Q&A with Rick Hanson
Q. What does it mean to “hardwire happiness,” and why is it important?
A. Whether we are happy or sad, loving or angry, or wise or foolish depends on what’s inside the brain. Bringing good things into your brain is the key to well-being and effectiveness, psychological healing, creativity, and spiritual practice.
So, how do you get good things—such as resilience, self-worth, or love—into your brain? These inner strengths are grown mainly from positive experiences. Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.
This built-in negativity bias makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue. Plus it creates a kind of bottleneck in the brain that makes it hard to gain any lasting value from our experiences, which is disheartening and the central weakness in personal development, mindfulness training, and psychotherapy.
To solve this problem, I developed the four HEAL steps of taking in the good: Have a positive experience; Enrich it; Absorb it; and if you like, Link it to negative thoughts and feelings to soothe and eventually replace them.
Q. Is it really possible to overcome this Stone Age negativity bias? How much time does it take?
A. Your brain is constantly changing its structure based on what you think and feel; scientists call this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” When you take in the good, you take charge of this structure-building process.
Hardwiring happiness is not mere positive thinking, which is usually wasted on the brain. It’s about transforming fleeting experiences into lasting improvements in your neural net worth. It usually takes less than half a minute. Any single time you do this won’t change your life. But half a dozen times a day, day after day, you really can gradually change your brain from the inside out.
Q. What could I get out of doing this?
A. Besides building up specific inner strengths such as determination or feeling cared about, taking in the good has additional, general benefits. It’s a way to be active rather than passive—a hammer rather than a nail—at a time when people feel pushed and prodded by events and their reactions to them, a way to build oneself up when the world is wearing you down. When you take in the good, you treat yourself like you matter, which is especially important if you haven’t mattered enough to others. And over time, you could sensitize your brain to positive experiences, so it becomes more efficient at learning from them: making it like Velcro for good.
This is the good that lasts. Many little moments add up to big results over time.
Q. Some researchers believe that there is a happiness set point; do you agree?
A. This was the idea that people tend to return to their baseline after a big positive or negative experience—which was used sometimes to argue that there is no point in trying to become happier since we’ll just sink back into our old ways.
More recent research has shown that many people do gradually lift their happiness set point over time. But we have to earn this happiness. We have to do the work . . . which, in terms of taking in the good, is pretty enjoyable!
Q. Is taking in the good just another way to chase after positive experiences?
A. By incorporating these positive experiences into your brain—by building up the sense of being already happy, loved, and peaceful—you won’t have to seek out those feelings outside yourself. Your well-being will become increasingly unconditional, less dependent on external conditions like a partner being nice or having a good day at work. Experiencing that your deep needs are basically met, there’s no basis for the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm for yourself and others.
This practice (both the most pleasurable and the most powerful way to defeat the negativity bias and to build up inner strengths) brings you home—home to a comfortable intimacy with your own experience, to a confident openness to life, and to a sense of competence, even mastery, with your own mind.
"Rick Hanson is a master of his craft, showing us a wise path for daily living in this book. Based in the latest findings of neuroscience, this book reveals that if we understand the brain a little, we can take care of our lives a lot, and make a real difference to our well-being. Here is a book to savor, to practice, and to take to heart."
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-- Mark Williams, Ph.D., Professor, University of Oxford, author of Mindfulness
"The cultivation of happiness is one of the most important skills anyone can ever learn. Luckily, it’s not hard when we know the way to water and nourish these wholesome seeds, which are already there in our consciousness. This book offers simple, accessible, practical steps for touching the peace and joy that are every person’s birthright."
--Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Being Peace and Understanding Our Mind
"In this remarkable book, one of the world's leading authorities on mind training shows how to cultivate the helpful and good within us. In a beautifully written and accessible way, Rick Hanson offers us an inspiring gift of wise insights and compassionate and uplifting practices that will be of enormous benefit to all who read this book. A book of hope and joyfulness."
--Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., O.B.E., Professor, University of Derby, author of The Compassionate Mind
"Rick Hanson's new book works practical magic: it teaches you how, in a few seconds, to rewire your brain for greater happiness, peace, and well-being. This is truly a book I wish every human being could read - it's that important. I hope we'll soon be saying to each other, in meetings, over coffee, in crowded subway cars: “Take in the good?”
--Jennifer Louden, author of The Woman's Comfort Book
"I have learned more about positive psychology from Rick Hanson than from any other scientist. Read this book, take in the good, and change your brain so that you can become the person you were destined to be."
--Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., Professor, University of California at Davis, Editor-in-Chief, The Journal of Positive Psychology, author of Gratitude Works! and Thanks!
Hardwiring Happiness provides the reader with a user friendly toolkit to expand feelings of happiness and to functionally erase the profound consequences of negative memories and experiences.
Stephen Porges, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, author of The Polyvagal Theory
Learning to take in the good is like fully and mindfully breathing in life: it allows us to access our inner strengths, creativity, vitality and love. In his brilliant new book, Rick Hanson gives us the fascinating science behind attending to positive experiences, and offers powerful and doable ways to awaken the deep and lasting wellbeing we yearn for.
Tara Brach, Ph.D., author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge
"Hardwiring Happiness teaches us the life-affirming skills of inverting our evolutionary bias to hold on to the negative in our lives and instead soak in and savor the positive. What better gift can we give our selves or our loved ones than an effective strategy to increase joy through brain-based steps that are both accessible and pleasurable? Bravo"
--Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Medicine, author of Mindsight, The Mindful Brain, and Brainstorm
"Truly helpful and wise, this book nourishes your practical goodness and feeds the vitality of your human spirit. Following these practices will transform your life."
--Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., author of A Path With Heart
"Dr. Hanson has laid out an amazingly clear, easy, and practical pathway to happiness."
--Kristin Neff, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, author of Self-Compassion
"Rick Hanson is brilliant at making complex scientific information about the brain simple. For anyone wanting to decode the black box of the brain and take advantage of its potential, this is the book to read."
--Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., co-author with Helen LaKelly Hunt of Making Marriage Simple
"I happened to be reading Hardwiring Happiness while my mother was dying in hospice. Following the instructions in the book, there was a healing that transformed my experience of my mother's dying. This was the right book for the right moment, and I am deeply grateful for it."
--Gordon Peerman, D. Min., Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, author of Blessed Relief
"With current neuroscience to back him up, Rick Hanson has given us an incredible gift. The practices within this book don’t take much time at all, yet have the potential to yield true and lasting change."
--Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Happiness
"Dr. Hanson offers a remarkably simple, yet transformative, approach to cultivating happiness. He provides clear instructions for bringing these insights into challenging areas such as parenting, procrastination, healing trauma, and transforming relationships. This book is a gift, one you will want to read over and over and share with your friends."
--Christopher Germer, Ph.D., Clinical Instructor, Harvard Medical School, author, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, co-editor, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
"Seamlessly weaving together insights from modern neuroscience, positive psychology, evolutionary biology, and years of clinical practice, Dr. Hanson provides a wealth of practical tools anyone can use to feel less anxious, frustrated, and distressed in everyday life. With humor, warmth, and humility, this book combines new research and ancient wisdom to give us easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions to live richer, happier, and more loving lives."
--Ronald D. Siegel, Psy.D., Assistant Clinical Professor, Harvard Medical School, and author, The Mindfulness Solution
"Rather than offering simplistic positive thinking, Dr. Hanson's synthesis of the new science of the brain is realistic and practical. Stop needless suffering, take in the good with his HEAL formula, calm down and green your brain, and flip the switch. We all need Hardwiring Happiness as a wise, daily practice."
--Sara Gottfried, M.D., author of The Hormone Cure
"Dr. Hanson shows us, in compelling prose sprinkled with humor, how we can learn to “re-wire” our brain, so that we can respond to the world in a receptive mode, one resting in peace, contentment, and love. I can’t imagine a better prescription for our troubled world!"
--Robert D. Truog, MD, Professor of Medical Ethics, Anesthesiology, and Pediatrics and Director of Clinical Ethics, Harvard Medical School
"Always on the cutting edge, Rick Hanson is brilliant at making the neuroscience of happiness accessible, engaging, and practical. If you're looking for greater happiness, more fulfilling relationships, or greater peace of mind, this book is a treasure."
--Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason and Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul
"In a lively and lovely voice, Rick Hanson offers an inspiring, easily accessible guidebook to living happily."
--Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., author of Happiness Is An Inside Job
"Why should you read this over any other happiness or mindfulness book? Because the prose, stories, and concrete strategies are beautiful, lucid, and most importantly, they work. I cannot remember the last time a book brought me peace of mind as quickly and effectively."
--Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., Associate Professor, George Mason University, author of Curious?
"Carefully explaining both the neurobiology and practice of happiness Dr. Hanson writes simply enough that anyone can use this book as a primary resource to bring more joy and less stress into their lives."
--Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., Director of Stanford Forgiveness Projects, author of Forgive for Good
"Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a life filled with joy and contentment is created "a dozen seconds at a time," as Rick Hanson shows us in this game-changing book. Hardwiring Happiness is an essential guide to finding peace and joy in our busy modern world--happiness that is not dependent on external or material conditions, but that is an essential part of who we are, no matter where we are or what we have. I can't stop thinking about the implications of this book."
--Christine Carter, Ph.D., former Director of the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley, author of Raising Happiness
"Dr. Hanson provides an exceptionally clear and compelling explanation as to why we tend to focus on what's wrong far more than what's right. If you want to shape your own brain for the better and make feeling good a reflex, get this book and absorb its wisdom!"
--Michael D. Yapko, Ph.D., author of Mindfulness and Hypnosis and Depression is Contagious
"This deeply intelligent, beautifully written book weaves current neuroscience together with ancient and contemporary wisdom, and then translates these brilliantly into deceptively simple yet highly effective practices that really make a big difference – I know because I’ve done them."
--Anat Baniel, author of Move Into Life and Kids Beyond Limits
"Hardwiring Happiness demonstrates powerfully how a series of small steps brings about big changes."
--Phillip Moffitt, author of Emotional Chaos to Clarity and Dancing with Life
"The author weaves together the rigor of science, the beauty of art, the wisdom of reflection, and decades of clinical experience to offer us one of the most exceptional books on how to cultivate greater happiness and well being in our lives."
--Shauna L. Shapiro, Ph.D., professor, Santa Clara University, co-author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness
"In Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Rick Hanson has given us an instruction manual for creating new brain patterns. This ability, once mastered, can change your life. And he does it all with a gentle humor and kindness that shines throughout the book."
--Bill O'Hanlon, Diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association, author of The Change Your Life Book and Do One Thing Different
"This book is a gem. I recommend keeping it on your bedside table and making it the first thing you read each day".
--Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., President, Institute of Noetic Sciences, coauthor of Living Deeply
"Dr. Hanson clearly and elegantly teaches practices and perspectives that change our lives by changing our brains. If you want a primer for true happiness, this is it."
--Andrew Dreitcer, PhD, Associate Professor, Claremont Lincoln University, coauthor of Beyond the Ordinary
"In this book, the insights of neuroscience become clear, practical, and profoundly transformative. Rick Hanson is the one expert in this realm that I've come to trust completely, and following his guidance is “taking in the good” indeed."
--Raphael Cushnir, author of The One Thing Holding You Back
"Hardwiring Happiness is a masterful wow, guiding readers to skillfully take charge of rewiring their brains. The benefits will be immediate, the well-being long-lasting, and the process life-changing."
--Linda Graham, MFT, author of Bouncing Back
"With the compassion and gentleness of a good friend and the rigor and precision of an engineer, Rick Hanson gives you the key takeaways from neuroscience that will enable you rewire your brain for a more joyful life.
--Terry Patten, author of Integral Life Practice
"I can’t help but fall in love with this book, it is so powerful in its elegant simplicity. Hardwiring Happiness opens us up to the small choices that are all around us to live a happy, fulfilled and resilient life.
--Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., author of The Now Effect and A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook
"Unique in the growing field of neuroscience, Rick Hanson not only explains how the brain works, he gives us the tools to fix it. This book is a toolbox for transformation.
--Wes Nisker, author of Buddha's Nature
"Rick Hanson takes the technical and complicated and makes it simple, even ordinary. In Hardwiring Happiness, he has created an accessible, practical, and user-friendly guide that will help readers enhance their sense of well-being while also interrupting their habitual patterns of suffering.
--Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D., Professor, Naropa University, author of Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials (coming from W.W. Norton in 2014)
"In this beautifully written book, Dr. Hanson walks us through the principles and practices that lead to transformation. He has an uncanny capacity to find the gems in dry, complex scientific research and combine them with his wisdom, wit, knowledge, and compassion. In Hardwiring Happiness, this results in profound, life changing lessons for us all."
--Daniel Ellenberg, Ph.D., co-author of Lovers For Life
"A fascinating exploration of the new science of happiness and how we can learn to shape our own brains."
--Roman Krznaric, Ph.D., author of The Wonderbox
"Hardwiring Happiness is a clear, easy-to-understand, fun and profound roadmap to genuine happiness. If you do the practices, they can change your life. Take in all the good this terrific book has to offer."
--James Baraz, author of Awakening Joy
An awesome set of instructions for upgrading the mental operating system!
Vincent Horn, founder of Buddhist Geeks
This book not only explains how to develop essential qualities of peace, satisfaction and connection - but also a sense of hopefulness that we can radically affect our reality and our well being.
Mark Coleman, author of Awake in the Wild
Hardwiring Happiness is fantastic--offering us an evolutionary perspective on our brain's built-in negativity bias, and then giving us practical tools for dealing with it. Brilliant.
Brian Johnson, CEO of en*theos
Here's what I love about Rick Hanson's book: it's practical, it's based on science, and it's full of wisdom. Best of all, it actually works.
Geneen Roth, author of Women Food and God and Lost and Found