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Rewiring your brain for happiness

Wellcome Trust

The brain is not only the regulator of our entire body, but also the basis for the experiences we’re having, good or bad. We’re pretty dependent on our brain, according to Dr. Rick Hanson. He’s a psychologist and New York Times best-selling author of many books about the brain and happiness.

“So, one of the key takeaways here is to realize that this phenomenal organ -- three pounds of tofu-like tissue inside the coconut between your ears -- is vulnerable and fragile,” Hanson says.

It’s vulnerable to daily stress, for example. And while some of what our brain is capable of when it comes to being happy lies in our genetic code, other parts of our brain are changeable and shapeable.

“It is actually possible to learn resilience, to learn gratitude, to learn mindfulness, compassion, and well-being or happiness altogether,” Hanson says.

And he says we can do this with a bit of rewiring. The brain has a natural negativity bias. That bias is part of what helped the human race survive. But now that we’re not trying to escape predators or determine if the berries we’re gathering are poisonous, humans can take the time to marinate in a positive experience and use what’s called associational learning. Hanson explains it this way:

“If hypothetically you are aware of both something positive and something negative at the same time -- through the normal process of neurons that fire together wire together -- if you keep the positive experience larger, more prominent, more intense in your mind, it will tend to associate with, sooth, put into context and potentially over time even replace that negative material.”

This internal healing, as Hanson puts it, can actually serve as an antidote to past feelings of pain or sadness. Rather than letting negative experiences undermine happiness, he suggests rewiring for better results.

You'll hear more about health and happiness tomorrow on "Morning Edition," about how happiness can impact your overall health and well-being. The features you're hearing this week lead up to a special hour-long edition of "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show, this weekend. Tune in Saturday at 6 a.m. or Sunday at 6 p.m. for the entire show; we'll be examining happiness and health with some of the country's top experts.

Support for this story comes from The Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.