Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. While this bias served us well in our caveman days, in our soft and cushy world it causes us to confuse daily stress with actual danger, leaving us feeling angry, agitated, and even depressed.
But our guest today says we can overcome our brain’s natural bias with a practice that just takes a few seconds each day. His name is Dr. Rick Hanson and he’s the author of the book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
- What evolutionary purpose our negativity bias served
- What role genetics plays in our negative or upbeat temperament
- What Dr. Hanson means by “happiness”
- The neuroscience of how we can re-wire our brain for resilience and happiness
- The three-second practice that allows you to overcome your negativity bias
- How to handle setbacks in your quest to become more responsive and less reactive
- And much more!
If you’re looking to become a little less pissy and little more resilient, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Hardwiring Happiness. Great, actionable, science-backed advice in there.
If you’d like more info about Dr. Hanson’s work, check out rickhanson.net. Rick also offers an online guided course on the neuroscience-backed principles to becoming more resilient at The Foundations of Well Being.
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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Our brand has a built-in negativity bias which causes us to focus on negative things and ignore the positive. This has an evolutionary purpose because it allowed our caveman ancestors to be on the lookout for things that could kill them. In today’s modern world, when there aren’t any saber tooth tigers roaming the streets, that negativity bias causes us to focus on things that aren’t really problems like the guy who cut you off while you’re driving, annoying emails whatever it could be and that causes us to be agitated, depressed, irritated, lonely, angry, whatever, but according to our guest with just a few seconds every day we can actually train our brain and hardwire it to overcome that negativity bias when it’s useful.
His name is Dr. Rick Hanson. He’s the author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. Today we’re going to talk about how to hardwire your brain for happiness so you can be more resilient. Let’s do this. Dr. Rick Hanson welcome to the show.
Rick Hanson: Thank you Brett.
Brett McKay: Your book is Hardwiring Happiness. You’ve written other books but this one is the most recent and I think a first good question to ask before we talk about how you hardwire happiness is what exactly do you mean by happiness? Is it a bliss? Is it pleasure? Is it optimism? Is it a life of meaning? What’s happiness?
Rick Hanson: That’s a good question. I think of it mainly as well-being and well-being has two aspects to it. People talk about it as hedonia and eudaimonia, you may be familiar with those terms already.
Brett McKay: Oh, we are.
Rick Hanson: Hedonia is the happiness of passing experiences ranging from watching your sports team win, like I watched the Golden Gate Warriors win last night I’m happy about that or hanging out with my family while we watched it. That was making me happy, or going for a run with your dog on the beach, seeing a beautiful sunset, making love, that’s all kinds of happiness, ordinary hedonia.
Then there’s so called eudaimonia which has a sense of meaning or fulfillment or purpose in life. For example, I think about parents walking their crying baby at 3:00 in the morning. It’s not something that they’re particularly happy about but it’s the most meaningful and fulfilling thing they’ve ever done in their life.
The two together are what I would call happiness which by the way is not to be pooed pooed. As you well know I think when people are happier, they’re tougher. They’re more resilient. They’re more able to bounce back. They have a stronger immune system. They live longer. They have more fulfilling relationships. The pharmaceutical companies could patent a happy pill based on the research proven benefits it has for us, we’d be seeing ads for happiness every night on TV.
Brett McKay: I was interested has there been any research about happiness in men, specific to men or is it just happiness is great for either gender, but I’m just wondering if there’s any specific research towards men. If men have a hard time being happy or if they need to do things that, how does it benefit men differently than women or how [crosstalk 00:05:02]?
Rick Hanson: That’s a really interesting question. I’m not a specialist on gender distinctions in terms of research. It would not surprise me if there are specific studies. What is known is that men tend to suppress their feelings more which can block happiness because then the mind/brain system is not like a flushed toilet. it’s like a septic tank and that stuff sticks around so if you just shove it down, it’s not like you can send it off to the ocean somewhere. It’s with you, so on the one hand.
On the other hand, women are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression, certainly statistically partly because of socially constructed events, discrimination, sexism and what not, as well as physical health problems. I suspect that it’s a tossup as to which gender or sex is happier in general. I do think that men can draw upon classic masculine things like the desire to get more and more competent at stuff. Also men can stir clear of the obstructions that drag down our happiness, like keeping all of your feelings inside and imploding internally.
Brett McKay: You talk about our temperament. There is a part of our temperament that’s genetic that we don’t have much control over but you also say there is a part that we can control. Some of us are more prone to anxiety and depression. Some of us are more prone to risk taking and optimism. What is the breakdown? How much can we control of our temperament whether we’re prone to happiness or [eorism 00:06:41]?
Rick Hanson: Yeah, exactly. The research on identical twins that are adopted into different homes especially when you correct for the ways that most adoptions occur into middle class or upper middle class homes so that you reduce the impact of environment, blah, blah, bottom line at one-third, two thirds. On average about one-third of the factors, the causes that determine our happiness or really most any other psychological attribute has to do with just DNA, hardwired, it’s in our genetics.
The other two-thirds is based on individual events in a person’s life, both external and environmental factors like did you grow up in poverty or were you traumatized in [Iraq 00:07:29] somewhere and also efforts that we make inside ourselves to change ourselves to the better. I can live with the one-third I don’t have control over but I’m really zeroed in on the two-thirds I do have some control over and trying to maximize it, trying to do the best I can each day to get really good at the two-thirds that is under my own power.
Brett McKay: This is where experience-dependent neural plasticity comes in right?
Rick Hanson: You’ve got it exactly right. That’s a mouthful isn’t it?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Rick Hanson: Neural plasticity just means the brain changes, plasticity means changeable. The bottom line is that we’ve got a brain and a nervous system broadly that’s designed to be changed by our experiences. That’s how we learn. A lot of that learning is trivial, factual learning, like okay, what’s your social security number. I mean that’s useful but where the real action is is emotional learning, motivational learning, social learning, attitudinal learning, honestly frankly even spiritual learning.
The research shows that that kind of learning which includes negative learning, becoming more anxious or traumatized or irritable or feeling less and less sense of worth over time that too is a kind of learning and I’m sure we’ll get to this but we’ve got a brain that’s evolved in negativity bias that’s makes it really good at learning from bad experiences but relatively bad at learning from good experiences even though learning from good experiences is the primary way to grow resilience, happiness, insight, willpower and other wholesome qualities of mind and heart.
Brett McKay: Yeah, why is it that our brains are evolved with the negativity bias? What was the purpose of that?
Rick Hanson: Yeah, people can Google whatever research on negativity bias. There’s so much research on it right now. The basic rationale for it is that if you imagine back in evolution, let’s say we’ve got a nervous system evolving for six hundred million years, over that long run in effect our ancestors including early humans needed both to get carrots, like food and avoid sticks like predators, becoming food for other animals.
Well they’re both important but the difference is if you fail to get a carrot today you’ll have a chance at a carrot tomorrow, but if you failed to avoid that stick today, whack no more carrots forever. We now have a brain that does four things. You can just see in yourself that we do this continually scans for bad news one, two when we find it we hyperfocus on it. If you want to see the big picture it helps to be having an emotionally positive experience because when there’s any kind of pain or threat we lock down on it.
Then three we over react to it. If you play two sounds for people, for example inside an MRI one is pleasant, one is unpleasant and they’re equally loud, the brain literally [wing 00:10:16] will react more to the unpleasant sound. Then fourth that whole package is fast tracked into emotional memory. We learn faster from pain than pleasure. We remember bad information about other people more than good information. We’re more effected by negative interactions in our relationships than positive ones. Then in fact fifth the last thing is that all of this negative experience sensitizes the brain so it gets even more and more reactive to the negative.
All of this might have worked back in the Stone Age for [inaudible 00:10:48] maybe for some people like on a combat tour or living in a terrible environment, all right negativity bias is helpful, but most of us it’s like a learning disability, a well intended learning disability giving that we have a Stone Age brain in the 21st century and it gets in the way of besides giving us a lot of unnecessary negative experiences, it gets in the way of a lot of positive learning that would make us more resilient, happier, and more effective and skillful in our relationships and at work.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so this is why we can hear a nice compliment but we’ll forget it and we just think about and dwell upon that one criticism right for days and it just eats at us.
Rick Hanson: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah you said that we have this Stone Age brain in the 21st century. Is there something about the environment today, we’re talking about affluent Western societies where you’re not having to worry about whether you’re going to step on a land mine or something like that that makes having this negativity bias a detriment as opposed to an asset?
Rick Hanson: Yeah, absolutely. There you are going through your day and research shows that especially in the three-quarters of people in the world that are not living in terrible, horrible conditions and some of whom are here in America let’s say, generally speaking most people are having predominantly pleasant or neutral experiences interspersed with occasional negative ones.
Now of course there are many unfortunate exceptions to that rule, but what happens is there you are. You’re going through your day, right, you get up. It feels okay. You’ll have breakfast. It’s fine, plenty to eat. It’s all pleasant, pleasant. Then you go through your day and someone let’s say flips you off on the freeway and [mmm 00:12:32] it just hits that [ugh 00:12:34] it’s upsetting maybe you feel like male on male aggression but you can’t get the guy, [urgh 00:12:39] and you think about that event for the rest of the day even though most of your day was perfectly good.
For me the two practical takeaways are don’t obsess about the negative. If it happens, it happens. I don’t believe in positive thinking. I believe in realistic thinking, see the negatives, okay, react to them appropriately, do what you need to do, fine but don’t dwell on it because your brain is like a sponge for any little bit of, I was going to use a vulgar term that started with P and I’ll leave it with that but anyway any little bit of stuff that lands on it is going to get sucked in.
On the other hand, when you’re having those ordinary experiences, you get something done. You finish an email. Your partner is nice to you. You look in the mirror and you don’t look too bad. You get to work and people compliment you or you feel good about yourself, maybe you do a workout and it feels good in your body. Take the extra ten or twenty seconds to really register that experience, using the power of experience-dependent neural plasticity to turn that passing mental state into a lasting positive neural trait.
Brett McKay: This is how you overcome the negativity bias?
Rick Hanson: Yeah exactly right. It’s a lot of little things that my book is way into how to actually do it and a lot of depth and especially how to apply it, how to apply these general skills to particular situations like feeling threatened in situations or feeling insecure inside or feeling frustrated or disappointed in life and so forth, or dealing with addictions of different kinds or dealing with relationship issues so that’s cool but the essence is really simple, have it, enjoy it.
In other words if you’re having that beneficial experience, don’t just skip on to the next thing, give it to yourself. Why not? Why waste all that money in effect? Why leave all that money on the table? Why waste those experiences on your brain? Why not take the extra five or ten or twenty seconds, it’s private, no one needs to know you’re doing it, hang out with the experience?
There’s a famous saying you may know it, “Neurons firing together, wire together.” In other words what we’re trying to do is extend the firing to improve the wiring. We’re also trying to intensify the firing by really feeling this positive beneficial experience even though it’s mild usually but really feeling it to get those neurons firing intensively so they wire intensely and also experiencing the experience in your whole body.
Again, you get those neurons firing to wire that beneficial experience into yourself. Any single time you do it, it won’t usually change your life but think of the difference in like an interest rate for your savings account or your retirement, between let’s say six and five percent or six and four percent. On any given day, the difference between six and four percent is not a big deal but if you gradually accumulate that difference over a month let alone a year, let alone a lifespan as it compounds that little difference makes an enormous difference so I’d ask people what your growth rate as you go through your day? What’s your learning rate you go through your day? Is it flat, shallow, or steep?
My whole focus is on helping people really steepen their learning curve by getting competent at helping their brain change for the better.
Brett McKay: But it isn’t an overnight process?
Rick Hanson: Usually not, no, but that’s part of what makes it legit because it’s not a quick fix. It’s not pie in the sky. It’s not look on the bright side. It’s not just smell the flowers although hey those flowers smell good, why not smell them? They’re there to be smelled. I’m really talking about muscle. You’re building muscle in effect, metaphorically speaking in your brain not literally, but you’re building neural structures and studies show that you’re actually changing your brain over time when you do these kind of practices.
I think just to finish on a point here, we’re good generally speaking at having beneficial experiences. in other words at activating useful mental states. Most people suck at converting those passing mental states into any kind of lasting change in neural structure or function. In other words we tend to be poor whether professionally as therapists let’s say or informally we’re just trying to help ourselves along the way. We tend to be poor at installation at helping the experience really, really sink in.
For me, it’s a challenge and it’s appropriate to take up the challenge to really help your brain capture the benefit of your ordinary beneficial experiences instead of wasting them.
Brett McKay: It seems like the negativity bias if I’m right, correct me if I’m wrong. Is this going on in our mammalian brain, like that’s [crosstalk 00:19:24].
Rick Hanson: It’s the whole brain.
Brett McKay: It’s the whole brain.
Rick Hanson: I mean when you think about lizards man they’ve got to really learn from pain, no it’s all over the brain. I mean it’s all over the brain, the negativity bias.
Brett McKay: Okay, but it seems like you need to really use that pre-frontal cortex to be self directed and taking in these positive moments.
Rick Hanson: I think that’s a good way to put it Brett in the beginning. In other words, in the beginning we do it deliberately. You realize hey half a dozen times a day, half a minute at a time, that’s less than five minutes a day. If I’m already having a little moment of feeling strong inside myself let’s say or a little moment of being satisfied or like I accomplished something, like I’m a success or a little moment let’s say of feeling connected to somebody else or caring and loving yourself, why not right?
When you’re having those little moments show up for them. let them land. Let them really, really sink in. In the beginning, yeah you do it deliberately but there is this natural movement in learning and psychology from deliberate to automatic and then it becomes a habit. You start developing the habit of taking in the good in your flow of everyday life and also that habit increasingly is grounded in lower structures in the brain, not just pre-frontal structures that are motivational structures. You start leaning toward the good and you start being receptive to it in your body which is a very embodied lower brain kind of learning.
Brett McKay: How do you do this when things get crazy? I’ll admit, I think you talk about this in your book, you tend to be anxiety prone.
Rick Hanson: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I’ve even had my genome sequence and I found out I have the [worrier 00:21:10] gene, right?
Rick Hanson: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I’ve got that, so being resilient and focusing on the positive and not letting the negativity bias get me down has always been a struggle for me. I’ll get in these kicks where I’ll do really well for a few weeks and then some day just something just everything will just go completely nuts and I will just have this setback. How do you handle those setbacks wherever everything is going crazy and you forget, you go into that reactive mode instead of being responsive?
Rick Hanson: Totally. Yeah, I know what you mean. A great question. I think first and foremost when you’re in that setback moment is to ride out the storm and not make a bad thing on worse, not pour gasoline on the fire. I think that there are just three ways to engage your mind productively, to number one be with what’s there without trying to change it, just witness it hopefully with mindful spacious awareness. Two reduce the negative, let go of those ideas that aren’t helping you. Release the feelings, let the tension drain out of your body, realize that you can’t drink like you used to when you were twenty years old. Let go of those unwholesome desires, [unhelpful 00:22:23] desires and so.
Then the third way to engage the mind is to grow the positive. Increase your inner strengths of resilience, gratitude, compassion for yourself, compassion for other people, confidence, interpersonal skills et cetera. Build the good. Grow the good inside yourself. Even though I’ve been focusing here so far, on the third one of these it’s in the context of the other two. I would say that when everything goes crazy, feel the feelings, see what’s going on, explore your own experience, like what’s going on inside me that this stuff is happening but I’m having all of these reactions to it.
It doesn’t mean that you’re a wuss. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing therapy on yourself. It means more like you’re being honest about what’s really going on inside and you have enough courage honestly. You’re brave enough to open to your own feelings and tolerate them, but then usually in the moment, there’s a transition. Sometimes it’s only a few seconds or minutes, sometimes it’s hours or days where it’s time to move out of just being with what’s there to letting it go, stepping out of the struggle with somebody else, letting go of unrealistic ideas of what’s going to happen here, apologizing for how you screwed up let’s say. Letting it go.
Then third looking for the lessons. What’s the takeaway here? What’s the learning I can acquire? How can I grow through this screwed up experience I was just caught in so those are the three ways. I think those three ways to engage the mind give us a kind of road map, so that’s what a person can do in the moment. Then there’s what we can do off stage to prepare for those moments. One of the things I love about your website in a lot of ways it’s about helping people prep in the locker room as it were for when they’re suddenly out there on the playing field and they’ve got to draw upon what they developed inside themselves.
For me that goes to what I call key resource experiences. There’s a whole model of that in my book. The super fast version is that inside us all is a little lizard, a little mouse, and a little monkey that metaphorically responds to the reptilian brain stem, mammalian sub-cortex, and primate human. Cortex which loosely relates to our three core needs safety, satisfaction, connection. If you’re talking about myself as someone vulnerable to anxiety or yourself as having the worrier gene distinct from the warrior gene. I probably have both genes from my Scottish heritage but anyway.
Then you think to yourself okay that’s the safety system issue. Worry has to do with the safety system, feeling threatened when everything goes crazy so what I can do over time is build up an internal [felt 00:25:13] sense of different resources inside like recognizing that I’m actually okay even when things are going crazy or like feeling protected or like feeling that I’ve got others who are cheering me on and have my back or like feeling a very strong sense of grit and hardiness and determination inside. I may have been whacked around hard here but I’m not going to be defeated by this stuff.
Then as you [repeatedly 00:25:38] through, neurons have fired to get their wire together repeatedly install those key resource experiences that are targeted at an issue that you know you’re dealing with, a challenge that’s going to come again around the bend. You know it’s going to happen.
As you grow those resources inside yourself, increasingly and many studies back this up, increasingly you become able to deal with the situations or the relationship issues, whatever the financial losses that used to have you seeing red and pushing you over the edge but instead you can deal with the exact same tough times, tough situation while staying in what I call the green zone where you feel strong inside, you feel centered inside, you have a fundamental core of well being and happiness that this screwed up situation cannot touch. On the basis of that, you’re dealing with those challenges.
Brett McKay: Yeah, whenever I feel that cortisol surge when I’m getting [anxious 00:26:37] I always stop and remind myself I’m not being chased by a saber tooth tiger. [It’s thinking 00:26:43] my life is not at risk because usually you get upset about these really dumb modern things that aren’t really problems.
Rick Hanson: Yeah our kids [joke 00:26:48] they call them first world problems. [Ugh 00:26:54] I can’t get cell service.
Brett McKay: You eluded earlier that this whole idea of hardwiring happiness is more about, it’s more than just feeling good about yourself, feeling good about life, being resilient, it’s about learning, being a better learner. How does all of this play into being just a better learner overall in your life?
Rick Hanson: Yeah, well if you think about it we can’t do anything about the past, right it’s done. The present moment when it boom pops into existence and then vanishes out of existence to the next moment, boom the presence moment it is what it is. What we can do something about is how much we learn from here. If you think of it as our most fundamental property and it’s also what we earn, so I’m really old school. I’ve been a therapist for a long time. I think it’s made me nicer but it’s made me tougher.
You’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to do the work and I see frankly, Brett, tons of people that will work hard to get good at stuff that they will tell you don’t matter much like some software program they’re learning at work or some detail of dealing with their boss and they won’t put much effort into getting good at stuff that they’ll tell you does matter a lot like becoming a better parent or a better partner or more skillful and effective in how they deal with others or how they manage their own thoughts and feelings.
For me, it’s the larger frame here is around competence and getting competent at becoming competent. In other words learning the how of learning which is a fundamental neuropsychological process. For me, this is a really important thing that’s been under our nose that we don’t pay enough attention to. How do we actually learn and how can you use how your brain learns to help yourself whatever it might be?
There they are reading let’s say one of the extremely well written let’s say pieces on your website or listening to one of your podcasts. Okay, it’s a momentarily interesting, beneficial experience let’s say, it’s interesting but what’s the takeaway and how can you help the takeaway really sink in so you have a steeper learning curve rather than a flatter learning curve from whatever you’re doing in life including listening to a podcast.
To me that’s what really interests me. The [inaudible 00:29:18] of that is way simple. It usually feels good because the basis of most inner strengths like resilience, determination, insight into other people, insight into yourself many other aspects of success in life and happiness and longevity, you know what we really care about. Much research shows that you really can help yourself be a stronger man, be a wiser man, be a more loving and virtuous man at the end of the day than you were when you woke up. That’s what really interests me. That’s where the rubber meets the road every day.
Brett McKay: I always like to end our podcasts with a practical takeaway. What’s one thing that listeners can do as soon as they’re done listening to this podcast that will help them hardwire themselves for happiness and more resilience?
Rick Hanson: I’d say one thing to do is notice in this moment that you’re actually basically all right, that the body has enough air to believe, there’s probably enough water in it, enough food. You’re not in agonizing pain. The brain is actually designed to trick us into thinking that we’re always not quite all right so that we’re going to scratch and claw and fight off the saber tooth tiger to survive. In fact, that’s delusional. We’re actually usually all right basically in any moment. You can notice that and let that sink in.
I’d say that too, I’d look for the opportunity to feel like, “Wow I already have so many good things in my life including the opportunity to listen to a podcast like this with modern technology.” It doesn’t mean I’m not going to be ambitious. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to be passionate and competitive and so forth but I can do that on the basis of feeling like I’m already entirely satisfied in a kind of deep way. You can let that sink in. Then I would just finish by saying pick one thing that you’re trying to grow in yourself these days. What’s that one thing for you these days. It could be one thing today or one thing in general this week, this month, this quarter. What are you working on?
Then look for opportunities to have an experience of that thing you’re trying to grow in yourself. Are you trying to become more determined? Are you trying to become more confident? Are you trying to have a deeper feeling of your own worth? Are you trying to help yourself be a better listener because you can see that’s going to work a lot better in your intimate relationships. What are you working on? When you have opportunities to experience that positive beneficial mental state, slow it down. Take a breath. Stay with it. Keep feeling it. Come back to it. Don’t let yourself be distracted around it. Hang out with it twelve, one, two, three dozen seconds in a row to really help it sink into yourself and try to do that at least once a day. I bet, I predict that if a person does that ten days in a row you’re going to fundamentally feel different in important ways.
Brett McKay: Awesome, so Dr. Hanson where can people find out more about your work?
Rick Hanson: Thank you very much. My website rickhanson.net, S-O-N, rickhanson.net. It’s chocked full of freely offered resources and they can learn all about me really at that website, rickhanson, S-O-N.net.
Brett McKay: All right. Well Rick Hanson thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Rick Hanson: Brett, it’s been a pleasure for me as well.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Dr. Rick Hanson. He’s the author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. You can find that book at amazon.com and bookstores everyone. You can also find out more information about his work at rickhanson.net as well as his Foundations of Well-Being at fwb.rickhanson.net.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanlienss.com. I’d really appreciate it also if you’d check out our Art of Manliness store at store.artofmanliness.com. You’ll find all sorts of Art of Manliness products there, a coffee mug that’s really hefty, you could bludgeon someone with it, Art of Manliness T-shirts, Rudyard Kipling If poster.
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Until next time this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.