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Hardwiring Happiness

The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence

By Rick Hanson
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Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson

Hardwiring Happiness (2013) isn’t just another self-help book singing the praises of positive thinking. It presents the latest research behind the neuroscience of happiness and explains how you can reprogram your brain to focus on the good, rather than obsessing over the bad.

Key idea 1 of 9

Having happy or sad thoughts depends on the structure of your brain, but people tend to focus on the “bad.”

When you were growing up, did you get along with everyone and easily fit in? Or were you constantly on the sidelines, getting teased and retreating further inward? Even if you were popular on the schoolyard, you probably share some common traits with those who easily feel rejected.

This is because bad experiences trigger stronger and more memorable emotions than good ones.

For example, think of the last job evaluation you received: It may have been brimming with compliments and positive feedback. But if it contained one small criticism, you probably ended up fixating on it, instead of all that praise.

That’s how it is for most people, because humans have a built-in tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive.

In fact, in 2001, psychologist Roy Baumeister found that people pay more attention to angry faces than to happy ones. So, when someone glares at you, your subconscious immediately picks up on the hostility.

All that said, your tendency to focus on happy or sad thoughts depends on a certain part of your brain. Some people have what scientists call a “happy amygdala,” the amygdala being the part of the brain that’s in charge of emotional responses.

Research shows that a happy amygdala heavily stimulates the nucleus accumbens – the part of the brain that drives us to fulfill our goals. People with happy amygdalas tend to be optimistic, focusing on opportunities rather than difficulties. In turn, these positive thoughts can strengthen our desire to take action and achieve our goals, thereby creating happy experiences and generating positive feedback to the brain.

Unfortunately, the majority of people have a “sad amygdala.” This leads to fear-based reactions that release cortisol and adrenaline in the bloodstream and make us feel anxious and edgy.

In the next blink, we’ll take a closer look at this gloomier brain type and learn what can turn a frown upside-down.

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