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Rick Hanson

Photo of Rick Hanson

Photo: © Mike McGee

About the Author

Rick Hanson, PhD, is a psychologist, senior fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times bestselling author. His books have been published in twenty-nine languages and include Neurodharma, Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture, with 900,000 copies in English alone. His free weekly newsletter has 150,000 subscribers and his online programs have scholarships available for those with financial need. He’s lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard and taught in meditation centers worldwide. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, his work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. He began meditating in 1974 and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He loves wilderness and taking a break from emails.

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Author Q&A

In this candid interview, psychologist Rick Hansen speaks to personal happiness, national happiness, the questions to ask before taking an antidepressant, and more. Read on for all of this – and three quick steps to immediately be happier.

PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: In Hardwiring Happiness, you talk about turning small everyday experiences into big psychological resources built into your own brain, such as feeling cared about, calm strength, and real happiness. What, though, about the power of experiences coming with more fireworks? Would you recommend a person craft a larger joyful event – a party, a trip, a retreat, perhaps – to effect change in the brain?

RICK HANSON: I’m all for the big moments, both the ones that just happen like a jaw-dropping sunset as well as the ones you plan for, such as asking someone to marry you or saying “yes” when they do.

But the top priority for me is what we do with our experiences, large or small. Do we stay with a good experience long enough for it to actually be woven into the nervous system? Or do we waste it, letting it pass through the brain like water through a sieve?

And meanwhile, because of the brain’s negativity bias, that sieve keeps catching our painful, harmful experiences. Those seemingly little moments of worry, irritation, hurt, frustration, or stress get fast-tracked into the nervous system, tilting our mood toward the negative, wearing down physical health, and fueling conflicts in relationships.

It’s poignant: A person can put a lot of effort into having a million-dollar moment, and it’s great while it’s happening, but after it passes we often feel a little empty. What are we left with?

Also, relatively mild experiences vastly outnumber intensely positive ones. So that’s where the big opportunity actually is: Use the little moments right under our noses to take in the good many times a day.

PRH: Does exposure to the arts play in to hardwiring one’s brain for happiness? Does the overall tone of what we expose ourselves to in fine art, music, theater, literature, and beyond deeply affect our way of thinking? And if so, could art that might be considered dark or moody still affect us in a positive way?

RH: The arts in all their forms can definitely create wonderful experiences. I remember movies I saw thirty years ago that blew me away, and books I read as a boy that changed me forever. You’re right, sometimes it is the darkest, moodiest material that has the most impact, from Greek tragedy to singing the blues. And there are lots of other ways to create good experiences, from making cookies to feeling fulfilled at work to talking with a friend.

Still, if I can be blunt, for most people most of the time, the easy part is having a good experience. Studies show that above a basic threshold of poverty and misery, the great majority of moments are neutral or positive for a typical person. But how often do we slow down to take these good moments into ourselves?

The hard part is not having good experiences. It is being mindful and self-caring enough to receive these experiences into yourself, at least a few times a day.

PRH:You speak to evolution in your book. Do you think the human brain is further evolving to make us naturally, more inherently happy? Or the opposite? Or is this not a factor in the evolution of humans?

RH: Biological evolution is s-l-o-w, especially compared to the evolution of technology and culture. So the brain is evolving to make us happier or unhappier (darn) – at least in our own lifetimes and even those of our great-great-grandchildren.

But the mind can certainly evolve, and quite quickly. The knowledge base of the human species – a kind of collective mind distributed across our libraries, laboratories, and websites – can increase, and as a culture, we can become more compassionate and truth-seeking.

Plus, as individuals, we have tremendous power over the improvement of our own minds. We really can develop psychological resources such as grit, gratitude, self-worth, and compassion. Because mental activity requires neural activity, and because neural activity changes neural structure, this means that you can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind and your life for the better. That’s pretty great!

PRH:Think about the happiest people you know. Is there one specific aspect of their lifestyles that they all have in common? What is it?

RH: They give love.

It’s not about their money or daily routine or job or who they sleep with. Whether you’re a stockbroker in Manhattan or a beggar on the street in Calcutta, what matters most is whether you can express the love that’s in you with a word, a glance, a touch, and helping hand.

It doesn’t have to be dramatic or in a romantic relationship. Others may not even know that you are being deliberately empathic, compassionate, thoughtful, or patient. But you know it, which makes you happy from the inside out.

PRH:There’s so much work we can do on ourselves to effect change in our general outlook on life. What do we do, though, when someone in our own life, someone close to us, is so consistently unhappy? Is it ever worth it to help someone else along to happiness? If so, any tips on how to do so – aside from giving them a copy of your book, of course?

RH: If someone is steadily unhappy, I think it’s wise to be respectful and first consider the impact of circumstances (like a terrible job or marriage, or the impact of prejudice and discrimination), health, or trauma. And if these are relevant, do whatever you can about them.

Next, supposing that the real issue is the person’s psychology, start by trying to talk about why they’re unhappy, and do it in a compassionate and supportive way. At some appropriate point, see if you can get a sense of whether they are motivated to do something productive about their unhappiness: This is the most important, bottom-line factor.

If they are motivated to become happier, be as helpful as is appropriate. If they are not – perhaps they are afraid of happiness, or there is a payoff for them in being chronically worried, grumpy, or reproachful – then take care of your own needs, which might involve shrinking the size of the relationship.

PRH:The idea of living an entirely happy life is quite appealing – but quite tricky, given so much of what’s going on in the world. Where does the fact of negativity belong in our lives? How often should we give in to thinking deeply about the more troubling facets of the world today? And how do we temper that with how we’d like to live personally?

RH: Actually, for me an entirely happy life is not appealing, since that would mean being unmoved by the pain of others or the injustices around us. But I do believe that it is realistic and appealing to be mainly happy, with a core of well-being that is real and stable even if there is also sadness or outrage moving through the mind.

As much research shows, becoming happier is generally associated with a greater inclination and capacity to widen one’s view and help others. Filling up your own cup, tending to your own deep needs, and nurturing your well-being is good for others as well as yourself.

Plus building up your own inner resources is what you need to do to deal with the tough things in your own life. The harder a person’s life, the more important it is to see the good that is real, let that recognition become a good experience, and then take that experience into oneself.

It’s not either-or, either help the world or help yourself. The personal is the political and vice versa. Individual well-being is aided by a just and peaceful society, and citizens who are clear-eyed and strong are the necessary basis of a humane country.

PRH:What in your own life gives you the most immediate, simplest bit of happiness?

RH: Lots of things! The smell of coffee, laughing with my wife, seeing the birch trees in my backyard, watching the Golden State Warriors play basketball, learning a cool fact (there are about two trillion galaxies in the universe, wow), hanging out with our kids, or taking a moment to tune in to the feeling that I’m okay in this moment.

PRH: Clinical depression is a real problem in our nation. Where do you stand on psychopharmaceuticals and their proliferation in the U.S.?

RH: As a psychologist, I don’t prescribe medications but I do know a fair amount about their neurochemistry and use. My opinion is that a depressed person should take four steps for sure: address life situations (stress, job, relationships), nurture physical health (including the basics of diet, exercise, and sleep), connect with others, and train the mind (e.g., mindfulness, gratitude practices, counseling). Then, if that doesn’t take care of things, talk with a physician about possible medication.

I’m pragmatic. I’ve known people who worked hard in therapy but the smothering blues always came back until they took medication. If your brain chemistry is off and it doesn’t get sufficiently adjusted by the four steps I recommend above, there is no shame in taking medicine. But I’ve also known people who were given meds by some doctor without any thought to the person’s life situation, health issues, relationships, or psychology.

Powerful pharmaceutical corporations influence national healthcare, including the physicians in charge of it, and they have intense financial incentives to convince as many people as possible for as many reasons as possible to take as many medications as possible. There is no comparable industry to tell consumers about the research on non-medication options for depression, including therapy.

Mental health interventions such as psychotherapy usually have only good side effects, while about a third of the people who try antidepressants can’t tolerate them or get little or no benefit. And building resources in your mind sticks with you after the meds wear off or you stop taking them.

PRH: There’s an ongoing conversation about which is the happiest country in the world (with Denmark and Switzerland leading, lately). What three fixes do you think the United States would need to make in order to rank among the top three of happiest places on earth?

RH: These happiness ratings are tricky since they are averages of the people in a country, plus they are influenced by cultural influences on how people rate their own happiness.

This said, average happiness in the United States would increase dramatically if we became like every other industrial democracy (except us) in regard to:

-Slashing the poverty rate (today, one in five American children lives below the poverty line);

Improving work culture to make more room for family and personal life;

-Guaranteeing high quality healthcare for everyone.

I’m all for personal mental health practices, but they happen in the context of large-scale economic and political factors that make a huge difference.

PRH: Let’s assume our readers right now are very short on time, perhaps reading this interview on a lunch break. Can you offer three suggestions for getting a quick burst of happy in his or her day?

RH: You bet. These suggestions are organized in terms of the evolution of your brain in its three stages: reptilian brainstem, mammalian subcortex, and primate/human cortex. In order, starting with the brainstem, each stage is especially related to one of our three basic needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection.

In effect, we all have a little lizard, mouse, and monkey inside. So here are three little practices I do myself every day, less than a minute each:

Pet the lizard: Tune in to the fact that you are okay in this moment (when this is true, which is probably most of the time). Whatever happened in the past and may happen in the future, right now you are all right. Relax as you exhale, come into the present moment, and let go of needless worry and tension.

Feed the mouse: Think of things for which you are grateful. Fresh water, the kindness of others, the gift of life itself. Big things and little ones. Let appreciation and gladness spread inside you, perhaps as you softly say in your mind, “thank you.”

Hug the monkey: Feel your breathing in the area of your heart while bringing to mind one or more beings who have cared about you. Open to friendliness and support and love flowing in to you. Then feel your own good wishes and kindness and love flowing out.

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