3 Practical Steps to Making a Happier Brain
Why is it so difficult for many of us to really let in the positive experiences of life? Why is it that for many of us the mind seems to absorb the negative experiences like a sponge making them easier to recall? One reason may be that the mind is wired to look for danger to keep us safe. It draws on unpleasant memories of the past so we won't get hurt again and anticipates potential danger for the same reason. In this way we're always living in the past or future and it makes it difficult to really take in the pleasant of the present. So what can we do to change our brains?
In his new book Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom Rick Hanson outlines three steps drawn out of the field of mindfulness to help us appreciate the pleasant moments. These remind me a bit of my own national research study which focused on cultivating sacred moments to work with stress and well-being.
Here are the three steps:
- Turn positive facts into positive experiences - Pleasant events happen all the time, but we may not notice them because we're living in the past or future. Maybe someone smiled at you, let you into a car lane, or you noticed the flower blooming or a rainbow. Take some time to actively look for pleasant experiences. These can be found in the laugh of a baby, the taste of a piece of juicy fruit, or maybe the feeling of a warm shower.
- Savor the experience - Here is the opportunity to bring mindfulness to this experience. Bring awareness to your senses. Notice how this experience feels for you physically and emotionally. Be aware of what thoughts arise, perhaps how much you like this experience. Focus on the rewards of this experience. Hanson tells us that this releases dopamine in our brains which strengthens your ability to remember these experiences. To deepen this experience you might even recall another memory where you felt like this before and actively think of it or perhaps thank yourself for taking the time to be present with this pleasant experience.
- Use imagery to deepen the experience - Imagine the pleasant feelings being absorbed like your skin absorbs the rays of the sun, just drinking them in, allowing your mind and body to relax.
The idea behind this is that with a consistent practice we can actually change the neural pathways in our brain to make this easier. If for any reason you do this and the pleasant experience turns unpleasant, that may be natural as the brain tends to tip to the unpleasant at times. So just note that you had some time with pleasant experience at all.
For a complete program in bringing mindfulness into your daily life you may want to check out the recent launch of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook or interact with the MBSR Community.
Make this a daily practice, enjoy!
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.