ARCATA, Calif., October 21, 2013 – Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says the human brain has evolved to sort for and focus on negative experiences, but with intention and discipline can be rewired for happiness, according to Thursday’s popular Huffington Post article ”How To Wire Your Brain For Happiness.“
The field of neurology is often presented via the metaphor of the brain’s “wiring.” This is actually a nearly literal representation of how neurons interact. The connections are built and strengthened by repetition and familiarity. This occurs on many levels from very early on in life.
For example, a baby can recognize “mommy” by her face, voice, touch and perhaps smell. Learning basic motor functions such as crawling, walking, using utensils and tying shoes all create hardwiring for skills that can then be utilized without conscious thought, instead relying on muscle memory.
As we get older, Hanson suggests we develop a “negativity bias.” He describes this as the tendency to focus more attention on, remember more clearly and react to life’s downs rather than ups. This creates wiring relevant to attitude, demeanor and personality, perhaps most noticeable as anxiety, pessimism or jadedness.
The idea that the wiring can be updated is called neuroplasticity. Such changes can and do occur on their own as well by methods of focused attention such as hypnosis, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and meditation.
Hanson’s top “how to” for hardwiring happiness is mindfulness. He means more than just a style of meditation focused on acceptance of things exactly as they are. Hanson recommends cultivating a habit of staying focused on feelings of gratitude, appreciation and wonder for small joys, pleasures and new experiences. He also says it is important to set an intention for and expect happiness.
According to some of the comments following the Post article, as well as those made by many people who inquire about hypnotherapy, Hanson’s suggestions can at first seem easier said than done. The flip side of that coin is that Hanson’s ideas are neither new nor unique. They are actually widely taught and practiced by many happy and well-adjusted people.
However, the “negativity bias” described by Hanson would seem to be a point of disagreement with British author Jamie Smart.
In his book, ”Clarity,” Smart writes about the misperception that circumstances are responsible for feelings. It does often seem like this, says Smart, as if an outside situation is responsible for the reaction felt inside the body. Yet it just doesn’t work this way because we can always choose how to perceive what’s happening and that thought-based perspective is what really determines the feelings that follow.
Smart calls this outside-in illusion a “superstition.” He compares it to many other false beliefs humans have outgrown, such as the world being flat or bad smells causing disease. Once the true nature of the globe and germs became recognized, the vast implications became transformational.
Smart refers to “clarity of understanding” as the recognition that feelings are always and only caused by thoughts. Feelings are therefore feedback about how useful thoughts are at any given moment. If you like how you are feeling, your body is giving you feedback that your thoughts are useful. Undesirable feelings are still just feedback, letting you know your thoughts are less useful.
Even with clarity of understanding, the outside-in illusion will still occasionally play its trick on your mind. When fooled into thinking that circumstances are causing feelings, the result is a temporary loss of “clarity of mind.” Upon remembering the nature of this illusion, however, Smart says clarity of mind is restored because it is our default state.
Ultimately, Smart’s optimism imagines eliminating the “mind virus” that is the superstitious belief in the outside-in illusion. The transformational implications he predicts include ridding the world of stress, anxiety, fear and depression because they all represent the result of temporarily lost clarity of mind that can again be restored.
Both Hanson and Smart make compelling cases for how to stay happy and feel good. The points on which they agree are surely valuable and worthy of hardwiring into your mind. Can their disagreement about a negativity bias versus a default state of clarity be conclusively resolved? Well, first consider if it is useful for you to try doing that. Then, if you feel you must, consider which view is more likely to sustain your happiness, which is all any of us want for you in the first place.
Dave Berman, C.Ht. is a clinical and medical hypnotherapist in private practice.
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