According to neuro researcher Rick Hanson, the human brain has been hardwired through evolution to prioritize detection of danger and let happiness disappear into the background. It makes sense. If you lost out on something good, life went on. But if you made just one wrong move in danger detection you got eaten by a predator. In contemporary life we have few of these dangers, but are brains are still geared toward fear and anxiety through millions of years of conditioning.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,* Hanson points out that in order to counterbalance this negative tendency, we actually have to work at redirecting and rewiring our neurologic circuits. He encourages a process that includes embracing and absorbing positive experiences. We can use those experiences as a kind of memory bank that accrues interest.

To create this memory bank, we have to actually feel the positive experience. We have to bodily sense it and hold it. Our hardwiring toward danger typically allows for a few seconds of happiness and then moves on. It’s fleeting. That doesn’t create a good, deep groove in our brain. Hanson recommends allowing the happiness vibration for 20 seconds. Once you’ve felt that vibration in your body, you can come back to it another time, in another context, and feel it in your body again. You can practice feeling happy!

Some of my happy vibrations come from sounds: children squealing in joy on the playground, birds chirping in the trees in Spring, anyone laughing heartily. One of the deepest joys I feel lately is watching my one year-old grandchild fall asleep. We lay down together for a nap. He snuggles in, getting comfortable in our quiet nest, and then his face and body melt bit by bit into innocent slumber. My heart flies wide open and all is good in the world. I can call up this memory later and still feel the same pure happiness that I do in the moment.

Once I have this in my memory bank, I can take it out several times a day and practice feeling it. That doesn’t deplete the bank, it adds interest every time I use it––it grows the sensation and deepens the groove for feeling happiness. A few times a day is all I need to remind me of the gifts of this life.

There is no prescription for happiness. It varies from person to person. As Holiday Mathis says, “Trying to imitate someone else’s joy is like wearing clothes out of season — a coat in summer is bound to cause discomfort, as are the sandals in the snow. Your own brand of happiness will align perfectly with your inner weather.” What brings you joy?

We can practice feeling happy, 20 seconds at a time, until we turn the bus around. We can leave the doom-habit track and adventure intentionally into a world of joy.

*(Harmony/Rodale, 2016)