Hardwiring Happiness through Writing by John Evans

“Think not lightly of good, saying,

“It will not come to me.”

Drop by drop is the pot filled.

Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by little,

Fills oneself with good.”

In the beginning of Rick Hanson’s, Hardwiring Happiness (1), I find this ancient wisdom provides a doorway for my understanding of recent discoveries about how the brain responds to applications from the science of happiness. Hanson suggests that overcoming the brain’s inclination to focus on bad experiences is possible through learning to focus on good experiences or “taking in the good.”

Hanson describes Four Steps of Taking in the Good:

1.Have a positive experience.

2.Enrich it.

3.Absorb it.

4.Link positive and negative material in a generative way

I believe writing can play a significant part in taking these steps and rewiring your brain for happiness.   Be your own scientist and see for yourself.  Set aside a time each day for three or four days to write following the guidelines Hanson suggests. Or just try it today and see how it feels. Set aside twenty minutes and do the following:

First, take five minutes to Have a positive experience or remember one and describe in writing this recent positive experience. Any positive experience will do, a pleasant physical sensation, a sense of purpose, a relationship with a close friend or being in a satisfying environment. Recall your feelings as you write. Describe the sensations that make writing in this way, about these things rewarding for you. 

Second, take a few minutes to Enrich the positive experience you wrote about in Step One. Enjoy the experience from a different perspective by writing about your experience using third or second person point of view, using pronouns like, he or she, or you. Write about the positive experience from the point of view of another person who shared in enjoying the experience with you. Write about how this experience was deeply satisfying for you, and how you link it to making a difference in your life or the life of someone you love.

Third, take five minutes to write in a way that will help you Absorb the healthful benefits of remembering and enriching this pleasant experience. Do this by visualizing this experience warming you like a comforter or blanket that covers you with good feelings. Or visualize immersing yourself into this good experience like entering a warm bath. Write about how you keep this experience as you might a precious stone or other valuable safely where you may retrieve it easily.

Fourth, take five minutes to Link positive and negative experiences in a generative way.  Be open to negative issues or feelings that may have arisen as you wrote about your positive and pleasant experience. Acknowledge those feelings in writing with compassion and nonjudgment. If you are ready, begin to write about any relationship you are aware of coming to the surface when you have an unpleasant or negative experience competing for your attention with something positive and pleasant. Imagine any negative material being overwhelmed with positive energy or light filling in the darkness. If you find yourself writing more about the negative feeling than is comfortable let it go and focus again on only the positive feelings or pleasant experience you wrote about in Step One. The challenge is being able to hold the positive experiences in the forefront while acknowledging that it may have been otherwise. 

While Hanson provides these steps as thought exercises, I believe writing provides a generative tool that makes an implicit process explicit, so that through writing we can see things we do not see if we reflect on pure thought. Writing makes the abstract concrete. ?

The long term implications for writing our life story as we wish it to be written, are only now being investigated. I find useful what neuropsychologist, Hanson suggests: "By learning how your brain was built over time, you'll understand yourself and others better." Our brain was built by remembering what caused us pain, what to be afraid of for future reference, what mistakes we have made in order to avoid them in the future. Our responsivity bias has run toward "bad" for so long that we have forgotten how to internalize the "good." Internalizing the good over time builds up an inner strength to meet life challenges, without fear, frustration, or heartache. 

Our positive story shapes our neuro-pathways when we begin to write a new story for ourselves with a different perspective and in self-compassionate affirming language. Through writing in this way I suggest that we are setting down new pathways, affirming ourselves in the future in the manner in which we wish to live. 

Writing about your positive emotional experience in this way may become such a positive experience in itself that you begin to keep a journal of positive experiences.

(1) Hanson, R. (2013) Hardwiring Happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. Harmony Books.NY.  

About the Author

John F. Evans, Ed.D

John F. Evans, Ed.D., is a writer, scholar, and workshop facilitator, as well as the founder and executive director of Wellness & Writing Connections.

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