How to Rewire Your Brain to Be Happy | Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D. | The Science of Happiness
Table of Contents
Happiness. It is a big word. Hold on, that is an understatement. It is huge. No, still not there yet.
It is MASSIVE.
How many magazines, blog articles, books, podcast interviews, workshops, etc., come out every single day to talk about this subject?
An endless number of them.
Therefore, I want to thank you, sincerely, for deciding to check out this one. Here at The IPS Project, we care about true change. And the guest we’ve invited on this podcast cares even more significantly about it. Our guest is Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a psychologist with over 30 years of experience on the topics of well-being and happiness.
Dr. Hanson is a leading expert on positive neuroplasticity. He is a New York Times bestselling author, having written six books on the topics of well-being and happiness. His latest book is NeuroDharma.
He has a popular podcast, Being Well Podcast, which he hosts together with his son, Forrest Hanson. He has been invited to speak at NASA, Oxford University, Stanford University, and Google, among others.
All said, there is true love, passion, and dedication in Dr. Rick Hanson’s work on these topics. But also, this guy knows a thing or two about well-being and happiness.
One way or another, most of us seek happiness and try to obtain it in life. Some succeed. Yet, instead of being happy, many seem to get stuck, like a dog trying to chase its tail in an endless loop but never seeming to find it.
Before you jump into the podcast interview, or if you’ve already listened to it and are here to check out the show notes, let us expound for a minute on neuroplasticity and a saying Dr. Rick Hanson emphasizes in one of his talks: You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.
Because the truth to be unravelled, the secret of many struggles for happiness, lies very much in the mind.
Let us start by looking first at neuroplasticity and what it is.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity or neural plasticity, is a discovery in neuroscience or neurobiology that shows that the brain is plastic.
Neuroscience or neurobiology is the scientific study of the nervous system.
And thanks to the arrival of functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI machines, a whole new world and way of studying the brain has opened in recent years.
Scientists once thought that the development of the brain only occurred during childhood and that this stopped, became “fixed” and hard-wired in adulthood—but this has proven not to be the case.
Over the past 20 years, scientists have discovered that neural pathways, which are the connections that enable signals to be sent from one region of the nervous system to another (basically, the highways in our brain), change over time.
This implies that the brain is dynamic and that our brain architecture can change.
To start unraveling the truth – “the secret” – to how neuroplasticity can lead to this lasting happiness many people seek.
Scientists have shown that, with sufficient training, we can also rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts, and reactions.
This means that we can create new neural pathways and VOLUNTARILY hardwire our brain to experience positive emotions like contentment, compassion, gratitude, and joy more often instead of negative emotions like anxiety, fear, and anger.
This truly is the “secret” to experiencing positive emotions, well-being, and a life with this higher level of happiness that so many of us seek.
You must rewire your brain to be happy.
And this is where these words from Dr. Hanson come in: “You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.” Which is also the last part of the revealing truth to the “secret” of happiness.
How you use your mind changes your brain—for better or for worse.
If you regularly allow your mind to rest upon worries, self-criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take the shape and develop the neural structures and dynamics of anxiety, low sense of self-worth, and prickly reactivity to others.
On the other hand, if you regularly allow your mind to notice that you’re all right, to see the good in yourself, and to let go, then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self-confidence, and inner peace.
As your brain changes, your mind changes; and as your mind changes, your brain changes.
Now, here is something FUNDAMENTAL to take note: Understanding, as remarkable as it might be, is also downright pointless if no action follows it.
And this is exactly where most people go wrong.
Neuron’s That Fire Together , Wire Together
The brain does not change by merely knowing the theory. You also need to work out your brain through practice, not occasionally but consistently, to build and strengthen these neural pathways.
A favorite saying of neuroscientists is “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
This means that active synapses—the connections between neurons—get more sensitive and stronger the more they are used.
It’s exactly how you would build more musical capability or a better physique: you go to the gym regularly and train, right?
Not merely once a month but daily, not just to gain changes first and see your muscles and fitness increase but also to maintain this.
Much of Dr. Rick Hanson’s work, such as his books Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha’s Brain, dive in-depth into practical ways to rewire your brain to be happy using recent neuroscience and proven methods of practice.
This article cannot go to the extent a full book can. Therefore, if this topic on how to rewire your brain to be happy sparks your interest, do check out those books as they will be a huge help and support you in making this happen.
What are the practices you need to build and the pathways you need to train and maintain to attain well-being and find happiness in your brain? Also, how do you not just start doing them, but also keep doing them daily?
Are you ready to find out what these practices are? You’re likely to have heard of them before.
Some excellent practices include self-love, gratitude, meditation, and yoga.
Disappointed to see these same old practices you have likely read about so many times before?
Sure, I get that.
And that is the problem with chasing happiness.
The truth is, just as there are no new secrets to working out that will make your muscles appear—even though the magazines always make it sound like there is—there are also no new practices for well-being and happiness.
Everything is already out there. It just comes down to doing it.
- Also, one of our online courses at The IPS Academy was created together with certified stress educator and yoga teacher Maria Zayani. It is about stress management and would be a great source as it teaches in-depth practices to regulate your mental health and well-being through breathing, mindfulness, yoga, and meditation.
- And of course, another one of Dr. Rick Hanson’s books, “Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time,” is an excellent source for practices too. The book offers simple things you can do routinely that will support and increase your sense of security and worth, resilience, effectiveness, well-being, insight, and inner peace.
How to Create a New Habit and Make it Stick
The key now in carrying out these practices is to keep things simple. If a practice is a hassle, most people are not going to do it, nor will they stick with it. Before you take on the 10kg weights, start first with 1kg and slowly build up.
We have this tendency to overcomplicate things in our lives. Often, less leads to more. Therefore, have a look at these sources that cover mindfulness practices more thoroughly, and then simply pick one—such as meditation, for example—and devote your time, focus, and energy solely on that practice.
Now, there are many techniques that can help you to change your habits and make them stick.
And while I certainly could list several here that have worked for me and a bunch of others that have worked for other people, they might not end up doing it for you. This is exactly what a recent two-year study conducted by ClearerThinking found.
In the study, they asked 500 people to use one of 23 common habit-building techniques to discover which one works best for most people.
What they found was that the best technique is “Habit Reflection”.
Habit formation is a different process for everyone. Habit Reflection is where you look at the lessons from your past and think back on your own experiences, then isolate the tactics that have worked best for you in forming a habit in the past.
The reason why this is such an effective technique compared to other habit-forming techniques is that it customizes itself to your personal history and experiences on how you managed to build a habit in your past.
- Pick a past situation where you were able to successfully change your long-term behavior or create a new habit—for example, going to the gym regularly, changing your sleep routine, budgeting or money usage, etc.
- Write down anything you learned from this past situation about how to successfully form new habits or any tactics you used to help make this change that could apply to your new habit. For example, you went to the gym with someone. You listed and hung in your room the benefits of sleeping at a regular time daily. You rewarded yourself for saving money by doing something fun every month.
- Once you have thought about what has worked for you in the past, create a brief written plan for applying those lessons to your new habit.
A tip from the researchers:
Motivation Matters. In the research, they found that people tend to succeed in their habit goals much more if they felt motivated to pursue it. While this might sound obvious, it is important to not merely choose a mindfulness exercise—meditation, for example—that others have recommend but you feel unexcited about doing yourself.
Luckily, there are multiple practices and exercises you can do to help you create these new pathways in your brain for better well-being, a higher level of happiness, and contentment in your life. You can find these in the sources provided earlier.
Now, on the website of ClearerThinking, they have also developed a habit-creation tool that you can use to help you find out which technique works best for you and put together a custom habit-formation strategy. It is easy to use and completely free!
Happiness is not something unreachable. You can rewire your brain to be happy. If you truly apply what you’ve learned here in this article, from the books of Dr. Rick Hanson, and the lessons and advice you learn in the podcast episode (if you haven’t listened to it yet), happiness does not have to be a lifelong pursuit, nor does it have to stay a mystery.
But it can become something to be enjoyed as a part of your daily life.
Recommended Books on Happiness and Well-Being:
EP 021 - How to Rewire Your Brain to Be Happy | Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D. | The Science of Happiness
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Some of the Questions:
What You Will Learn from this Episode:
- – Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness
- – Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom
- – Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence
- – Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time
- – Meditations to Change Your Brain: Rewire Your Neural Pathways to Transform Your Life
- – Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness
- – Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping
- – Carl Jung (Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology
- – Wilhelm Reich (Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian Doctor of Medicine and psychoanalyst, a member of the second generation of analysts after Sigmund Freud.)
- – Abraham Maslow (Abraham Harold Maslow was an American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.)
- – Carl Rogers (Carl Ransom Rogers was an American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology.)
- – Barbara Fredrickson (Barbara Lee Fredrickson is an American professor in the department of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology)
- – Richard Davidson (Richard J. Davidson is professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as founder and chair of the Center for Healthy Minds.)
- – Jack Kornfield (Author, Buddhist Practitioner and one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West.)
- – The Buddha (The Buddha was a philosopher, mendicant, meditator, spiritual teacher, and religious leader who lived in ancient India.)
- – Eckart Tolle (Spiritual teacher and best-selling author. He is a German-born resident of Canada best known as the author of The Power of Now and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.)
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Question about this episode: What is something new that you have discovered about happiness and well-being in this article or in the podcast episode with Dr. Rick Hanson?
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