Joining us today is Dr. Rick Hanson, a Neuropsychologist and New York Times Bestselling Author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha's Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture.
Rick is also the Founder of Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He's also an Advisory Board Member of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. He's been invited to speak at Oxford, Stanford and Harvard and in meditation in centers throughout the world. Rick has several audio programs, and his free Just One Thing Newsletter has over 96,000 subscribers.
Well, Rick joins us today to talk about how when we hardwire our brain for happiness we have more to give the world. So, Rick, welcome to BetterWorldians Radio.
It's great to be here. Thank you for having me.
You're very welcome, you're very welcome. I'd like to start by talking about the Hardwiring Happiness book, what does that mean, what does hardwiring happiness mean?
Sure. Well, the basic idea is that our experiences are continually changing the structure of our brain and for better or worse, the problem is that to help our ancestors survive the brain evolved what scientists call a negativity bias, which means that we tend to look for bad news, overreact to it, and then, in particular, stored immediately in neuro structure.
In other words, the brain is better at learning from the bad than it is at learning from the good even though changing the brain through good experiences is the primary way to grow inner strengths inside, like resilience or love and kindness or happiness.
So what my book is about fundamentally and its basic idea is how to know just enough about your own brain so that you can use ordinary experiences in skillful ways half a dozen times a day to gradually sculpt and restructure your brain for the better.
Now you have an interesting story, yourself, about when you were younger. I see that you were left out, put down by other kids. It's through that experience that you stated that you started to recognize the power of good thoughts and the experiences. Can you tell our listeners about that?
Sure. I had a fairly normal childhood, although partly because I was very young and also kind of my nerdy tendency, I was very young going through school. I skipped a grade, and I had a very late birthday, et cetera. And so even though nothing horrible happened to me, I did experience an awful lot of kind of everyday yuckiness as a kid, and so that being put down, kind of bullied, you know, left out, mistreated, unwanted, et cetera.
And so what happened to me again was small compared to what unfortunately happens to so many people, but causes have effects. So when I landed in college as a young adult, 16 at the time actually, I began to realize that if I took a moment, you know, a dozen seconds or so to actually stay with an ordinary experience that my heart longed for, an experience let's say of a girl smiling at me in an elevator or some guys on my dorm floor saying let's go get a pizza, or some guy throwing it to me, some stud quarterback on my intramural football team throwing the ball to me and saying, whoa, good catch, Hanson. Whatever it was, you know?
Stuff of everyday life that we tend to ignore or miss, we just leave that money on the table, as it were. And so instead I experienced from the inside, out that if I actually just kind of soaked in the experience, I took in the good, I call it, of the ordinary experience gradually it felt like I was truly filling that hole in my heart.
And then 20, 30 years later as a neuropsychologist I began to realize that what I'd been doing had been intuitively drawing upon what's now very well established in the research on the neuropsychology of learning, I'd been drawing upon the ways to help yourself really learn, which means changing brain structure, and building up positive qualities inside.
Basically, I'd been turning momentary mental states of positive experience into a lasting neuro trait, and then I have gotten more and more interested in helping other people really understand this fundamental process, you could call it neuro generativity, actually restructuring your own brain from the inside, out.
That's interesting. So what are the benefits of these positive emotions?
That's great, yes. Well, if you think about it, we all want to get the good stuff inside, just like we all want to get good stuff in our bank account, right, or our refrigerator, or we want to pour gas in our car tank. And in that same way, even though we don't maybe think about it so much it's actually much more important to get good qualities inside yourself, good psychological qualities, like resilience, or character virtues that have been long recognized, like fortitude or endurance or moral virtues, like compassion or altruism, love or kindness, or positive emotions, like happiness.
You know, if the pharmaceutical companies could patent happiness or various practices that cultivate happiness for their well proven at this point physical health benefits, let alone mental health benefits, we'd be seeing ads for gratitude practices and taking in the good, let's say, every night on television and maybe not so many ads for Prozac.
So studies have shown, for example, that positive emotions and the cultivation of ordinary positive feelings like wellbeing or gladness or appreciation or gratitude or caring for others, these positive emotions protect the body against stress. Studies showed, for example, that people before 9-11 who experienced more positive emotions in their life were more resilient in terms of the impact after 9-11, people living in New York City.
Positive emotions also strengthen the immune system. They protect us against the long-term grind, wear and tear of stress, and they orient us more toward opportunity. Thinking about the background of all three of you, very opportunity focused. When we're kind of caught up in the negativity bias and negative emotions we tend to hyper focus on threats and miss opportunities, but on the other hand when we're more grounded and an ordinary, not a manic, but an ordinary sense of wellbeing that broadens our view of the world, builds good qualities inside, according to the research of Barbara Frederickson (ph) and others, and helps us see more opportunities, which then creates nice positive cycles because we're pursuing those opportunities then, and which then in turn creates more positive experiences inside us.
Now you mentioned negativity bias just a second ago. I see it in your book, you claim that this ancient survival method to turn the brain into Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive -- tell us more about that, if you would?
Yes, it's interesting at this point there's a ton of research on the brain's negativity bias. So, for one, people tend to scan for bad news. Two, when they find it the brain hyper focuses on it and kind of loses the sense of the context of big picture. Alternately, when people are having positive experiences they're much more likely to see the big picture.
And then last what the brain does is it fast tracks that whole package, the stimulus and the upsetting reaction to it into long-term storage, once burned, twice shy. And the reason for that, if you think about it, is that as our ancestors evolved, the nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years in conditions that were very intense, both for ancient fish and turtles and lizards, as well as more recent mammals that arose about 200 million years ago, or primates around 40 million years ago, or tool manufacturing, early huminence (ph), early human ancestors who began making stone tools about two-and-a-half million years ago. Early humans have been around for 100,000 or 200,000 years. It's been a long, strange trip as the Grateful Dead said.
And so the takeaway point is that down that long run, you know, our ancestors had to both get carrots and avoid sticks. In a sense they had to get the carrots of food, mating opportunities and so forth, and they also had to avoid the sticks, so predators, natural hazards, aggression inside their bands, between bands and so forth.
Okay, what's the difference between carrots and sticks? If you fail to get a carrot today you'll have a chance to get one tomorrow, but if you fail to avoid that stick today, that predator, that hazard, that aggression, whack, no more carrots forever. So the brain is biased toward over learning from the bad and under learning from the good. That's adaptive for survival purposes, which is the fundamental engine of biological evolution. That's what has sculpted our brain.
But from the standpoint of -- and it's also adaptive if you're on a combat tour, right, or living in a horrible situation. You want to over learn, you want to never forget any kind of painful experience, but for people living in a relatively ordinary way this ancient negativity bias, which is now woven into the Stone Age brain in the 21st Century creates much needless stress and unhappiness and in terms of a better world creates a lot of needless conflicts, scaled from families, all the way up to nations going to war with each other.
And the alternative to that is to in effect tilt toward the positive simply to level the playing field as a way, as the essence of self-reliance, really, because when you take charge of the sculpture building, the structure building, rather, processes of your own brain that's the essence of self-reliance, that's the essence of growing strength inside that can help you meet the challenges of everyday life and also have more inside yourself to give to others.
And this may be where the expression if it bleeds it leads is so popular among the media, in general, because we're really looking at let's tell them everything that will frighten them to death before we put them to bed, you know?
Yes, if I could, really quickly, there are a lot of practical examples of the negativity bias. Think about 10 things in a day that happened with somebody, you know, nine are positive; one is negative -- what's the one you remember, right? Or in couples, relationships need at least a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions.
Yes, it is. Now you say you can show us how to turn these great moments that we talked about earlier into a great brain, what do you mean by that and how do you go about doing that?
Yes, it really boils down to learning in a broad sense. In other words, whether it's a child learning to walk instead of crawl or an adult in a relationship learning how to listen attentively without feeling flooded by their partner or, on the other hand, being able to listen attentively and then be strong and clear and speak their truth from the heart when it's their turn. That's all learning, you know?
So if you're learning that means the structure of the brain has got to change. How do you change the structure of your own brain, if you want to become happier or more confident, if you want to feel more loved inside, if you want to be more peaceful, if you want to work on your spiritual practice, if you want to be able to mediate with more steadiness of attention, whatever it is you want to do that involves learning.
So getting good at learning, learning how to learn is the essence of what I've been focused on lately. And, to me, it's the silver bullet.
We'll be talking a lot more about it in detail as we proceed back from the break. We're going to take a break right now.
Before we do I'd like to offer this challenge to our listeners, if you know someone whose acts, no matter how small they are, are making a big difference in the lives of other people we'd love to hear about them. Tweet us at hash tag BetterWorldians so we can let the BetterWorldian community know.
We'll talk more with Dr. Rick Hanson when we come back. In the meantime, you can learn more at BetterWorldians.com and follow our live tweets at Twitter.com/BetterWorldians. We'll be right back.
Hi, we're back live with Dr. Rick Hanson. We'll have more with Rick in a moment, but first I'd like to share some big news here at BetterWorldians Radio. As many of you know, we've recently launched a worldwide kindness campaign. We're challenging BetterWorldians around the globe to watch a two-minute video that illustrates the power of kindness. When it reaches a million views we will release funds for surgeries that will allow 10 kids in the developing world to walk for the first time. Watch the video; share it with your friends at colorwithkindness.com, that's colorwithkindness.com.
And now let's welcome back Rick and MarySue.
Hi, there. It's great to be here.
Great. Now you wrote that there are three factors that cause us to feel and act in a certain way -- our challenges, our vulnerabilities and our strengths in meeting those challenges. Can you talk a little bit about that for us?
This is a powerful idea originally from medicine and then it's broadened out, it's this fundamental idea that in a very common sense way if you think about how things turn out for you, whether it's over the course of an hour or a week or a lifetime it really boils down to how three kinds of factors work together. In a sense it's kind of like if the course of a person's life over, like I said, a week or a year is like an equation, it only has three terms in it.
And the three factors are challenges, in other words what wears upon us, the demands we face, both inside ourselves challenges and coming at us from the outside. Second is vulnerabilities, what do those challenges wear upon? And third is resources, what are the outer things like good credit or having a driver's license that we have in our life or good friends, and also inner resources, like the inner strengths I've been talking about.
Well, it's kind of, like I said, common sense. If your challenges go up, in other words if you have a job difficulty or something is happening in an important relationship or you've got a new baby, you move to a new city, your job is really intense, what have you, well, if your challenges go up or your vulnerabilities go up, like a tendency towards anxiety or the legacy of childhood experiences or simply a temperament that's more sensitive than the average person.
Well, if your challenges or vulnerabilities go up so must your resources, you've got to scale up to meet the problem. And I'm a longtime therapist, been married also a long time, raised two young adult kids, and one thing I've really seen is that very often what happens is that people are under resourced, they're not scaling their resources inside themselves and outside themselves to really address the particular issue. So they're getting overwhelmed by it.
So one thing that I believe in as a course, intervene out there in the world, do what you can, right, find that better job, listen to BetterWorldians, make the world a better place, that's good, right? And also you can grow resources inside yourself, and that's my own particular focus as a longtime mental health professional.
And so if you think about it we can do a little bit with the challenges outside us, we can tend to do a little bit with our vulnerabilities, but often we're pretty limited, but in terms of growing resources inside, especially if you're using chances every day, a dozen or a half a dozen times a day, 10, 20, 30 seconds at a time, to turn those ordinary experiences into the brain structures that support the inner strengths you want to grow in yourself, well, then you can grow your resources from the inside, out so you're more able to meet those challenges and vulnerabilities.
Now you say that you have an acronym for these resources, four principles for creating a better brain, HEAL, can you tell us about that acronym and what does that mean?
Sure, yes. Well, you know, life is complicated, we're busy. I tend to like sort of boil things down, you know, to the essence. And so if you think about what does it actually take to do it? In other words, let's suppose that you're feeling a little relaxed, let's say, or let's suppose that you're already feeling like a sense of accomplishment, maybe you finished finally a big batch of dishes or you got the kids in bed or you handled a tricky e-mail or you completed a project at work, or maybe even let's say that you deliberately create a positive experience. Maybe you think of something you feel grateful for or you deliberately call up a sense of compassion or kindness for someone.
Okay, now you've got a positive state going, you're having a positive thought or feeling or perception, especially a body sensation or a positive desire or a positive inclination. You've got a good thing going. Now don't waste it on your brain. Most positive experiences pass through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones get caught every time. That's the brain being like Velcro for the bad, but Teflon for the good.
So to help that positive mental state, that momentary experience that you're having turn into neuro structure you then need to in the term that's used install it into neuro structure, you need to turn a state into a trait. You need to move from something that you've momentarily activated so it's happening in your mind, a positive feeling, a positive thought, et cetera, and then take that activated mental state and install it as a lasting neuro trait. Otherwise, it might be momentarily pleasant, but it has no lasting value. It's wasted on the brain.
So to do that I have this acronym, HEAL, as MarySue said. H in HEAL, H stands for have, have the positive experience in the first place, now that it's activated as a positive mental state, and then install it in your brain by enriching the experience.
E for enriching, any one of a number of ways, usually just stay with it, it's very pleasant to enjoy the experience for a dozen or two dozen seconds in a row. So it can transfer from short-term memory bunkers (ph) to long-term storage. You can also intensify the experience to help enrich it, especially feel it in your body, really let it come into you, have a kind of openness and intimacy with your own positive experiences rather than brushing them off or going numb to them or just moving along quickly, as so many people do, as I used to do, for example.
And then A for absorb in the acronym of HEAL, H-E-A-L, A for absorb. You can turbo charge the structure building process, what scientists call experience dependent neuro plasticity. You can turbo charge this process by intending and sensing that the experience is really going into you. Sometimes people imagine it, like water going into a sponge. With children, for example, I'll talk about putting a jewel in the treasure chest of the heart. That's the basic process of taking in the good, this fundamental matter of neuro generativity. And if you think about it it's kind of like a fire, you know? Step one is light the fire. Now you have the fire going. Step two is to enrich the fire, keep it blazing, add logs to it, keep it going. And then step three is to absorb the warmth of the fire by letting it sink into you.
And then, if you like, the last step, the optional one of the HEAL, H-E-A-L, is L for link. In other words, if you link or hold into awareness both a positive experience, like a sense of feeling cared about by other people, you know, in a very ordinary kind of way, on the zero to 10 intensity scale it's a one or a two usually, okay? You're having this positive experience, let's say of feeling cared about, and simultaneously if you have a sense of being not so cared about, maybe some negative material kind of in the background the positive material will gradually go into the negative and ease it and sooth it and eventually replace it.
All right, so I've kind of laid it out, it sounds a little complex perhaps, but it really boils down to four simple words -- have it, enjoy it, especially enjoy it, to turn this experience, this passing experience into something of lasting value inside yourself.
That's really interesting because, as you say, a lot of people have positive experiences or think about positive things, but you're saying here the trick is to hold it, and what was it, 15, 16 seconds?
A dozen seconds, more better, you know, you really boil this down to more better. In other words, more episodes over the course of a day, half a dozen or a dozen times a day, more little times in a day when you're deliberately, you know, the embodied registration of experience, really sensing it going into you, a feeling of forming an emotional memory, a body memory of this actual positive experience. You're not remembering events particularly, you are internalizing experiences, as it were letting the sponge in a sense of your body and mind really absorb this good stuff.
And then in citing the single episode in terms of more better, deepen the registration of the experience, deepen the openness to it, the intimacy with it, the enjoyment of it, and all of that will tend to build more neuro structure. There's a famous saying in neuroscience -- I bet you know it, MarySue -- neurons that fire together wire together.
I love that.
And, basically, taking the good. The HEAL process is just a very down-to-earth way to use this principle, to get as many neurons firing together as possible for as long as possible and as intensely as possible so the wire together as much as possible, as well, gradually weaving positive experiences and the inner strength they foster into the fabric of your brain and yourself.
Now is it possible to train our brains to be healthy automatically by doing this, I mean how do you do it?
That's really great. Yes, exactly right, it's learning again, and it's a -- for me, what I love about this process is that it's grounded in science and it feels good. So as they say in a gymnasium what's the important exercise, it's the one you'll actually do, right? So we're surrounded by good advice, well, practices of various kinds, but how often do we actually do them.
So the nice thing about this practice is that it's enjoyable. And the last thing that I think is really great about it is that it feels authentic. It's not a miracle cure. It's lots of little good things adding up to a big good thing gradually over time.
So as we do this we get three kinds of benefits. Number one benefit is that, and I talk about it in the book in detail, you are growing specific good things inside yourself. Maybe you're facing a certain kind of challenge these days. You can deliberately look for those key experiences that will grow the particular strengths inside that will help you meet that challenge.
For example, if you're worried about things you can do things like increase your sense of relaxation or feeling protected or recognizing that you're actually all right right now or developing more of the sense of determination and heartiness inside yourself so you can meet those challenges that worry you. So you get that kind of benefit.
A second kind of benefit that you're really getting at, MarySue is that you can sensitize your brain to the positive. You can actually make it stickier for good over time. Research is beginning to indicate that you can turn this bias, that's like Velcro for the bad and Teflon to the good, you can flip it because you gradually sensitize your brain to the positive so that increasingly it becomes like Velcro for the good -- pardon me, there we go, yes, Velcro for the good and Teflon for the bad.
That's really neat, I love that idea, and I think it would really help everybody to practice that. Could you help our listeners, maybe just run us through this HEAL experience because I think it's so beneficial?
Oh, sure, to do a real practice right now, you mean?
Yes, that would be great.
That's fantastic. So we'll do the thing kind of quickly here, and I'll do it with people in two ways, and there'll be a little moment of quiet as I let people sink in. I know that's terrible on radio, but we're going to do it.
So, to begin with notice, if you can, if you're doing this that in this moment you're actually all right, right now. It's not a perfect moment probably, but at least in this moment there's enough air to breathe, your body is not in overwhelming pain, you're not being attacked or eaten by some tiger. In this moment you're actually fundamentally all right.
We tend to not notice this; it's in the background of the mind. In some ways Mother Nature doesn't want us to notice that we're actually fundamentally all right because she always wants us to be a little vigilant, a little anxious, a little on edge, even when we don't need to be.
So, if you can, open to this sense that's already been going in the back of your mind that you're all right and bring it to the foreground of your mind. You start noticing what it feels like to be actually all right, in a basic, animal survival sense, and then as you start to get in touch with that experience, sink into it, and help it sink into you, as you sink into it. So you have a growing sense of kind of easing, opening and softening. You don't need to guard yourself so much or brace yourself so much against life. There's a kind of relief that comes when you recognize that you're all right, and all the while you're getting a sense that this feeling of being all right is moving into you, you're giving yourself over to it, you're absorbing it.
So that increasingly, bit by bit by bit as you do this practice again and again and again, more better, as you do that, as you do this, you will start moving through life with less anxiety. You'll still see real threats, but you won't be so burdened by needless anxiety. Soaking in this experience of feeling all right, right now.
Okay, so that was one time, and I took a little longer with it, that was less than a minute, but it was more than the usual 10, 20 seconds that people take when they take in the good. And that's just fine that it's only 10 or 20 seconds.
Now I'll do it one more time with you. Think of something, in this case we're going to create a positive experience in the first step, have a positive experience. So in the first step think of something you feel grateful for? Something you're thankful for or something you appreciate in your life? And as you do this let this idea become an experience, let the recognition of a good fact become a good experience, so that you start feeling grateful, some kind of perhaps heartfelt appreciation, maybe a thankfulness coming forward in your experience.
And then as you start having that experience of gratitude help it sink in by enriching it, protect it, help it last, even help it grow. Let gratitude fill your mind, and feel it in your body, notice what it feels like to have, to be grateful in the body.
And you can also absorb this experience and intensify its conversion into neuro structure by intending and sensing that this feeling of gratitude is sinking into you, maybe sifting down into you, kind of like golden dust dropping down or maybe, as I said earlier, something like warm and wonderful moving into you, like a lovely warm liquid moving into a sponge. And even there can be a kind of easing inside so you let yourself budge a bit to become just a bit more grateful in a general sense. So you carry this experience with you increasingly of gratitude wherever you go.
All right, that was our second cycle through it. Again, I took a little longer than people would normally use in just everyday life to kind of slow it down and unpack the steps. And if you want, by the way, in addition to kind of doing the HEAL process on the fly, you can set aside specific times, like times at meals or just before bed or maybe at the end of meditation or a workout or prayer or going to church or synagogue, what have you, to really let experiences sink in.
The point is don't waste these experiences on your brain. Lots of people do positive thinking or gratitude practice or they have moments that feel good, but if we don't help this ancient brain to really convert this passing mental state into a lasting, enduring, positive neuro trait we've lost an opportunity.
That was wonderful, it felt so good. I'm wondering how do you use this practice if you find yourself in a bad moment or a bad situation, what should you do?
Yes, that's -- it's really important. Well, to stress a point here, for me this practice is not about positive thinking, nor is it about negative thinking, it's about realistic thinking. In other words, it's about seeing the world as it is, the whole mosaic, with a brain, frankly, that's biased toward over focusing on the negative tiles.
So it's in that context then that when you have a negative experience I don't think we should suppress it, push it down, you know, Sigmund Freud had a famous phrase, the return of the repressed, it kind of comes back. Somebody else once joked that the mind and the brain is not like a flush toilet, you know, it's more like a septic tank, the stuff stays there. And so you've got to -- it's better to process it and help it move along.
So I think of three ways to work with the mind, to engage the mind. The first of these is simply to be with what's there. We don't try to change it, we simply hold it in mindful spacious awareness, maybe we investigate this experience as upsetting to us, maybe somebody has said something to us that's very hurtful or really alarming or worrisome. We explore the experience, that's the first way to engage the mind, be with it.
Then in the second way to engage the mind we reduce the negative, we try to release tension out of our body, we challenge negative thoughts, maybe we let feelings flow, we might vent, appropriately hopefully, or cry or something. We might release the experience to the Divine. We're letting it go, okay?
And then there's the third way to work with the mind, and in the third way we grow the positive. In effect, that the mind is like a garden, you can witness a garden or you can pull weeds, right, or you can plant flowers. Now we've been focusing on planting flowers, which is really important, including because you have to grow strength inside to be able to be with your own experience, otherwise opening to your experience is like opening to a trap door to hell, you're under resourced. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the mind is a dangerous neighborhood, never go in alone. We need inner allies. I think just witnessing an experience has gotten, you know, mindfulness is great but just witnessing your own experience I think has gotten overvalued to some extent in some quarters.
And so even though I think that being with the mind is the most fundamental way to engage the mind, it's not the only way to engage the mind. We also need to engage wise effort, in which we pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of the mind. So there's a natural rhythm, MarySue, where people start with a negative feeling, they're upset, they explore the feeling, they try to bring some self-compassion, hopefully, to themselves so they can resource themselves to deal with this negative experience, but they're not trying to change it in the moment.
And then there's a moment, a transition where it's time to let it go, and then there's a time, a natural transition to let in the positive. Often a positive, and here's where linking can come in, the fourth step of the HEAL process, often you can bring in positive that's the perfect replacement for the negative that you've released.
Thank you. Thank you very much. I know Ray wants to get off to a break now.
Yes, we do need to take another break at this time, just one more, but when we come back we'll talk more with Dr. Rick Hanson. You can also ask Rick a question after the break; you can do that several ways. First, you can call us at 1-866-472-5788, that's 1-866-472-5788, or send us an e-mail at radio@BetterWorldians.com or tweet us at Twitter.com/BetterWorldians. We'll be right back.
Hi, we're back with Dr. Rick Hanson. We're talking about how you can hardwire your brain for happiness. We'd love it if you'd call us with a question for Rick, you can call 1-866-472-5788. Again, that's 1-866-472-5788, or if you prefer you can also e-mail us at radio@BetterWorldians.com, or tweet us a question at Twitter.com/BetterWorldians.
Hi, Rick, this is Greg.
How you doing?
I'm good, just talking about this material makes me happy, so that's good.
This is really wonderful. Thank you. You know, my first question is we've talked a lot today about the benefits for the individual in hardwiring happiness, but I know in your book you also think about the way that this can change the world for the better. I was hoping you would talk about that?
Yes, oh, thank you for saying that. Well, lots of things can help the world get to a better place, and whether it's people who are inventing solar powered water pumps for drought stricken places in Africa or people who are taking to the streets, frankly, to demonstrate for democracy in different parts of the world, you know, those are ways to make the world a better place.
Something that is particularly interesting to me, as a neuropsychologist, that has a focus on how the brain has evolved over the millennia and how that affects us today, you know, my own bit about helping the world become a better place is to take a hard look, frankly, at in effect what the two settings that the brain has, the green zone and the red zone, as it were. We go into the green zone, what I and others have called the responsive mode of the brain, when we experience that our core needs are met, needs like safety, satisfaction and connection.
And we go into the red zone by design, we go into fight or flight or freeze, reactivity, the reactive mode of the brain. When we experience that one or more coordinates is not being met, we don't feel so safe or so satisfied or so connected. And then what happens when we're in the red zone is we tend to treat others badly. We also treat ourselves badly and we bear the burden of the impact of stress on both physical and mental health.
And if you look at the world, whether it's at the scale of, say, politics inside a particular country, you know, in America for example conflicts between red states and blue states, as it were, or in the larger world, or if you look at the ways in which people are I think very aggressively and greedily consuming the planet's resources just which has all kinds of consequences, including global climate change.
The driving force of all those in terms of the impact to the human brain is its ancient reactive mode, its ancient tendency to go red when it feels at all threatened or challenged or separated from other people.
So, for me, the opportunity is to repeatedly internalize the self-sense of core needs met, not in a delusional way, again like I said it's not positive thinking, it's realistic thinking. If we repeatedly, and we get a critical mass of people worldwide who repeatedly internalize the self-sense of their core needs being met they can then engage the challenges of life, real threats, real losses, and real separations or conflicts with other people, they can engage those threats, those difficulties with challenges, as we said earlier about challenges, they can engage those challenges while staying green, as it were.
And I think that for the very first time in human history in the last generation or two there actually have been the material conditions present on this planet that would enable literally every single human being in principle to remain in the green zone. It's not going to be some kind of lollygagging, bon-bon eating world, people will disagree with each other. Two guys will want the same girl, or the two girls will want the same guy, what have you. Businesses will compete and all the rest of that.
But the fundamental conditions that can help everyone be basically safe, basically satisfied, and basically connected to others are actually available to us materially. We have the technology, we have the resources, we have the know-how.
The real question is one of will, and I think what's happening in this century and the story that'll be told my kids and their children's children over the next 100 years will be how the human brain, how the human species actually adapts to this historically unprecedented fact and opportunity that the material conditions are, indeed, present to enable everybody to stay in the green zone.
And my own personal hope is that through understanding the brain's ancient negativity bias and through understanding the very simple practical technology of taking in the good, the HEAL process, this matter of neuro generativity, changing your brain from the inside out, that if a critical mass of people engages these practices and looks for these opportunities in everyday life and has a very hardheaded and clear-eyed understanding of the brain's negativity bias and the importance of going green, if we can get some tipping point number -- my personal number is a billion brains on green, then the world will be transformed and so will the course of human history.
Yes, I mean I know you've said that when our own cup runneth over we have more to give.
And I guess you talked -- a domino affect that could really happen here?
Yes, that's exactly right. Sorry for my long answer, but there was a lot to say there.
No, no, I appreciate that; I think that's really inspiring, actually. One thing that I think, I always want people to take away from this show is that it's not just about the individual here, but it's about what we bring to the community and the community back to us. And there is that amazing kind of feedback loop, and the idea that we could reach this critical mass in the coming age is exciting.
Yes, exactly right. And you're right about positive cycles. One person goes green in a stressed out bus, studies actually show that other people in the bus start chilling out. And if you have leaders who go green more and you have people in families go green more, and you have politicians who go green more -- I don't mean it in terms of environmental values, I mean in terms of the basic brain state a person is in -- you know, this world will get better faster.
Yes, well, actually, I want to take this moment to take some questions from our listeners and from the studio.
A great question came in from Carl in Houston, who asks how does post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury affect the neuro plasticity of the brains of those who have endured trauma in combat? He said through my expedition balance I've seen firsthand the benefits of mindfulness practices with this population, but I don't know the science of how it works so if you could speak to that?
Oh, thank you for saying that, and I have such respect for people who have served and put their own lives on the line for the sake of the greater good.
So the takeaway here, first of all, is that the fundamental processes of neuro plasticity, in other words the capacity of the brain to be changed by the experiences people are having, the good news is that trauma doesn't fundamentally block the brain from learning new things. The problem with trauma is that it makes it hard for the brain to learn some particular new things, and the brain tends to get locked on to that old pain. Now that's a natural dynamic, it's a very good way to keep animals alive in traumatic conditions, as it were, but these days it creates a lot of misery and suffering.
So how mindfulness works or this capacity to sustain present moment awareness breath after breath, moment after moment, you know, day after day, what mindfulness does is it disengages us from those traumatic circuits and it starts linking the trauma material increasingly. I'm using the word in the HEAL process, linking, it associates. Mindfulness, if you think about it, open spacious awareness, associates negative material, like this panic or fear or sense of guilt or shame or loss, it associates that negative material with a kind of peaceful, untroubled space of awareness, that itself is never tainted or harmed by what it represents.
And so over time what can happen is a gradual association in which there's a kind of inner shock absorber that gets built over time so that when a person is reactivated in terms of their trauma material it lands in a bigger and bigger space. It's a little bit like if you throw a brick in a bucket, you know, that water is going to go everywhere, but if you throw a brick in the Atlantic Ocean it's not going to have much affect. And what happens is that over time we expand the field of awareness, so our mind becomes more and more like the Atlantic Ocean and less and less like that bucket.
Yes, well, thank you, Carl, for that question and thank you for your service.
A question that I had, Rick, was what about experiences of wonder and awe, you know the sublime, do those experiences have a positive and lasting impact on the brain?
That's interesting, and one of my friends in college, Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center, has actually gotten a substantial grant to study awe because of its positive affects for people. I mean to get a grant like this you've got to be able to show that there'll be some kind of social value usually in terms of what you're studying.
And so I think when thinking about awe, going back to Carl, and clearly the topic there is huge, my little two minutes or less sound byte can't do justice to Carl's question and the impacts, but still one thing about awe is it helps us hold things in a bigger perspective. And studies have shown, for example, that people who are less vulnerable to PTSDs, let's say serve a combat tour, are the ones among other factors who can find a sense of meaning or larger purpose, including simply loyalty to the other people in your unit. That sense of larger purpose or larger context is something we need as humans, and it has many, many positive and protective affects.
That's amazing, I think that's fascinating. That's interesting that the people that had those kinds of commitments or that had that kind of sense of self in their place in the universe had somewhat of a shield around them then.
Yes, thinking about what you three do, you know, your own experience of helping create a better world, you see things in a bigger picture. I mean just knowing that that's your own personal mission in many ways has got to support you, and it's got to also protect you from the ordinary slings and arrows, right, of outrageous fortune.
That's right, there are a lot of slings and arrows, but we do, but that's what keeps us going.
We had another question here, meditation is a big part of your professional life, and how do you see that fitting into what you've talked about today?
And many studies have shown that contemplative practices, you know, they build up structures in the brain in parts of the brain that help regulate us and control attention and feelings and actions, that's good. Also, meditation builds up structures in the brain that have to do with self-awareness and also empathy for others, as well as structures in the brain that help us learn from our own experiences.
So I think meditation is for the mind what aerobic exercise is for the heart, it's a fundamental practice. And what I would suggest to people is, much like I joked about exercise, the most important mediation to do is the one you'll actually do, right? So lower the bar, I suggest you commit to a minute or more every day of something contemplative.
And as Father Thomas Keating, kind of the main advocate for centering prayer or Christian contemplative practice, said one time, I heard him give a talk; he said a life without a contemplative perspective is a prescription for disaster.
Anyway, it's not whether it's a minute or more a day, do your thing, whatever that is. If you want something simple just kind of see if you can stay present in your own body for a minute straight or if being present in your body tuned into your breathing is alarming, as it is often for people with PTSD or other painful life experiences, pick something like gratitude, focus on the experience of gratitude as your meditation, or a feeling of kindness or warm-heartedness for other beings, or a feeling of being cared about yourself, or simply a word, like peace. Let that be your practice, and if you want extend it, you know, take a minute, take 10 minutes or even 45 minutes.
And if you need more stimulation because it's a little too boring walk, walk up and down, back and forth in your living room, kind of slowly, tuned into your body, or feel the breath, as it were, not just in one place, but in your body as a whole.
In other words, adapt to your practices to what will serve you best and stick with it. Like I said earlier, if the pharmaceutical companies could patent meditation based on its well established, well researched benefits for long-term physical and mental health we'd be seeing more ads for mediation and fewer ads for Prozac. I think we'd still be seeing ads for Viagra, I don't think mediation is going to touch that one, but.
I think they'll ask for Prozac.
I think we're going to wrap up on Viagra at that point.
Let me say that there's so much more to talk about here, so I definitely encourage our listeners to pick up his book or Dr. Rick Hanson's book, Hardwiring Happiness. You can also find out more about Dr. Rick Hanson's work by going to his website, rickhanson.net. Rick, we'd like to thank you for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.
Thank you very much, Ray, MarySue, and Greg, it's been a pleasure.
Yes, thank you very much. And for our listeners some of the things that you heard about reaching a critical positive mass of positive people is exactly what we're about here in BetterWorldians Radio and we hope to reach that tipping point and essentially go green, and I don't say that because I'm an Eagles fan, but essentially we really want people to calm down and really settle in and make this a better world.
Please join us next week for the encore presentation of our show, Mother Teresa and Me. Author Donna-Maria Cooper O'Boyle discusses her 10-year friendship with Mother Teresa, tells listeners how small things that they can do to emulate this extraordinary human being in their lives. We have an excellent lineup of guests in the coming weeks, and if you know an unsung BetterWorldian who would make a great guest on our show please send us an e-mail at radio@BetterWorldians.com.
We'd like to remind everyone that you can also be part of a miracle by simply sharing the video. As Rick had mentioned in his presentation today, this all boils down to the essence, and the essence is actually captured very well in the video of the essence of kindness. So just go to colorwithkindness.com, watch the video, share it with your friends, and give these kids the gift of a lifetime.
We'd like to thank everyone today for listening to our show. You can join the BetterWorldian community at BetterWorldians.com and until next time, everybody, please be a BetterWorldian.