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Training Our Brains to Recognize Positivity

Our brains are prone to negativity. In neuroscience, scientists and researchers call this the “negativity bias.” Since we are inherently social animals fighting for survival, it’s pertinent for us to take special note of negative situations or feelings, as they might be a threat to our longevity. Unfortunately, we can internalize and catastrophize negative messages or narratives, taking on negativity within ourselves, outside of our external experiences. Though we may not be experiencing a direct negative stimulus, when we participate in critical self-talk and permit stress, worry, and obsessive thoughts to enter, our brain responds as if we were experiencing a real-time, adverse event. As a result, our brain structure is affected, ever-increasing its bias toward negativity.

The ability of the brain to take note of internal and external experience and then change, as a result, is called neuroplasticity.

Neuroscientists researching happiness have discovered that neuroplasticity can work regarding positive experiences in much the same way it does negative experiences. If we can train our brain to be aware of positive experiences, we can positively change its structure.

Rick Hanson, the author of “Buddha’s Brain,” spoke with the “Greater Good” podcast out of UC Berkeley, associated with the Greater Good Center and “Greater Good Magazine,” which focuses on the science behind living a meaningful life. Hanson explained that attention to internal sensations activates a part of the brain called the insula, which has the purpose of tracking the internal state of the body.

“Research has shown that as people activate their insula more, such as through meditation, the insula actually gets thicker. In other words, neurons make more and more connections with each other, which actually measurably thickens your insula,” Hanson described.

The more the brain can make connections with itself, the more the brain can connect with other people, through empathetic emotional experiences. Empathy, Hanson explains, is behind some of the neuroscience of happiness.

“When we can relate to how other people feel and experience some of those feelings, we light up the same neural circuits in our brain,” They light up as if we’re accessing those feelings ourselves,” Hanson explained, adding that as a result, our neuroplasticity grows.

“Brain-Hacking” Happiness

Just like we have evidence-based therapeutic approaches for the treatment of addictions, trauma, and other mental health disorders, we have science-proven, research-backed paths to happiness. Since happiness is such a driving force in our ability to enjoy a fulfilling life, science has a vested interest in discovering how the brain can be its happiest. For example, mindfulness and meditation improve brain function, mood, and happiness levels while decreasing stress. Mindful attention to our internal sensations activates the insula, increases our empathy, and contributes to a happier way of life, changing our long-term brain structure for the better.


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