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Q&A with Rick Hanson
Q. What does it mean to “hardwire happiness,” and why is it important?
A. Whether we are happy or sad, loving or angry, or wise or foolish depends on what’s inside the brain. Bringing good
things into your brain is the key to well-being and effectiveness, psychological healing, creativity, and spiritual
So, how do you get good things—such as resilience, self-worth, or love—into your brain? These inner strengths are grown
mainly from positive experiences. Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that
makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s
like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.
This built-in negativity bias makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue. Plus it creates a kind of
bottleneck in the brain that makes it hard to gain any lasting value from our experiences, which is disheartening and
the central weakness in personal development, mindfulness training, and psychotherapy.
To solve this problem, I developed the four HEAL steps of taking in the good: Have a positive experience; Enrich it;
Absorb it; and if you like, Link it to negative thoughts and feelings to soothe and eventually replace them.
Q. Is it really possible to overcome this Stone Age negativity bias? How much time does it take?
A. Your brain is constantly changing its structure based on what you think and feel; scientists call this
“experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” When you take in the good, you take charge of this structure-building process.
Hardwiring happiness is not mere positive thinking, which is usually wasted on the brain. It’s about transforming
fleeting experiences into lasting improvements in your neural net worth. It usually takes less than half a minute. Any
single time you do this won’t change your life. But half a dozen times a day, day after day, you really can gradually
change your brain from the inside out.
Q. What could I get out of doing this?
A. Besides building up specific inner strengths such as determination or feeling cared about, taking in the good has
additional, general benefits. It’s a way to be active rather than passive—a hammer rather than a nail—at a time when
people feel pushed and prodded by events and their reactions to them, a way to build oneself up when the world is
wearing you down. When you take in the good, you treat yourself like you matter, which is especially important if you
haven’t mattered enough to others. And over time, you could sensitize your brain to positive experiences, so it becomes
more efficient at learning from them: making it like Velcro for good.
This is the good that lasts. Many little moments add up to big results over time.
Q. Some researchers believe that there is a happiness set point; do you agree?
A. This was the idea that people tend to return to their baseline after a big positive or negative experience—which was
used sometimes to argue that there is no point in trying to become happier since we’ll just sink back into our old ways.
More recent research has shown that many people do gradually lift their happiness set point over time. But we have to
earn this happiness. We have to do the work . . . which, in terms of taking in the good, is pretty enjoyable!
Q. Is taking in the good just another way to chase after positive experiences?
A. By incorporating these positive experiences into your brain—by building up the sense of being already happy, loved,
and peaceful—you won’t have to seek out those feelings outside yourself. Your well-being will become increasingly
unconditional, less dependent on external conditions like a partner being nice or having a good day at work.
Experiencing that your deep needs are basically met, there’s no basis for the craving and clinging that lead to
suffering and harm for yourself and others.
This practice (both the most pleasurable and the most powerful way to defeat the negativity bias and to build up inner
strengths) brings you home—home to a comfortable intimacy with your own experience, to a confident openness to life, and
to a sense of competence, even mastery, with your own mind.