We have positive experiences every day that present us with opportunities to learn something new. Yet all too often, we miss those golden opportunities for a variety of reasons. The brain’s natural negativity bias is one key reason.
Another is the fact that often we are just not paying attention. We do spend a fair amount of our time each day operating on auto pilot, navigating through life with habits and patterns we haven’t proactively updated for years.
Think about this: We update our phones to fix glitches and install upgrades. In fact, we are eager and excited about upgrades for our devices.
We can do the same thing for the most amazing experience processors we possess — our brains! We can actually “upgrade” our personal operating system by cultivating awareness and proactively rewiring our brain to “take in the good”. Maybe we just need to reframe brain health as our personal “upgrade”.
“Every time you take in the good, you 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. –– Dr. Rick Hanson, Author of Resilient, NeuroDharma and Hardwiring Happiness.
Game-changing breakthroughs are occurring in the fields of neuroscience, neurobiology, psychology and mental health that we can tap into from the comfort of our own homes to give our brains — and our lives — a major operational upgrade!
In his recently published study in the Journal of Positive Physchology, entitled “Learning to Learn from Positive Experiences“, Dr. Rick Hanson reveals the profound revelations of our capacity for “deliberate growth”.
The focus of this study was how to make learning “stick”; how to build those internal resources that we need when facing life’s challenges. Those inner strengths are things like courage, resilience, patience, confidence, compassion, and emotional know how.
There has never been a study done quite like this. Previously, the little research that did exist had been primarily focused on external factors like settings, environments, behavioral patterns; or broad, global attitudes such as having a “growth mindset” or being open to our own experiences. Even cultivating “awareness” about our emotional triggers and childhood behavioral patterns was only the first step in moving towards healing and personal growth. Being aware is key — but how do we make lasting changes in the ways we show up in the world?
As Dr. Rick Hanson points out, “what makes the most difference is where the neurological rubber meets the road in how we directly engage our experiences of what we are trying to grow.”
This is groundbreaking and game-changing research that will become a foundational component of mental health, personal growth, brain health and overall wellbeing.
By being proactively engaged in our positive experiences as they are occurring, we can disrupt the brain’s natural negativity bias and build stronger neural pathways for our inner strengths. We become more skillful at “taking in the good” and we strengthen core resources for handling adversity.
Dr. Hanson explains that if we are trying to grow inner strengths like happiness, patience, or self-worth, it starts by actually experiencing it. So often, when we are having a positive experience, it can wash right through our minds like water through a sieve. A momentary experience of pure joy or feeling patient fades away quickly. It doesn’t stick.
In his earlier teachings, Dr. Hanson would encourage us to become aware of those good feelings associated with a positive experience and hold on to them for 15-30 seconds. While that was helpful for us to begin recognizing how many good experiences we were having during a day, it was one half of the equation — it was “activation”. This new research reveals the second — and most impactful –step in the learning process. It is “installation.”
Activation and installation are the keys steps for our brain upgrades. Makes sense doesn’t it? We can get messages on our phones about a new upgrade, but until we actually “install” it, we don’t get the benefits of that upgrade. Same simple concept applies to our brains — it takes both activation and installation.
By using the methods from Dr. Hanson’s study, we can deliberately and directly increase our positive neuroplasticity which causes the actual experience to lodge inside of us. The experience sticks. It’s like planting a seed of the resource we wish to increase.
The more we deliberately and directly engage with our positive experiences, the more we are attending to the growth of those inner strengths every day.
These are such extraordinary findings because we now have several key factors to add to the field of positive psychology which Dr. Martin Seligman introduced over 20 years ago. It was long held that a person’s character was pretty much set by around the age of 20 but we’ve learned that this is not at all the case. People change all throughout their lives and have the ability to grow and expand their inner resources as they evolve. As Dr. Hanson’s study confirms, we do have the capacity for deliberate growth.
Not only can we acquire resources like resilience, patience, courage, self worth and emotional know how, we can supercharge the acquisition of these inner strengths by moving them from “states to traits”. Dr. Hanson points out that we have to move from “states to traits” for any kind of lasting learning.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear encourages us to cast a vote for the person we wish to become. He often suggests we have a strong image in our minds of a real life person who embodies the values and characteristics that we wish to grow. This concept of “casting a vote” is that every small and simple action that reinforces those good habits, done consistently over time, helps us “install” new, improved habits. Eventually, we do actually become a better version of ourselves and it appears to be fluid, organic.
It is this very same principle that Dr. Hanson’s research proves for our capacity to grow core inner strengths. Over time, with consistent, engaged daily practice, we move from someone who can tap into reservoirs of calmness or resiliency, to a person who actually is calm and/or resilient. We move more fluidly and organically through life with those core inner strengths as our compass and ballast.
Very simply put learning is conscious. Dr. Hanson emphasizes that we must help our positive experiences change the brain. No brain change, no learning.
Here is the stunning truth: We have the most amazing computer installed in us from birth — it is our brain. Yet we operate unconsciously about all the features and capabilities of this most incredible, malleable, multi-functional technology. Few of us ever read an operator’s manual for our brain. That’s a core reason why we have trouble parenting — we don’t understand how a child’s brain develops. As our bodies grow and our lived experiences shape us, we keep operating on auto pilot with a brain that would love an upgrade.
Let’s not forget that the factory default for our brains is a turbo-charged negativity bias. Basically when we are young, that factory setting helps us to stay alert for what we need to survive — food, safety, nurturing. And we are completely vulnerable, dependent on others to ensure those basic needs are met. But as we grow, learn and become autonomous, we gain agency for ourselves. However, if we don’t upgrade our brain, that default setting of the negativity bias will not serve us well. Quite candidly, that is where most of us are operating from unconsciously throughout our adult lives.
Dr. Hanson was not shy about pointing this out as he discussed his research findings on the July 11th Being Well podcast. Imagine just how dispiriting it is for counselors and therapists to hear that the turbocharged negativity bias of our brains is one of the toughest roadblocks for our quality of life, for healing from trauma, for personal growth and building core inner strengths.
And yet — it is also the most profound pivot for all of us. Positive Neuroplasticity! We can embrace our capacity to deliberately upgrade and grow a bumper crop of inner strengths.
Dr. Rick Hanson partnered with the Greater Good Science Center in Berkley, CA, along with other esteemed peers to do this research study. His excitement for this new discovery is contagious and encouraging. Dr. Hanson has spent his life dedicated to melding neuroscience and psychology to help us live happier, healthier lives in alignment with our potential and our values. This transformational discovery about how we can deliberately “active and install” a positive upgrade in our most amazing brains is going to have a huge impact on mental health treatments and services.
In a few days, I will share another blog post that details the steps in the HEAL method that Dr. Hanson teaches for us to activate and install our brain upgrades. It is my hope that you will find this new neuroscience breakthrough as dynamic as I do — and that you will take the time to listen to the lively discussion about it in the Being Well episode I’ve linked below.
Who’s ready for a transformational positivity upgrade?
JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY – RESEARCH WHITE PAPER BY DR. RICK HANSON: “LEARNING TO LEARN FROM POSITIVE EXPERIENCES”