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Taking in the good

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Last week I was chatting with my colleague and friend Clare about the value of having little ‘pick-me-up’ or what I like to refer to as ‘winning-at-life’ moments throughout the day in order to maintain and nurture good mental health. These moments are sometimes right in front of us, already part of our day – we just don’t notice. These moments could be as simple as savouring the taste of your lunch or having your train or tram arrive on time.  Other times, we have to actively create or search for these moments. For instance, you might decide to treat yourself to a massage or phone a friend for a chat.

Rick Hansen, meditation teacher and psychologist recently brought another reason to my attention in his book, ‘Re-wiring Happiness.’ The book is about one simple thing: how paying attention to everyday positive experiences can change your brain and therefore your life for the better.

It is not uncommon and can be easy to zip through the day without much thought. By the end of the day you might wonder how you got there – home after work, to the dinner table, etc. You are so busy ‘doing’ life that you don’t even think to notice or appreciate the ‘pick-me-up’ or ‘winning-at-life’ moments.

A lot of the research shows that people have the power to change their brain for the better – what’s known as self-directed neuroplasticity. If you don’t make use of this power yourself, other forces will shape your brain for you, including pressures at work or home, technology or media, an angry email from a client, etc.

So why would we want to change our brain for the better?

The brain’s negativity bias

Let’s go back in time for a moment. To survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors needed to be especially aware of dangers, losses and conflicts. As a result, the brain evolved a negatively bias that looks for bad news, reacts intensely to it, and quickly stores the experience in neural structure. We can still be happy, but this bias creates an ongoing vulnerability to stress, anxiety, disappointment and hurt. While the negativity bias is good for survival in harsh conditions, it is lousy for quality of life, fulfilling relationships, personal growth and long-term health. It has five basic features – it makes you:

  1. Get reactive when conditions are challenging
  2. Feel uneasy; dissatisfied and disconnected even when conditions are fine
  3. Over-learn from bad experiences
  4. Become quickly sensitised towards reactivity
  5. Return very slowly to the responsive mode when the coast is clear.

Some of us live the way our ancestors did millions of years ago. We expect the worst and are always on the look-out for the next disaster.

Responsive and reactive modes

Each of your brain’s operating systems has two modes – responsive and reactive.

In the reactive mode, we feel unsafe, dissatisfied and disconnected and our central experience is one of fear and frustration. Many of us spend a lot of time in the reactive mode, a mode we are only meant to be in for short bursts of time. However, modern life often means we are in this mode for longer, racing from here to there, working longer hours, rapidly shifting gears, processing lots of information – with little time for relaxation and recovery. Being in this mode regularly makes you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

In the responsive mode, we feel safe, satisfied and connected and are more likely to experience feelings of peace, contentment and love.

Our brain’s negativity bias means we often find ourselves in reactive as opposed to responsive mode.

We have a choice about which mode we are in

We have a choice about which mode we are in. You can use your mind to change your brain for the better. In particular, you can engage life from the responsive mode as much as possible, contain and calm reactive states when they occur and return to your responsive home base as soon as you can.

Taking in the good

The best way to compensate for the negativity bias and spend more time in responsive mode rather than reactive mode is to regularly take in the good. When we say ‘taking in the good’ we are saying ‘being mindful’ of pleasant experiences in our day-to-day.

You can turn everyday good experiences into good neural structure. By doing this, you can overcome your brain’s negativity bias. Rick Hansen says if the mind is like a garden, the soil is more fertile for weeds than for flowers. So it’s really important to plant the seeds of inner strengths by taking in the good.

Overtime, taking in the good could turn your brain’s negativity bias into a responsitivity bias – with 5 very different features that will help you stay strong, centred, healthy and happy.

  1. First, whether you go responsive or reactive when you’re challenged depends on what has been woven into your brain. Repeatedly internalising positive experiences builds up inner strengths so you can meet life’s challenges without fear, frustration or heartache.
  2. Second, taking in the good shows you again and again that you are basically all right now, that there are always grounds for gladness and gratitude, and that you are cared about.
  3. Third, your increasingly positive experiences and growing inner strengths will prevent negative experiences from slipping into your mind and spilling into your brain. As your mental garden fills with flowers, there is less room for weeds to grow.
  4. Fourth, if you’ve already become stressed, upset or unhappy, starting to take in the good as soon as you can do so authentically begins the recovery process from reactive states.

So how do we take in the good? Rick Hansen defines ‘taking in the good’ as the deliberate internalisation of positive experiences in implicit memory. It involves four simple steps, three of which we will talk about now. In essence, they are all about being mindful of a pleasant experience or sensation. This pleasant experience may:

  • Already exist in your awareness or
  • Be created by:
  1. Finding good facts in your current setting
  2. Finding good facts in recent events
  3. Finding good facts in ongoing conditions
  4. Finding good facts in your personal qualities
  5. Finding good facts in the past
  6. Anticipating good facts in the future
  7. Sharing the good with others
  8. Caring for others
  9. Imagining good facts

Let’s try it now:

  1. Have a positive experience

Take notice of the positive experience

  • Find a pleasant sensation that is already present in the foreground or background of your awareness. Maybe a relaxed feeling of breathing, a comfortable warmth or coolness, or a bodily sense of vitality or aliveness. This sensation might be quite mild or subtle but it still feels good. There might be other sensations, thoughts or feelings that are uncomfortable – that’s ok, just let them go and given your attention to the positive experience.

Create a positive experience

  • This could be as simple as looking around to find a pleasant sight or thinking of something that makes you happy. At other times, you’ll call up the experience of an inner strength to respond to a challenge – perhaps a plane ride is really shaky so you take some deep breaths to calm down; or someone cuts you off in traffic and you remind yourself not to take it personally.
  1. Enrich the positive experience

Take notice of a good experience

  • Stay with the pleasant sensation or positive experience. Explore it. What is it like? Allow the pleasure of this sensation to keep going. See if you can enrich it through small actions, such as shifting your body to breathe more fully or smiling softly.

Create a positive experience

  1. Absorb the positive experience

Take notice of a good experience

  • Intend and sense that the pleasant sensation or qualities of the positive experience is sinking into you as you sink into it.

Create a positive experience

When you’re done with this practice, see how you feel. Get a sense of what it is like to take in the good.

Step 1 activates a positive experience and Steps 2 and 3 install the positive experience in your brain.

Rick Hansen says:

  • It is natural to take in the good. But like with any skill, you can get better at it through both learning and practice.
  • Most positive experiences are relatively brief and mild. But taking in half a dozen a day, half a minute or less at a time, will add up to something big for you.
  • You can take in good experiences both in the flow of daily life and during special times such as before bed or while eating dinner.

Every time you take in the good, you a build a little bit of neural structure. Doing this a few times a day – for months and even years – will gradually change your brain, and how you feel and act, in far-reaching ways.

Filling out this Hardwiring Your Happiness chart (taken from Rick Hansen’s book) can be a great way to commit yourself to taking in the good on a regular basis.

Learn more about you can ‘take in the good’ in your everyday life by enrolling in our Learn to Meditate course in Preston or the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR) course also in Preston.

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