4 Ways To Rewire Your Brain For Happiness


A key proposition of the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, is that they “broaden an individual's momentary thought-action repertoire: joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savor and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within safe, close relationships.”1

The broadened mindsets that arise from such positive emotions build our physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources through the promotion and discovery of ideas, creativity, innovation, and social bonding.

When we are in a positive mood, people like us more, coalitions are more likely to form, we become more creative and we solve complex problems faster.

For example, when 44 medical interns were randomly placed into groups and presented with a hard-to-diagnose case of liver disease, the affect-induction group diagnosed the disease 19% earlier and with greater efficiency than the control group.2

However, whilst a positive mood generally primes us for creative, lateral and constructive thinking, a negative mood activates a mode of narrowed attention, to seek and eliminate what is “wrong” - which may help us in situations where critical thinking is required (such as doing our taxes, making important life and work decisions and dealing with rejection).3

Savoring, which is the awareness of pleasure and of the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure4, operates to “broaden and build” positive affect by cultivating additional positive emotions, and therefore develop personal resources.

Whilst I think you’d agree that no-one would argue against experiencing more positive emotions, I’m sure we all know someone at the “grumpy end of the spectrum” who claims “that’s just the way I am”.

Fortunately, however, the evidence is stacked against that notion and we can certainly “re-wire our brain for greater levels of positivity and happiness”.

So how exactly does savoring make neuronal changes so that we can experience positive emotions more often or easily?

The basis for neuroplastic change is of course Hebb’s law, which states that an “increase in synaptic efficacy arises from the presynaptic cell's repeated and persistent stimulation of the postsynaptic cell”5, or as the famous saying goes “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

Quantum theorists have attempted to explain this phenomenon - together with the impact that our conscious attention has over which neuronal circuits are strengthened and which circuits are pruned - with the quantum zeno effect.

The quantum zeno effect, applied to neuroscience, posits that the act of focusing our attention can stabilize the brain circuits that are associated with whatever we are focusing on. Meaning that by placing our conscious attention on positive experiences to elicit positive emotions, we stabilize the associated systems and our brain begins to build circuits that make experiencing positive emotions easier the next time. Essentially, we become more sensitive to positivity!

As outlined by Seligman3, here are four ways to savor experiences, so that we can begin to make neuronal changes that broaden and build more positive, lasting emotions.

  1. Share with others: seek out others to share the experience with, and tell others how much you value the moment. Describe in detail to really enhance and re-live the experience.
  2. Memory-building: take mental photographs, and reminisce about the positive experience later. Again, explore and re-experience the details.
  3. Sharpening perceptions: place your attention on certain elements and block out others, to really bring the positive experience into focus. Narrow your attention to focus on what you really liked.
  4. Absorption: let yourself get totally immersed in the experience. Use your senses, not your thoughts. What are the sights, sounds, smells, tastes?

There are, of course, many other ways in which we can elicit positive emotions from experiences. The trick, however, is to use our attention consciously and deliberately, to savor these moments. For this is the mechanism by which these experiences begin to become something more - a marker our brain can use to form a template for experiencing a more positive future.

Thanks for reading.

3 Authentic happiness, by Martin Seligman
4 Savoring: a new model of positive experience, by Fred B Bryant
5 The organization of behavior, by Donald Hebb

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