Research in neuroscience tells us that our brains are flexible and can be physically changed by our thoughts--particularly emotionally charged ones. This is known as neural-plasticity and refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses resulting from changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, and can even include changes due to bodily injury. Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, and others in the field of neuroscience explore how changing our thinking changes the physical makeup of the brain.
Every experience, thought, feeling, and physical sensation ignites thousands of neurons in our brain. Neuroscientists have confirmed that the longer something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons fire in the brain. This forms what is known as a neural network and when you repeat an experience over and over, the brain learns to fire the same neurons each time.
Dr. Hanson invites us to consciously use this relationship we have with the brain to grow the good in our lives. His motto is, “It’s good to grow the good.” By consciously engaging in more positive thoughts and experiences and purposefully becoming aware of and savoring these experiences, we can replace our habitual negativity bias in the brain.
Thanks to recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience and positive psychology, we’re learning that we not only contribute to creating our own reality by how and what we think in the moment of our experience--through our attitude and intention--but the changes in our physiology as a result of thinking a particular way influences how we experience our next moment. As Dr. Hanson says, "You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind."
Of course, we can do this to any outcome we desire--positive, negative, harmful, helpful. But, since virtually everyone I know wants happiness (remember, that was defined in the last post as a combination of feeling good, having positive emotional states on a regular basis, and having meaning in our lives) we can undertake the intention and practice of thinking positively, taking positive actions, and participating in positive activities.
Growing happiness is in our hands!
Further, as we experience pleasant events, we can deepen our mindfulness of the moment and savor the good. This not only makes the pleasant situation seem to last longer, it embeds the experience more fully into our brains contributing to the rewiring.
Loving kindness practice also plays a role in creating more positive states of being. Loving kindness practice is a simple exercise of silently repeating phrases of well wishing for ourselves and others. (To download a free guided version of this practice, subscribe to Mindful Intentions.)
In a 2008 study, researcher Barbara Fredrickson and her team used loving kindness meditation to test a hypothesis that positive daily experiences compounded over time create a variety of benefits, including increased positive emotions, increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support and reduced illness symptoms. The research confirmed these benefits and, moreover, that a loving kindness practice in itself leads to increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.*
So, it does seem possible to grow our happiness and what a relief to know that we have so much influence to create this for ourselves, rather than relying so much on our external circumstances! Growing happiness is in our hands. This is empowering!
In the next post we'll explore how to grow our happiness. In the meantime, I'm curious--what makes you feel good? What brings a smile to your face? As a challenge, can you commit to participate in at least two activities this next week that you know bring you good feelings? And as you do, pay particular attention when you are engaged in a positive activity. Pause and tune into your body to see where you are feeling the pleasantness. Bring a mindful curiosity to your experience and then place your focus on those sensations and savor them for as long as you can. What do you notice in the moment? What do you notice at the end of the week?
I'd love to hear what you discover--post it here and share in the discovery.
*Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0013262
JoAnn Saccato, MA is a mindfulness teacher, author, life coach, educator, and consultant in Northern California. She is author of Companioning the Sacred Journey and the forthcoming Mindful and Intentional Living: A Path to Peace, Clarity and Freedom