Did you know the last time you sat in an orange-steel chair at the Union, soaking in the vibrant energy of the crowd, and relishing an ice-cold beer from a plastic cup, you had the opportunity to absorb that grand, summer experience more deeply into your mind in a way that would give you a lasting happiness boost? Same goes for the Saturday morning stroll around the Farmer’s Market; or a picnic evening at APT in Spring Green, with a glass of wine and chicken-salad sandwich; or even sitting on a butt-flattening bleacher watching your kid play baseball.
Allowing ourselves to settle into feelings of contentment, satisfaction, even joy, is not necessarily something that comes naturally. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, points out our brains are wired, evolutionarily, with what researchers have termed, a negativity bias. We are primed to learn quickly from bad experiences, but not so much from the good ones, since what we learned from scanning our environment for dangers kept us safe and allowed us to survive.
The Power of the Negativity Bias
This negativity bias also affects the structure-building processes of our brain; we know what flows through our minds changes our brains. Uncomfortable experiences are quickly stored in our memories because we might need to recall this situation in the future. For example, if you made a fool out of yourself singing Karaoke, you are less likely to try singing in front of a group of people again in the future. Maybe a presentation to your boss went badly; you’ll likely hold on to that memory as you work to improve future presentations. Consequently, it doesn’t take many negative, painful experiences before we lose our confidence, and instead, anxiety and fear around speaking up in public – whether it is singing, or a presentation at work – becomes what our minds remember and connect to the experiences.
Positive Experiences: Like Water Through a Sieve
Positive experiences, on the other hand, do not hold the same level of influence in our minds. While satisfying experiences are important, this information is deemed less critical to our survival. These calming, ordinary, events are stored in a different part of our memory system where they have less impact on our neural structure. In fact, they tend to simply wash over us, failing to make a lasting impression.
Good experiences, however, are crucial to our well-being; feelings like contentment, safety, satisfaction, and optimism help restore the balance in our nervous system, helping calm the fight-or-flight response which negative experiences fuel.
Absorbing Happiness: Three, Easy Steps
The good news is we can allow ourselves to absorb happy experiences in a way that permits our minds to recognize, appreciate, and ultimately incline our minds towards joy. The key, according to Rick Hanson, is to rest your mind, deliberately, on a positive experience, so it can settle in and take shape in your brain. Here, adapted slightly, are Rick Hanson’s steps to re-wire your brain for greater contentment and joy:
Take a moment to notice you are having a good experience. The awareness of this fact helps bring it into focus for your mind. So often we rush past the fact there is a cool breeze coming off the lake (and that we like this), or fail to appreciate the glorious piles of colorful vegetables on a market table. We often equate a positive experience with something extraordinary, when most of our opportunities for a positive experience come from a series of small, lovely moments throughout our day.
Two: ENRICH IT.
Stay with the positive experience for five, ten, thirty seconds, or longer. Open up to the feelings of the experience and your sense of it in your body. A big, deep breath is a way to stay with your awareness of the fact you are having a good time. I like to place my hand over my heart and feel my heart beat for a moment or two; in this way I make a deeper heart-connection with this happy moment. Notice. Does your heart feel warm and happy? Are you smiling?
Three: ABSORB IT.
Play with the idea the experience is sinking into you; visualize it as a color swirling and settling into you. Know the experience has become a part of you; a resource to take with you wherever you go.
Will you choose to let happiness land for you?
What moments will have you stopping to NOTICE?
What will you do to ENRICH the moment for yourself?
How will you choose to ABSORB the moment?