Greater Good

Your brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. Therefore, a foundation for happiness is to deliberately weave positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.  – Dr. Rick Hanson

The brain does not know the difference between chilling on the beach and imagining chilling on the beach. It also cannot differentiate between real and perceived peril. Fretting about being late while stuck in traffic stresses the physiology as much as the actual pink slip, eviction notice, or other phantom disaster that rarely materializes.
Why is it that anxiety about indistinct threats consumes us when positive outcomes are just as likely to occur and pleasure is just as easy to achieve?
Surely, a few mesozoic critters kicked back by the water’s edge, munching on berries and belching, “take it easy, man.” It would be nice to think we inherited a few of their relaxed tendencies, but the odds are against it. The Cheech Marins of prehistory likely ended up as dino snacks. The skittish ones, the ones who were a drag a parties because they mistook every passing cloud for a pterodactyl, survived long enough to present us with the Trojan horse of their genetic code. Without them, we would not be here. Neither would our well-honed ability to obsess over worst-case scenarios.
A bias towards danger served our ancestors well. Humans are very good at keeping the attention alert for threats of every flavor. The pace of life on an overcrowded planet gives us plenty to worry about, what with the European debt crisis and the melting ice caps. The mind and body are quite adept at remaining in a state of hyper-vigilance, no matter how high the cost. The cost just happens to be higher than we can afford if we are going to keep on living as long as we do.  Short-term survival has a tendency to trump long-term well-being, as the insomniacs among us understand all too well.
Prepare the body for a fight, and it complies every time. Even if rest or serenity would be better for the system’s overall health, the perceived need to stay alert to danger keeps an overtaxed system awake and awash in glucocorticoids. The human body, as well designed as it is to respond quickly and intensely to threats, did not adapt to rebound quite as swiftly from an overstimulated stress response. Scientific literature and popular media alike have documented ad nauseum the cumulative effects of stress. As you might expect, access to information does not appear to correlate to behavior change.  Hypertension, obesity, depression, memory loss, and bone thinning top a list that grows longer with every new study, providing an unfortunate counterbalance to stories of ever-increasing longevity.
(For more on this, give Robert Sapolsky a whirl. He manages to turn the biology of stress into a kind of free-wheeling science road trip in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)
The good news in all of this is that the brain is resilient, even if our stress responses are not. “Neuroplasticity” has been buzz-word around positive psychology circles for a few years. You can score a few extra points at your next cocktail party if you toss out  “self-directed neuroplasticity” while sipping your gin gimlet. The suggestion is that humans have the capacity to sensitize the brain to positive experiences. We can actually train the brain away from its compulsion to collect negative information. Through the practice of attending to what is going well, so the theory goes, we can begin to re-wire the synaptic framework inside the skull and make the old gray matter a lean, not-so-mean, happiness machine.

What flows through the mind sculpts your brain. Immaterial experience leaves material traces behind. – Dr. Rick Hanson

In a practice Hanson calls “Taking in the Good,” three practical steps can begin weaving a new neural network one thread at a time. This exercise requires just a few moments of focused attention. Once a day, once a week, whatever gets you on the bus. The best practice, so they say, is the one that a person actually does.  During the keynote presentation at a recent conference on resilience, Hanson led 350 attendees through these simple steps. It took less time than the wait at the average stoplight.  This would be a far more productive way to spend those idle, grumbling moments.

  1. Look for positive facts. Notice something that is going well. In the absence of right-now positive detail, calling up pleasant memory is a handy shortcut.
  2. Savor the positive experience. Allow the facts from step 1 to become an experience. Sustain it by keeping the mind trained on it for 10-20-30 seconds. Count out the time, and just stay immersed in the details. Allow the facts or recollection to expand during these seconds. Feel the experience in your body and in your emotions. Try to sense it. If possible, intensify it.
  3. Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body. Register it deeply in your emotional memory.

It is interesting that Hanson refers to this emotional landscape as “memory.” It does seem to function like cognitive recall. As we all learned in Psych 101, items move in and out of short term memory, skimming the surface like dandelion fluff on an easy breeze. All around, all the time, stimuli alight on the senses. Only a small portion of what is sensed actually settles in and lays down a root system within long-term memory.
In order for an item to move down into the deeper storehouse of the brain, a person has to engage with it in some way. The stimulus must connect to a larger collection of experience, and click into alignment with what is already in place. In this way, random bits of information go through a metamorphosis to emerge as knowledge. Have you ever noticed how you can still call up TV jingles for products that have been off the market since before you were old enough to buy them? An item embedded in long-term memory becomes as hard to dislodge as garden weeds.
If a person wants to learn Swahili, she seeks it out. She buys the CDs,  makes friends with Kenyans, and plans a trip to Nairobi with a homestay family.  She immerses herself in the language so that it twists its new threads around and between her known cognitive pathways. In order to call up Swahili phrases when she needs them, she will need to hear them. Through practice and repetition, she can weave loose strands into something thick and strong.  Most of us on the opposite side of the globe might encounter a Bantu construction and not even recognize it as language. We hear beautiful gobbledy-gook. It is the engagement with a bit of drifting data that pulls it down into a person’s foundation. The overlooked items float on away like those feathered seeds. The brain only knows what a person chooses to hold. In this way, it is true that we become what we pay attention to.
It makes intuitive sense to see emotional experience functioning like memory. Life bombards us with experiences of all kinds. The vast majority of what occurs to us and around us does not stay with us. It is only what we attend to, what we really grab onto and get acquainted with, that builds our emotional vocabulary.
This is what it means to self-direct the neuroplasticity. It is as true for learning happiness as it is for learning any foreign tongue. If the brain does not know the difference between a beach vacation and daydreaming about one, why not take one right now? Three simple steps can carry you to the lip of the sea. Attend to the positive facts, savor the experience, and draw that lifting sensation into the brain and body. In this way, the mind learns to speak the language of hope.

If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.
– Chinese Proverb

3 thoughts on “Greater Good”

  1. The brain is a powerful thing. It can transport us to places we only dream about. It can heal a weary soul. It can ease pain. It can give a sense of peace and joy is we tell it to be. yes, I agree with every word in this post. And yes, we all need to think positive, be hopeful, to believe that it’ll be better everyday. Beautiful post. Thanks.

    1. It is funny to think about using the brain to heal the brain. Our best tool is, after all, our only tool. Thank you for your kind words, both here and in your beautiful blog. Reading your posts keeps me looking up!

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