Dr. Rick Hanson on Hardwiring Happiness


We recently shared our two-part podcast interview (episode 64 & 65) with best-selling author and psychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson. We discovered Dr. Hanson through his most recent book titled, Hardwiring Happiness, which is a New York Times Bestseller about “the hidden power of everyday positive experiences to change your brain–and therefore your life–for the better”.

After reading his book from cover to cover, we were very impressed with the way Dr. Hanson explained the human brain as a complex system, specifically how he addressed the brain’s two different settings or modes, which ultimately determine how we deal with everyday experiences. He described these two settings as the reactive mode and the responsive mode. The reactive mode is a brain setting that evolved to keep us alive. It is our alarming system that serves us in the short term, but is not at all concerned with our long-term needs, including our growth, fulfillment or happiness. This brain setting is very different from the responsive mode, which is far more beneficial to our growth and ultimately our happiness because it allows us to refuel and repair. Dr. Hanson called the responsive mode “the green zone” where we feel safe, satisfied and connected. It is our “home base” where we contain and calm our reactive states as they occur.

After reading about the reactive and responsive mindsets in Hardwiring Happiness, we discovered a fascinating connection. We understood the reactive mode to be a brain state which emphasizes reductive thinking, while the responsive mode emphasizes complexity thinking or holistic thinking. Meaning that when we are in the reactive mode, we think reductively, our perceptual world narrows, and we tend to lock on to one problem that is causing us pain and fixate on it. We also view the world with fear, focusing on scarcity and exclusion. While, on the contrary, when we are in the responsive mode our core being remains in a state of positive well being, so even if our mind is experiencing pain or upset, our perceptual field broadens and we are much more likely to perceive and act in complex ways. We tend to view the world feeling protected and connected and we focus on abundance, inclusion and interconnection.

Dr Hanson Complexity Quote.jpg

Complexity thinking is our responsive mode. It is where we discover our ultimate human potential. Unfortunately, our brain’s built-in negativity bias defaults many of us into the reactive mode, making it our “new normal”. Many of the messages we receive in modern day society, especially in the Western world, are communicated with reactionary language. We talk almost obsessively about scarcity, danger and fear. We shift gears constantly, we are bombarded with mild to moderate stressors daily, and we provide ourselves little or no time for responsive recovery. 

It is becoming more and more challenging to pull ourselves out of this default reactionary mindset, but it is also more important than ever before that we try. Thankfully, Dr. Hanson says “the brain is the most influential organ in the body” and we can use self-directed neuroplasticity to build resiliency. We can influence our brain with daily meditative practice where we purposefully “take in” the good in our lives. By regularly taking in the good, we are able to draw ourselves out of reactive episodes, while also building responsive capacities in our brain.

But what does it mean to "take in the good"?

Dr. Hanson says taking in the good is "the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory", and we can achieve this through four simple steps, which spell the acronym HEAL:

  1. Have a positive experience.
  2. Enrich it.
  3. Absorb it.
  4. Link positive and negative material.

He claims that we can use these steps to "HEAL" ourselves by letting good experiences soak into our being. He does not advocate for denying or resisting the bad in our lives, because the truth is what sets us free and the truth includes everything, the good and the bad. The HEAL method works to build resiliency by slowly chipping away at our built-in negativity bias. It hardwires positive thoughts and feelings in our brain so they become positive neural traits.

As we build resiliency into our neural structure, we are able to maintain an inner sense of peace, contentment and love that is less likely to be jarred by external forces. Eventually, with enough practice, we can rest in the happiness which emerges from within our being. We just have to come back home to our responsive mode, where we thrive in abundance, inclusion and interconnection. 

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Be sure to check out our recent interview with Dr. Rick Hanson

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