Hardwiring Happiness with Mindfulness

by Christopher Joseph

Lilly_Pond_w500Happiness is a state of being that is accessible in any moment, and is not directly dependent on our external conditions. There are countless examples of people having experienced often profound states of happiness despite very challenging personal circumstances, and you too might well have had feelings of stillness, contentment and possibly happiness, even when things around you have not always been as you would like them to have been.

Why, therefore is this state of sustained happiness, that we humans so often crave, so often elusive?

One of the main reasons for this is the very strong conditioning that we are exposed to by a society that emphasises and rewards achievement. As such we unconsciously learn to link happiness to achievement. I call this ‘rule based happiness’, and it’s something that I’m certainly no stranger to myself!

Rule based happiness essentially means that I will allow myself to take in the positives and feel happy once I have achieved ‘X’. It’s a pretty crude and essentially unkind way to motivate oneself, but it seems to be a very common pattern that humans run. I used this extensively, all be it unconsciously at the time, throughout my school days and particularly in my undergraduate degree in order to motivate myself – e.g. “If I can get ‘X’ % in this assignment then I’ll be happy!”.

The problem with this effective bartering system is that our happiness, and often our sense of self worth, becomes intrinsically connected with what we achieve rather than who we are. Our sense of happiness can then feel very fragile since it is strongly linked to our actions, and more specifically, getting particular results from those actions, which we are often not even in control of! Even if we do manage to create the desired outcome and achieve ‘X’, the sense of happiness is often fleeting since the ‘X’ is replaced by a ‘Y’ and then a ‘Z’ and so on, before we can give ourselves permission to feel ‘really happy’! The quality of ‘happiness’ that we feel in this context can also feel more like a momentarily relief of pressure rather than any sense of true happiness, since it is conditional rather than unconditional.

The net effect of running such a pattern, even at a subtle unconscious level, is that we simply become under practiced at being open to and experiencing in an unconditional way, states such as contentment, satisfaction, fulfillment and happiness. They therefore do not become familiar mental states for us. This can also result in us becoming stressed, since by constantly making our happiness dependent on something that we’re often not even in control of, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to access these soothing emotional states which stimulate the calming effects of our parasympathetic nervous system.

So, how can we address this issue of ‘rule based’ or ‘conditional’ happiness in a mindful way?

Since conditional happiness is based on allowing ourselves to feel happy when we achieve… or have… then it’s founded on a degree of non-acceptance of ‘what is’ in the present moment, even if we’re unaware of this. The underlying message that we’re sending ourselves is that the present moment is not good enough in some way.

The primary mindfulness practice, therefore, that serves as an antidote to this habit of ‘conditional happiness’ is the practice of acceptance – being prepared to be fully with our felt sensory experience in the present moment irrespective of whether that’s pleasant or unpleasant! I’ve described this practice previously in my article “5 Steps to Mindfulness”. Step 2, which is ‘Being with Unpleasant or Difficult Experiences’, involves a willingness to surrender to and accept ‘what is’ in the present moment. This is very different to, and NOT to be confused with, a resigned acceptance that it will always be like this in the future, because it may well not!

When we ‘drop the fight’ with our present moment experience by accepting rather than denying it then not only do we begin to feel more at ease and at peace with our current situation but the energy that was previously engaged with fighting our experience gets released. What we do with that released energy is important and this brings us on to the second way in which we can use mindfulness in respect to our happiness – we can use it to hardwire our happiness!

But, why do we need to do this?

When we’re washing our hair in the shower in the morning, are we engrossed in the pleasant sensual present moment experience of the activity, or are we thinking about all of the tasks and conversations that we need to have that day? Chances are that unless we’re already practicing mindfulness then it’s the latter. In addition, when we think about the tasks and conversations often it’s not in a positive light – “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to practice my writing skills whilst working on that report and then connecting with my boss in my appraisal” is probably not the slant that our thinking is taking! If we then have the appraisal and our boss gives us 5 positive comments, 4 neutral ones and 1 negative one, which one do we dwell on in bed that night?!

This tendency to dwell on the negatives, to view things as potential threats and to look for what’s missing rather than what’s there is something that neuropsychologists believe is a deep seated human trait founded in our prehistoric past, and they call it the ‘Negativity Bias’. Dr Rick Hanson who has conducted research in this area says that “the brain is very good at learning from bad experiences but very bad at learning from good ones. Our brain is like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones!”.

In order to get positive experiences to stick in our brain we therefore have to actively work at overcoming our negativity bias. This is very important since it is known that neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that with time, passing mental states become lasting neural traits. If left to its own devices without any conscious ‘training’ from ourselves these neural traits are likely to be biased towards negativity. This can cause feelings of stress which release cortisol into the body. This cortisol then travels to the brain where it causes alarm bells to ring in the amygdala, which is responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions. The cortisol also gradually kills off neurons in the hippocampus, which as well as playing a major role in short to long term memory consolidation and spatial awareness, also serves to ‘calm down’ the amygdala and feelings of stress as a whole.

The positive findings from the research, however, are that all the experiences we want e.g. feeling calm, loved and happy are not just constructed from the brain but can be built into the brain. The mind can change the brain to change the mind, as Dr Hanson puts it.

Most of our inner strengths are built from positive experiences of having those inner strengths. If you want to have a more loving heart, for example, then you can practice more moments of kindness and compassion towards yourself and others. If you want to be more calm and confident then you practice entering those states of calmness and confidence more often.

We can therefore hardwire our happiness with mindfulness by seeking out the pleasant and letting in the good. Rick Hanson describes this simple yet potentially powerful practice in his TEDx talk carrying the same title as his book – ‘Hardwiring Happiness’.

You can practice this by bringing to mind someone you know who cares about you – maybe a friend, family member or even a pet. Feel the experience of being cared for, and really absorb it, letting it sink into you as you sink into it. Continue to let this warm, pleasurable and comforting experience of being cared for suffuse your being for 20-30 seconds, so that it can be transferred from the short term memory buffers to the long term storage.

The practice in its essential form can be summarised as follows:

  1. Have (or seek out) a positive experience.
  2. Enrich the experience.
  3. Absorb the experience.

In itself this single practice won’t change you overnight but it does cause good neurons to begin to fire together, and with time and practice they will begin to wire together, thus physically changing the way our brain is built and as such the outlook of our mind.

It should be noted also that the practice is not about denying negative or unpleasant truths. Paradoxically the more we are able to take in the positives then the better placed we are to be able to turn fully towards the negative aspects and see them for what they are and not more than they are.

This practice is not about naive Pollyanna thinking either, but about reclaiming control of our brains stone age bias to overly focus on and worry about ‘perceived threats’. The most important moment we have, in fact, the only moment we have is this one. What will we do with it? Will we waste it in worry about something that might never happen in the future? Or, will we use it to consciously take in the good, and rest in the spacious awareness of simply ‘being’ that is open to each and every one of us in each and every moment?

Life can change dramatically when we stop confining ourselves to only letting in feelings of happiness once we have taken a particular action, achieved a certain result or attained a specific thing. Instead, when we choose to first feel happy and then let our actions and behaviour flow from that positive mental state, then life goes from feeling confined to becoming a world of possibility.

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