLAIMER: This is not meant to be a book summary. Some concepts in the book have been excluded from my notes. While some of the content is pulled directly from the book, much of it is just personal interpretation or personal expansion of the book’s ideas. I highly recommend reading the book.

Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, & Confidence, by Rick Hanson

Two Primary Points:

1)  We have three core needs – safety, satisfaction, & connection.  In order to meet needs or challenges without them becoming stressors, we need to operate in responsive mode:  Responsive mode strengthens your positive neural connectivity; responsive mode is a state of controlled, resting awareness; responsive mode maintains a natural emotional balance.

2)  Remember to “take in the good” – deliberately internalize positive experiences, big and small.  Slow down, pay attention to the details, and intentionally activate memory. Good facts are all around us – we’re breathing, others are happy, food is good.  Be aware of goodness; be open to goodness.

– On average, two-thirds of a person’s strengths are developed over time – you get them by growing them.

– Imagine your mind is like a garden.  You can always calmly observe it.  You can also tend to it anytime – you can pull weeds (decrease the negative) or help flowers grow (increase the positive).

– When you take in positive experiences you are growing new neural circuits in your brain you are hardwiring happiness.

– Keep positive thoughts active so that their underlying neural connections strengthen and so the negative neural activity decreases.

– Neurons that fire together wire together; mental states become neural traits – your mind builds your brain.  This is referred to as experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

– Your experiences don’t just grow new synapses but they also reach into your genes and change how they operate, i.e. if you routinely practice relaxation it will increase the activity of genes that calm down stress reactions.

– If you keep resting your mind on good experiences, good conditions, good feelings, and good qualities & intentions, over time your brain will take a different shape.  Consistent awareness of, and consistent attention focused on, the good will essentially hard-wire resilience, optimism, and joy.

– The best way to develop greater happiness and other inner strengths is to “take in” positive experiences and then help positive mental states become positive neural traits.  This is “taking in the good” which is essentially activating positive responsiveness and installing positive experience in the brain.

– In general, the default setting of the brain is to over-estimate threats, under-estimate opportunities, and under-estimate resources both for coping with threats and for fulfilling opportunities.

– The brain evolved a “negativity bias” resulting from having to deal with harsh settings, essentially to better anticipate and defend against threats.  While those harsh settings are generally non-existent in modern-day life, we still have that negativity bias built in to our brains, i.e the formerly regular pressures of predation, starvation, and violent conflict do not typically affect most of us today yet we are equipped to anticipate and react to these threats.

– Tiger in the bushes example:  2 mistakes to be made – 1) Don’t anticipate a tiger and be killed (lack of preparedness); 2) Anticipate a tiger when it’s not actually there (excessive fear & anxiety).  For the sake of survival, our ancestors opted to make the 2nd mistake countless times in order to never experience the 1st mistake.  This is basically how the negativity bias evolved – it’s essentially why we’re ripe for experiencing so many unnecessary fears & anxieties.

– The best way to compensate for the negativity bias is to first be aware of it and then consciously and regularly “take in the good”.  Ordinary good facts are all around – birds are calling, people are smiling somewhere, peoples’ hearts are beating, we’re still breathing – but we don’t tend to give these simple events much attention.

– In most cases we don’t take the extra few seconds to install these good but seemingly mundane experiences in the brain, but we should!

– The brain developed in three stages that are loosely associated with the reptile, mammal, and human-primate phases of evolution.  As the human brain evolved, so did its capabilities to meet our three core needs – safety, satisfaction, and connection – through three “operating systems” that avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others.

– Stress is generally a matter of perception – it is usually created internally.  External circumstances are generally only stressful relative to your perceptions, especially your perceptions of time constraints, energy demands, and/or relationship obligations.

– Your brain’s operating systems essentially have two settings: responsive and reactive.

– In responsive mode, you meet challenges without them becoming stressors.  Difficult events occur, but there’s a kind of shock absorber in your brain that stops them from rattling you.

Responsive mode: the brain controls thirst, hunger, lust, and other drives and quiets down your sense of pressure and demand; there is less and less basis for aversion, grasping, & clinging; you’re in a state of resting awareness.

– Every time you take in the good and experience your core needs being met, you strengthen the neural substrates of responsive mode.

– “Approach orientation”: focusing more on promoting the good rather than preventing the bad.  This has numerous benefits for physical and mental health, relationships, and success.

– Reactive mode:  the “red zone” when your amygdala sends alarms to your hypothalamus (releasing stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline) and to your sympathetic nervous system (activating hyper-arousal [fight or flight])

– These two modes in which the brain operates – responsive and reactive (green and red) – are the foundation of human nature.  We generally have a choice (in a state of non-emergency) and we can control what mode we’re in.

You can use your mind to change your brain for the better – do this by engaging life from the responsive mode as much as possible, calming your reactive states when they occur, and keep returning to your responsive home base.

– “Positive thinking” and “taking in the good” are different:  positive thinking often involves putting a spin on things or shaping things to suit a preferred mental model (and this can be unrealistic); taking in the good involves being conscious of experiences – it involves letting the inherent good that underlies experience sink into your awareness and it involves intentional memory.

– When you take in the good, you’re not denying or resisting the bad.  You are simply acknowledging, enjoying, and using the good.

– “Taking in the good” (technically defined):  the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory

– Steps (for taking in the good):

1) Have a positive experience (acknowledge or create one)

2) Enrich it

3) Absorb it                 [Optional IMO:  4) Link it]

– Besides the good here in the present, there were good facts in your past and there will be good ones in your future.  Just think of some of the pleasurable, fulfilling, or meaningful times you’ve had or some of your accomplishments, or people in whom you’ve seen light.

– Need instant happiness?  Just think about our wonderful open culture and our easy access to music, ideas, art, entertainment, and wisdom.

– Platinum rule:  treat yourself as you would treat others.  Be a good friend to yourself.

– If you were observing someone just like you, how would you encourage that person?  What good qualities would you emphasize?  Pretend you are observing yourself in this way and reinforce good qualities.

– Take in the sense that you are a fundamentally good person.  At the very least, always remember that you are a fundamentally good person and be happy and proud of that.

– Being happy that others are happy is an innate and powerful inclination of the human heart.  And it gives you endless opportunities to feel good since there is always someone somewhere who is happy about something.

– Be happy that others are happy.  This is essential for experiencing genuine positivity. Completely let go of jealousy or criticism.

Altruistic joy:  happiness about the good fortune of others.

– Visualize how you would act or perform new activities or skills – go beyond seeing yourself doing it and try to FEEL how you would feel if you were successful.

– Good facts are all around, even if life is difficult.  The sun rose today, others are happy, and food smells good.  Good facts persist inside you:   your body keeps going, your mind is full of abilities, and you are a fundamentally good person.

Multimodality:  being aware of as many aspects of the experience as possible (setting, senses, people, objects, etc.)

–  Engaging multimodality really helps enrichment and memory.

– There is integrated sense of balance and well-being as you rest in the responsive mode of your brain.  Responsive mode maintains a natural emotional balance.

– Wisdom can be considered choosing a greater happiness over a lesser one.  Over time, repeatedly internalizing rich experiences of greater happiness will gradually help tilt your brain toward it and away from the lesser happiness (aka instant gratification).

– Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for others to die.  (Not good!)

– Challenge yourself – make it a game – to find the good qualities in someone.  Likewise, play a game with yourself and see if you can imagine how it might feel to be another person, to see the world through his or her eyes.

– Help others take in the good:  be verbal in your own taking in of the good.

– Amazing proverb:  Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

– Recall all the techniques and wisdom you’ve gained so you can calmly & appropriately handle a threat or difficulty.

– Observe yourself as if you’re watching yourself on camera, as if you’re sitting with others watching yourself played back on TV…do you like what you see?  Are you behaving appropriately?  Are you responding rather than reacting?  If you were to watch yourself on video in any given situation, you want to be able comfortably to say, “Yep that’s me.  I was fully aware of what I was doing.  I was consciously calm and kind and I was focusing on handling the situation in a respectable manner.”

– Call up a sense of gratitude and gladness for the larger whole of your life.  Be aware of the many things still going fine in spite of the challenge.

– Imagine you have a crowd of people you love and admire, and not only are they cheering for you but they wholeheartedly believe in your abilities – they think you’re wonderful and support you 100%.  This is great to imagine during any challenge, big or small.

Distress tolerance:  the capacity to stay open, centered, and grounded in responsive mode while having uncomfortable experiences.

– When conditions are tough and you’re not feeling well, this is when responsive mode is needed most.  Remember that activating responsive mode will alleviate stress and make you feel good.  When in distress, say to yourself, “Ok, this is a good opportunity to consciously operate in responsive mode – now is the perfect time to gently implement all I’ve learned.”

– Realize how little (if any) actual threats are present in your life, and realize how many resources are actually available to you.

– As you see threats and resources clearly, feelings of unease and anxiety fall away as you know in your heart that you can deal with things.

– Explore your favorite simple pleasures in depth:  really focus on your appreciation for the experience and don’t over-indulge – the key to this is to SLOW DOWN.

– Allow yourself to sense that you’ve already arrived and can take a deep breath and look back at the ground you’ve already covered.

–  Thoroughly imagine what it would be like to feel already accomplished and potent, and shift into this state.

– Imagine you’ve accomplished what you’ve accomplished and have what you have now as if it was 5 or 10 years ago.  Imagine how proud and excited you’d feel about how you’re doing and what you know and the possessions you currently have if you were 5 or 10 years younger.- Take age and social comparisons out of the picture and you’ll feel MUCH more accomplished and satisfied – and happy.

– Embody gratitude and gladness by smiling – smiling, even when you’re not feeling particularly happy, acts as a de-stresser.

– The sweet spot of life is to pursue your dreams and take care of others with your whole heart while not getting fixated on or stressed out about the results.

– Reveal your enthusiasm to others.  Let your inner inhibitions go about others perceiving you as too vibrant.  One day they will appreciate your enthusiasm.

– Recall a time you belonged to a group, felt understood, or were loved.  Bring to mind one or more people who care about you and who you care about and hold on to the thought of them.

– Consider how you value others but don’t always show it; in the same way, others value you but don’t always show it.

– Understand the difference you make in peoples’ lives – as a consumer, as a producer, as a relative, as a friend, as an acquaintance.  You most certainly impact others.  And if you think you only impact others in a bad way, you are wrong – even if that were the case, indirect “bad” impacts still can still be good, especially in the long run, in the sense that others can learn from you and grow, consciously or not.

– Send out good wishes to all living beings and notice how good it feels.

– Feeling and knowing the good that is in you, there’s no need to act from guilt or shame, or to cling to reassurance from others.