neuroplasticity, and how we can begin to train our brains to be more focused on good things
(happiness, calm, contentment). This blog article is going to be about my experience with the book, and offer a small overview of some of the concepts discussed in the book.
I wanted to start off by saying, that I personally LOVED this book. At times, the book
gets a bit neuroscience-y and technical, but Dr. Hanson does a good job of explaining some of these technical things in a way that is clear and understandable. Personally, I get a bit nerdy about brain science and think it is important to have an understanding of the why behind things, so this chapter was one of my favorites in the book.
The book is divided into two parts: Why and How. In the “Why” section, Dr. Hanson
explores some of the brain science, as noted above, and uses this to discuss the human brain’s general negativity bias. The book explores how evolution helped to shape this bias – hunter-gatherers had to be on high alert and prepared to defend themselves and their camp. It was literally life or death for them in many situations! But, in the present day, there are so many fewer instances that are life and death for us. Despite this, our brain is still set to expect the bad – and to remember it when it happens.
Dr. Hanson explores how this relates to anxiety, too, and I think this is an important point to emphasize. It is important to remember that anxiety is normal. We all have anxiety, and it is expected as part of the human experience. Anxiety is protective – it is there to keep us safe and to scan for danger in our environments. Of course, anxiety can become problematic when it becomes excessive and when it keeps us from being able to do things and live our lives to the fullest. This is when it goes from normal anxiety to an anxiety disorder – and when it may be time to seek professional help. To illustrate this connection between anxiety and negativity bias, here is an analogy from the book Hardwiring Happiness:
“Our ancestors could make two kinds of mistakes: (1) thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, and (2) thinking where was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.”
Dr. Hanson refers to this as the “paper tiger paranoia” and uses this analogy as a way to explain why our brains’ default setting is to overestimate threats. The book then continues into the neuroscience backing for some of the concepts that he explains more. In sum, he talks about the brain in three parts:
1. The Reptilian Brain – the oldest part of the brain (think lizards), focused primarily on
survival and basic functioning (i.e., breathing).
2. The Mammalian Brain – aka the mouse brain; is the center of emotion, motivation, and bonding.
3. New Brain – aka the monkey brain; this is the newest part of the brain and contains
structures such as the prefrontal cortex, and enables abstract reasoning, reflecting on the past and future, and social abilities such as empathy, language, and cooperation. (side note: this is the last part of our brains to develop, which helps explain some of the impulsivity associated with adolescents!).
From there, three operating systems are defined and linked to the brain’s biological structure: the avoiding harms system, approaching rewards system, and attaching to another system (in order). Dr. Hanson then spends time exploring each of these in depth to close out part 1 of the book.
In Part 2, “How” Dr. Hanson starts to explore how you can intentionally practice ways to
change your brain away from its negativity bias. The key word here is practice – as this isn’t something that happens overnight or after one time of doing it. Neuroplasticity is the term used for this phenomenon – and basically, this refers to the brain's way of being able to rewire itself. Our brain is a muscle, and the areas of it that get used more get stronger, and are then more likely to become the default. Because of this, we can train our brains to start to be more positive, and to remember the good things instead of only bad things. Dr. Hanson uses the acronym HEAL to
explain this process, which consists of 4 steps:
1. Have a positive experience
2. Enrich it
3. Absorb it
4. Link positive and negative material (this is an optional step)
He explains each of these steps in detail and offers different ways to accomplish these steps. He also incorporates exercises throughout his chapters that readers are encouraged to try out while learning the steps. At the end of the book, Dr. Hanson includes guides for practices related to certain ‘good’ qualities – such as refuge, feeling cared about, love, safety, and contentment.
In general, the process of hardwiring happiness involves noticing your positive
experiences and sitting with them for at least a dozen or so seconds. The catch is this – you are not trying to hold onto the positive experience and stop time from passing, but rather, just noticing the good feeling in as many ways as possible (i.e., using all 5 senses) and just being present and taking it in. There is a bit more detail to this, of course, but this is the basic concept!
In summary, this book is an excellent book about the brain, neuropsychology, and some
self-help strategies we can use to help ourselves feel more content and confident in our daily
lives. It’s a book that I would recommend to anybody – and, it’s not too long of a book, which is nice! Excluding the index and bibliography, it’s 220 pages long – but seems to go quick as you read it!
Kaci Crook is a Mental Health Student Intern at Cypress Wellness Center. She works with individuals and couples. In her work, she incorporates Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Narrative Therapy, and Mindfulness. To request an appointment, click here.