We are hardwired to be negative! Do you believe that statement? I am investigating the ways in which I have a sort of knee-jerk response to whatever comes my way. I have embraced a self-development course that I call “Merciless Self Awareness.” What I have discovered about myself fits all that I read regarding our reptilian brain. That is the part of the brain where we are thick-skinned and cold blooded in our effort to survive. Survival requires vigilance, alert suspicion, and high stress to avert possible predators. Just like reptiles, we want the habits of comfort and predictability. And, just like reptiles, our brains are hardwired to fight, flight, freeze, or die.
Whenever I am in social situations, I am now aware of the “critter” part of my brain setting up how I think and feel and sometimes even shaping what I do. My split-second response to outside stimuli is a sort of resistance. It’s like a yellow caution light with the potential for an all out red stoplight. That means that my brain first assesses the picture I see and sense–as to whether or not I am safe and will survive. The flight-freeze-fight reaction seems to be the first one. In another split second, I come to my senses and see that I am not threatened and make a choice from my rational brain. All these reactions happen before I blink an eye.
I can understand why I do this (and I perceive a lot of others do it, too)….since we have this ancient complex in our head. It is called the reptilian brain and it likes repetition, predictability, and ritual. Above all, it is interested in survival. Add the limbic system, which is that part of the brain where we evolved into becoming mammals and I am assessing whether I will be safe and protected. Those two old brains are the first reponders. When I am brutally honest, I hide this reaction that amounts to being “me first.” I suspect others are also “me firsters.” In other words, it’s all about me just as it was when I was an infant. At least there is a tinge of that fear. I am unconsciously wondering, will I survive, am I safe, can I cope???
That makes for a world of suspicion, criticism, fear, anger, and blame. Open minds, open hearts, and open will are what I say I want. I want to create a different world. So, for the last 4 years I have studied happiness. Many great writers are tuning in to the same subject and there is abounding evidence that happiness is something we can choose. We can train our brains to be positive, our minds to think happier thoughts, and our whole being to follow the newest part of our brain, the frontal lobes where creativity, compassion, and altruism are waiting for development of hardwired neuronal pathways.
Pathways are the key. We have super highways in these neuronal networks. Because of our eons of human history, we are hardwired– set to travel old survival pathways of fear, shame, guilt, inadequacy, causing the response of running away (my favorite); freezing (getting very quiet and still); or standing up and fighting (my least favorite.) No wonder I have become so skilled at shifting the whole thing into “fixing” someone else. I am extremely good at seeing what someone else needs and what would help them. That way (the way of fixing) is better for me than fleeing, freezing, or fighting. None of these responses are really a creative growth process. We are no longer needing to be of service to the reptilian complex all of the time.
New learning is available. This is not designed to fix you or me. These new learnings are actually based on the truth that we can grow new pathways, new roads, new super-highways in our brains. We can hard-wire in the other direction.
I have been doing just that. My new neuronal roads are gradually becoming wider and easier to travel. These are the highways of happiness, the journey of joy, the road of positivity resonance (love.) I am glad to report that I experience more joy these days than ever before. Only on rare occasions do I revert back to that stress-filled worry state. As I told you, I don’t like to fight so I was a better worrier than warrior. Either way, my true self is not coming forth. My beliefs are changing and therefore, I think different thoughts, feel different feelings, and my behavior is in alignment with optimism, positivity, compassion, and wonder.
There are several leaders in the field of positive psychology who have written the directions to creating this monumental shift in our human awareness, which is really our consciousness.
I will mention three that I admire and have found useful in my own quest:
Dr. Joe Dispenza wrote two books that give the understanding as well as the guidance for hard-wiring our brains in an evolutionary new direction. I read “Evolve Your Brain” when it first came out and have just bought another copy, reviewing what he teaches. His latest book, “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself” is also mind stretching.
Barbara Frederickson is a research specialist in the field of positive emotions. Her books, “Positivity” and “Love 2.0” are worth studying and will give you many good exercises for creating a positive life. I will include this exercise from “Love 2.0,” pp.98-99:
Each night, for a few weeks, review your entire day and call to mind the three longest social interactions you had that day. Thinking of these three interactions all together, consider how true each of the following two statements is for you:
*During these social interactions, I felt “in-tune” with the person/s around me.
*During these social interactions, I felt close to the person/s.
Rate the truth of these two statements on a scale from 1 to 7.00, in which 1= not true at all, and 7 = very true. With greater attention to social connections, you may find that your overall positivity and good feelings increase.
Finally, Rick Hanson has a new book, “Hardwiring Happiness,” which is just the right one to read for many good ideas on creating new pathways in our neo-cortex, the thinking brain. He also wrote “The Buddha’s Brain,” well worth reading. Hanson says, the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon. On p. 12 in the book, “Hardwiring Happiness,” he says,
If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth. Looking back over the past week or so, where has your mind been mainly resting?
My life learning:
I have known for a many years that whatever I pay attention to seems to get bigger. What we focus on, expands. Awareness is like a searchlight and a vacuum. It lands on something, scoops it up, and hardwires it into a path for neurons to fire. I am learning that my brain is actually changing in response to my awareness, my focus, my choices, and the meaning I give my experiences. I am indeed creating a different brain. The plasticity of this miraculous organ in our head is just coming into our knowledge base. Basically, I have learned that I can change my beliefs which changes my brain. That leads to thoughts-feelings-behavior congruent to these new beliefs. In a real way, I am “learning” to be happy.
Joy is the bedrock, amounting to unreasonable happiness. And, this is all a choice made by me. WOW! This is big! Very big! Life-changing is how big it is! So, I recommend you start focusing on the good, taking it in, owning it, and enjoying it. See what can happen when you accentuate the positive. Your reptilian complex is still available in times of emergency. Meanwhile, you can focus your attention, deliberately learning to fire the positive thoughts-feelings-behavior and they will wire together in your brain as a Highway to Joy.
2 thoughts on “Hardwiring Your Brain for Happiness”
Thank you for these words. I, too, have been studying happiness as a result of what I have been learning from you. While the practice of shifting my focus to positive thoughts is not always an easy task, when I am successful it does do the trick of allowing me to have a better day.
Today, I commit to putting my attention on the some of the following thoughts:
The sun that is shining so brightly right now is causing my plants to become strong and healthy and soon they are going to put on a show of glorious blooms for me and my neighbors to enjoy.
I am gainfully employed and with the proceeds from my work I am able to support myself without worry of lack.
The day that stretches before me is full of possibilities for making a positive contribution to the world. I will guide people who plan to work with children and who dream about how they can make a positive impact on the lives of those children.
I have friends who take a real interest in my well being and show me their love consistently and meaningfully.
I take an honest interest in the well being of my friends, and I am able to practice showing them that I love them.
I will be your witness and enthusiastic support as you continue your journey into your authenticity, Julia.
You are creating new neuronal pathways in your brain through your design. I am so honored to know you!
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