...the ingredients we need to be happy (with Dr. Rick Hanson, Shawn Achor, and Ellen Petry Leanse)
Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: Happiness is one of the topics we've explored a lot on Nobody Told Me! Happiness fascinates us and we'd like to share with you some of the most intriguing and useful information about happiness that our guests have given us.
Jan: One of those guests was Dr. Rick Hanson, the author of several books including, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, which shows you how to tap the hidden power of everyday experiences to change your brain and your life for the better. He says your brain has a built-in negativity bias, which is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.
Rick: It's a very solid finding in science, and we've all had experiences of it. Let's say you have a job review, and your boss tells you 10 things about yourself, nine are good, one is room for improvement; what's the one you obsess about for the rest of the day? Or maybe 10 things happen in your relationship, nine of them are good, one of them is awkward, tense, something; what's the one you tend to think about when you're falling asleep? It's the negative one. That's because as our ancestors evolved, it was really important for them to remember painful, difficult, stressful experiences and what they did to get through them because they may not have another chance the next time something bad like that happens.
The brain has, what scientists call, a negativity bias. We tend to over-learn from bad experiences, but we under-learn from good experiences. That might be really good for survival under terrible conditions, but for most people today, it creates a lot of unnecessary stress, and a lot of unnecessary conflict with each other. It's like the brain has a built-in, well-intended learning disability. What you can do is help yourself not get too sucked into the negative. Meanwhile, help your brain be more like Velcro for the good by helping good experiences really sink in so they actually get hardwired into your nervous system.
Laura: You talk about HEAL, can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Rick: I use HEAL as an acronym for the basic idea of 'how do we grow strengths inside.' How do you grow grit, resilience, confidence, and even happiness itself? How do you actually do that? It's essentially a two-stage process. This is the fundamental neuropsychology of learning. First, you have to experience whatever you want to grow inside; gratitude, compassion, self-worth, how to be more skillful with your partner, you name it. First, we have to experience it. But then, critically important, we have to take a few extra seconds to help that experience actually start to transfer into the nervous system and be consolidated there.
I use the acronym HEAL to stand for: Have, Enrich, Absorb, and Link. To summarize that whole process really briefly, Have just means have some kind of useful experience in the first place, usually because it's already there right under your nose; sense of accomplishment, you finish the dishes, sense of closeness with a friend, a sense of internal strength when you stand up for something. Okay, it's already happening. Then enrich it and absorb it, which will really help it to land more inside you rather than be just one more passing moment that was nice but did not leave any lasting benefit behind. Enrich means things like, stay with it for 5-10, 20-30 seconds in a row, try to feel it in your body, help it be intense, see what's personally relevant about it. Absorb means get a sense of it sinking into you, especially by noticing what feels good about it. When you notice what feels good about an experience, that mobilizes dopamine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters which flag experiences as keepers. Then L, to finish, stands for Link, which just means if you're aware of two things at once, they tend to associate with each other.
In effect, you can hack your own brain by being aware of something positive and beneficial that's sort of large and in the foreground of awareness. While off to the side, is something that's painful and difficult. For example, to feel in the foreground of awareness that people care about you and treat you well today, while off to the side, maybe our old feelings from previous relationships or even childhood itself. Because, in the famous saying, "Neurons that fire together, wire together." If you get two, in effect, groups of neurons firing together, the positive and the negative, but you keep the positive bigger, you will gradually associate with, soothe, and even replace the negative. The essence of all of it is, have it, enjoy it. In other words, have the useful experiences, and then don't waste them on your brain. Enjoy them, stay with them, and help them become a lasting part of you.
Jan: How do you do this if you're really in the midst of a very negative time in life, if say you lost your job, you're broke, you ended a relationship, or maybe you're dealing with a serious illness and just everything seems to be a domino effect of negative feelings?
Rick: 100%. What motivates me, what interests me is, how do you grow muscles inside, in a sense mental muscle, psychological resources. None of this is about positive thinking or looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. It's about really seeing that life is challenging and also the brain has this negativity bias. So how do we deal with that? In that light, very often, in the moment, all you can do is ride out the storm. Let's remember how you ride out the storm, a lot, has to do with the psychological resources that hopefully you've grown and cultivated at other times in your life, maybe using the HEAL steps in your own informal way. When the oatmeal hits the fan, when you're ill, or you've got a family member, let's say, who's ill, or anything like that, you're dealing maybe with poverty on a regular basis, when that happens, you actually have resources inside to deal with it.
I think of it in three steps. The first step is we just be with what's there, we try to feel it fully, we ride out the storm as best we can, not pouring gasoline on the fire. The second step, you start moving in the letting go. You start letting feelings flow, you start disengaging from these thoughts we have, you start letting tension flow out of your body. And then in the third step, the really important step, you try to replace what you've released with something positive, something beneficial, only in an authentic way.
Sometimes it takes people just a handful of seconds to go through those three steps, sometimes it takes a month, if not years to actually work all the way through them. And then they actually occur in almost a deepening spiral. First, we be with what's there, then we release, then we receive into ourselves something good which helps us then in turn be with what's there even more deeply in a healing kind of spiral. That's sort of a roadmap for me, and a way I use routinely, including with my wife of 35 years, or other situations, just to work through things. It's something that people can do just in ordinary life. But don't forget the third step, it's really important. It's like if your mind is like a garden, once you pull the weeds, you got to replace them with flowers or the weeds come back.
Laura: What are some ways that you can feel good really quickly? I know for young people that would be listening to the show, like myself, I've had times where I've gone through a breakup and you're trying to be realistic and go through the HEAL steps but you can't be perfect with it just starting out. Is there any strategy that you would use?
Rick: Several. One of the fastest ways to help yourself feel better, let's say that you've touched the pain. The way I talk about myself is that I landed in adulthood with what felt like a bucket of tears that I emptied one spoonful at a time. Sometimes, often, all you can do is touch the pain and then you've got to move on; but at least there's been something authentic, you haven't been repressing it. You've been willing to be mindful of it and aware of it. Okay, let's say you did that. Three major go-to's that are grounded in our own biology that are Mother Nature's instant stress relief: One, is to notice that in this moment, at least, you're basically okay. Maybe you don't feel the greatest, you may not be basically okay in the future, but in this moment there's enough air to breathe.
Laura: Right, you're alive at least.
Rick: Yup, you're alive. The body's basically alive, the heart is still beating. You're not in a burning building, there's no shark chewing on your legs, someone that you love has not just died. At least in this moment, you're basically okay. In another words, help yourself feel as safe as you reasonably can. And bound the problem, it's this bad, but it's not that bad.
That's the first thing you can do, I call it 'notice you're basically all right, right now,' first. The second thing you can do, this Mother Nature's stress relief plan, is find something pleasurable, a little bit of healthy pleasure; eat that cookie, wash your hands, look out the window, see something beautiful; a moment of pleasure, basic, healthy pleasure, immediately calms down the body and reduces the stress response. The third thing a person can do, in the moment, is to feel connected to somebody else, any way you can. Look at the pictures on your refrigerator of your family or your grandkids. Call a friend, text a friend, remember a friend, remember your grandmother who loves you. In any way, shape, or form, try to get a sense of connection with others.
We're tribal beings, the feeling of not being part of the group, not being cared about, not being seen, was extremely dangerous as our ancestors were living together and evolving over millions of years. Today, as soon as you bring to mind that feeling of connection and being cared about by other people, again, lots of research shows that that immediately starts to calm down the stress response. Those are my three immediate first aid kit, and they work routinely.
Laura: Dr. Hanson says it's motivating to know that those little things we do every day to disengage from negative mental activity and focus on beneficial things, like gratitude and feeling connected, accumulate over time and make a difference in your brain from the inside out.
Jan: We talked about the connection between success and happiness with our guest, Shawn Achor, bestselling author of the book, The Happiness Advantage, as well as the book, Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-being.
Laura: Shawn says our pursuit of happiness has been flawed and there's a difference between what people think they need to be happy and what they really do need to be happy.
Shawn: I think if somebody's currently not happy, they'll tell you it's because of something that's going on in their environment, or they don't have the money that they want, or they don't have the job that they want, or they don't live where they want. Or they'll tell you, “I can't be happy because I have genes for family depression.” Both of those are coming from a mindset that science created.
For the past 40 years, we've been teaching every high school student, "Your potential is your genes plus your environment." Whatever you were born with that predisposes you to intelligence, creativity, athleticism, obesity, depression, that's your genes. Then you're whatever happens to you at the school, whatever happens to you at a workplace or at an environment. The problem is you're victims of both. We didn't get to pick our parents, and our environment has become so big, we don't get to control that either.
But as we started doing this research in the field called Positive Psychology at Harvard, at UPenn, at Stanford, at Yale, we were finding a different story of human potential. While genes and environment set the initial baseline, for some people happiness is an easier choice than it is for other people, just from the genetic standpoint or where they're born. But what we're finding is, if you make small positive changes to your life, and you share that with the people that are around you, we can break the tyranny of genes and environment over things like optimism and happiness. In doing so, we can actually raise every single success rate we know how to study.
I think one side of it is we think we're victims of our genes and our environment. The other one is we think we have to have some level of success first before we can have happiness. Which is this model that says, you work hard, you're successful, and then in the future you're happier. That formula is scientifically broken and backwards. All we have to do is look around at the world and see celebrities, professional athletes, and the rich, they should be the happiest people in the world, and they're not. We're finding higher rates of drug use, higher rates of depression, higher rates of anxiety. The success wasn't leading to happiness like we thought it would.
In fact, to make it clearer based upon the research, this is stunning to me when I first saw it, if your success rates rise for the next five years, your happiness levels flatline, they don't actually move. But we keep thinking, "As soon as I'm married, then I'll feel happier. As soon as I get this job, I'll feel happier. As soon as I have a million dollars in a nest egg, then I'll feel happier. As soon as I'm out of debt, I'll feel happier." It wasn't working. But flip it around, if we can raise somebody's levels of happiness or deepen their gratitude, every single business outcome, every educational outcome rose dramatically, which is how we came to that initial idea of how happiness proves to be an advantage.
Jan: Where do we start?
Shawn: I think we start with realizing that we have some choice, that happiness can be a choice but only if we apply effort. If I just say, "I choose happiness," it doesn't work for very long. We go right back to our genes and our environment.
I got the incredible opportunity to meet up with the former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. He was looking at happiness hygiene habits. Basically, we get people to brush their teeth. We teach three-year-old’s to brush their teeth and we do that every single day of our lives. If you look at global health habits, we just stopped there, we don't do anything else. What if we got one other positive habit into every single person's lives? That two-minute habit, akin to brushing your teeth, could actually dramatically decrease the amount of depression we see in the world, which has doubled over the past decade. We can dramatically decrease anxiety in our schools. Those are very simple, daily activities.
For example, the simplest one, and one of the best studied, is they just got people every day in the morning or right before they go to sleep, to think of three new things that they were grateful for. They had to be new each day. It's not the fact that you're grateful, it's the fact that you're scanning your world for three new things you're grateful for. Not just what you're grateful for, but why. If I say I'm grateful for my son, my four-year-old son, I don't benefit from that because I already know I have him. But if I say, "I'm grateful for my son, he gave me a hug earlier today, which means I'm loved, regardless of the rest of the day." That works.
We work with homeless populations. They're like, "I can't think of three things I'm grateful for." We have them do it for 21 days in a row. At the end of it, they have 63 unique things they're grateful for. That's actually not even the reason we do it. The reason we do it is that when people practice doing this, their brain gets better and better at allocating resources, not looking just for threats, but looking for the things that are going on right in their world. They go right back to their normal daily life after thinking of these three things that they're grateful for. But in the background, almost like a background app, your brain is scanning for things that you're grateful for, so you start seeing more and more.
It turns out, 21 days later after doing this, people who have practiced this that were low-level pessimists, 21 days later they're testing as low-level optimists, which shouldn't happen. Optimism is one of those genetic things, you can't change it. We tell people, "No, you can't change. You're born a pessimist, you die a pessimist. That's the end of the story." It turns out that wasn't the story at all. We can change people by getting them to do two minutes of three things that they're grateful for or journaling about a positive experience once a day. Seeing a meaningful activity, journaling about it for two minutes, or in a blank Word document, or just a bullet point thing so you can remember that memory or that experience. For 21 days in a row, you get people to do that for just two minutes a day, turns out that's one of the greatest ways of decreasing depression.
We've done this with people with chronic neuromuscular disease. Six months later, they're able to drop their pain medication by 50%. Just incredible results when you start to apply science to these things we've been doing for thousands of years. Such as, do random acts of kindness for other people. Just writing a two-minute positive email to start your day. The first time you see your email during the day, write a two-minute positive email praising or thanking one person in your life. If you do that for 21 days in a row, a different person each day, at the end of that, your social support score, which is how deeply connected you feel to other people, you'd be in the top 10% worldwide. Social support is the greatest predictor of not only your happiness, social support is as predictive of how long we live as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking. We fight so hard against the negative, we forget to tell people how powerful these small, positive interventions could be.
Laura: Right, right. I think it's such a weird feeling when I work really hard for a goal, then once I reach it, I don't feel as satisfied as I thought that I would; if anything, I feel sort of empty. Why is it that that happens? Why isn't that initial feeling of success long-lasting?
Shawn: It's hard. We keep thinking that we'll feel happy after that success. I've been doing this research for a long time and I keep catching myself doing that. "As soon as I finish writing this book, think how happy I'll be." It creeps up all the time. The next day you just notice, over and over again, yourself saying how happy you'll be in the future. The problem is that it never quite works that way. The reason is, every time your brain has a success, your brain is designed to reset the goalposts of what success looks like, it's actually adaptive. You want to see what your body and brain are capable of. Your brain, as soon as you have one success, you don't stop there for the rest of your life.
As a four-year-old learning how to put blocks together, you keep pushing the goals further out, that's adaptive. The problem in our society comes from this idea that, "I will only feel happy after the success." If you look at kids, now that I have kids, this research is taking on a whole new light; they feel joy throughout the process of doing something. When we buy Legos, I can't wait to put the Legos together thinking that I'm going to be much happier once we create that Lego. It's not that case at all. It's the joy with actually building it with my son. As soon as it's created, he's bored and he's off doing something else.
I think the same thing happens with our lives. The way that we define happiness in this work is, 'happiness is not pleasure, happiness is the joy you feel moving toward your potential.' I like that because joy is something you can experience even when life isn't pleasurable. It's going to occur even when we're going through difficult times. But the other side of it is, it's not complacency. It doesn't say, "I'm grateful for where I am now." It gives us fuel to move us towards those greater goals within our lives of becoming a better person, or a better parent, or a better friend to other people.
Jan: You can find out more about Shawn Achor at his website, which is shawnachor.com.
Laura: We talked about the keys to happiness with Ellen Petry Leanse, a leading expert on technology and happy living, and the author of, The Happiness Hack: How to Take Charge of Your Brain and Program More Happiness into Your Life.
Ellen: I put the keys to happiness in three timeless human experiences. One of them is relationship, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of something bigger, either with other people, or with communities, or even to some extent relationship with the world that we live in. So relationships and then contribution. Doesn't each of us want to make some sort of generous and good offering to the world in a way that shows what we care about and lets us make a difference? So relationship, contribution, and then the third one is always growth. I believe that in the heart of every human is a desire to be an even better version of themselves than they were when they woke up this morning. When we feel that we're progressing to being a better version of ourselves, we find a deep amount of satisfaction. It's that true eudaimonic happiness, that more serotonin-based happiness, that is really the type of human happiness that really lasts and stays. My three keys are always relationships, contribution, and growth.
Laura: Also, I feel like just being appreciated by other people, and just the tiniest little things that you do for somebody else, if they appreciate them, I think that makes me feel happier and that makes my day.
Ellen: Absolutely true. On page 95 of my book is a favorite quote, it's actually a quote from southwestern Africa, it's a traditional quote there. It's a greeting that you give to people when you pass them or see them. You say, "I see you," and the person responds back, "I am here to be seen." I find that the most beautiful statement of what we are really here for with each other as people. Don't we all want to see and be seen and to be able to say, "I see you"? I see the two of you right now making this amazing podcast. You clearly have something you care about enough that you are here to be seen. This really is a source of human satisfaction, and even joy.
Jan: Do we get in the way of our own happiness because we don't understand what's going on in our minds? We don't understand the tricks that our minds play on us in terms of happiness?
Ellen: I would say we do. I don't think the brain, a little bit of a different conversation when we talk about the mind, but the brain has a primary job to do, and that's to keep you safe and alive. The secondary job that it does is to conserve energy because any moment now, that predator could jump right out of the shrubbery and chase you down the street. That's how we evolved. But if the brain's job is to keep you safe and alive, it's going to look at everything you've done up until this point and say, "It worked to perfection because she's safe and alive." It's not weighing in to say, "But she's not happy." We need a different intention and a different approach to our brain, mindfully, in order to begin to cultivate the practices that bring us to more happiness. As I talk about in my book, small steps toward that goal, and small trainings we can do with our brain go a very long way. 5% changes can begin to make a profound difference.
Laura: Can you tell us more about the changes that you discuss in the book?
Ellen: I do talk a lot about relationships and the importance of human connection. Even simple things on a biological level of things, like eye contact, the ability to be present with other people in comfortable ways, not being distracted; these are things that we definitely talk about. But there are also a couple of things that are less expected. There's a ritual that I recommend around sleep that I think can guide us to much more happiness. It has to do with using the brain's natural tendencies during sleep, where it's reducing synaptic connections to certain types of thoughts or memories, if you will, pathways, and then it's bolstering new pathways to things that we intend, or that we want to bring to our life. Small practices like that, even things like self-affirmations, these seem to be things that can train the brain toward new mindsets. I love the construct of brain sets which is sort of our brain on a biological level. Mindsets, which are intentional practices, and skill sets, which are the baby steps we take toward building those mindsets, which then change our brainsets, at least to a certain degree. These are the things I work with in the book.
Jan: What are some of the ways in which we go wrong in terms of finding happiness? I'm thinking in terms of drinking too much, or gambling, or shopping too much; seeking happiness through those kinds of things and in the long run, really not getting it.
Ellen: At the end of the day, happiness, as it's said, is a way of traveling, it's not a destination. Happiness is based on what happens inside us, not what happens outside of us. In fairness, we live in a culture where there are tons of messages coming to us from all sorts of different directions that say, "You are lacking something. If you get this thing, if you buy it, own it, do it, add it to your life, you will find that happiness you're seeking." There is nothing outside of us that's going to give us that true happiness that we seek. The real trick, and the real gift of being human, is to find that we can have that happiness inside. Once we find it, once we connect with it, and it's available to all of us, once we connect with it, it's very hard to have it taken away.
Jan: Ellen Petry Leanse’s book is called, The Happiness Hack: How to Take Charge of Your Brain and Program More Happiness into Your Life. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.