An interview by Fiona Douglas-Crampton
The holiday season often brings additional stress. The days are getting shorter and colder and we have to cope with multiple demands to make our loved ones happy: Christmas shopping, parties, cooking, cleaning and more. Add a growing sense of helplessness in the face of climate change and negative world news and it can seem an impossible task to maintain a sense of personal happiness, well-being and calmness. Negativity and stress take over.
Psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Rick Hanson became aware of unhappiness in his family and in the world at a young age. Now a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC, Hanson turned to psychology and brain science for answers and realized that if you can change your brain, you can change your life. In his new book, Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness (co-authored with Forrest Hanson, release March 2018), the author of Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha’s Brain draws on 40 years of experience of working with people to offer practical ways to grow the 12 essential strengths of resilient well-being.
Hanson shares insights into what people can do now to build lasting well-being in their daily lives and replace a sense of deficit and disturbance with fullness and balance.
Fiona Douglas-Crampton: What inspired you to focus your work on happiness and neuroplasticity?
Rick Stanton Hanson: I had a sense as a young child that there was a lot of unnecessary unhappiness in my school, my family and out in the world. But I didn’t know what to do about it. Then as I got older and learned about psychology, brain science and contemplative wisdom, I became excited about the practical tools they offered for using the mind alone to change the brain for the better.
The brain is the final common pathway of all the causes streaming through us to make us happy or sad, loving or hateful, effective or helpless, so if you can change your brain, you can change your life. I have personally gained from these methods – my wife of 35 years says I have become nicer, which could be the toughest test! – and have seen many others get many benefits as well.
FD-C: What are the specific challenges we face today in a world that require us to build a core of inner strength?
RH: There are big problems in the world, plus ordinary life is full of stressors, losses, conflicts and illnesses. To deal with adversity and pursue opportunities in the face of challenges, we need to be resilient, able to endure, bounce back and keep on going.
Methods in self-help, positive psychology, transformation, new age, human potential and spiritual practice are often framed as a kind of magic carpet ride: just do X (e.g., be grateful, compassionate, meditative) and you’ll be whisked to happiness. But it’s just not true.
Any kind of lasting well-being requires coping with the hard things in life. Want to be happy? Be resilient.
Resilience is usually presented as something we need for trauma, combat, etc. True enough, but that is an inaccurate and overly narrow view. Resilience is for every day of your life, not just for surviving the worst day of your life.
FD-C: How do we get started?
RH: Resilience comes from having inner strengths such as grit, motivation and love. These are the resources we draw on to deal with hassles and setbacks, manage frustration and disappointment, ride waves of pain and face inevitable aging and death.
Resilience is not static. Actually, it is something you can develop over time. Most research and interventions related to resilience focus on just identifying and using inner strengths. This is good, but it misses the key question: where do these inner resources come from and how can we get more of them?
This is where the neuropsychology of learning comes in. To grow more empathy, mindfulness, self-worth or any other psychological resource, first you must have an experience of it or a related factor. Second, that passing experience must be installed as a durable change in neural structure or function.
Experiencing alone does not equal learning. Think about all the times we experience something useful – a moment of satisfaction at finishing a task, an insight into how to be more skillful in a relationship – and we zip along to the next experience so that first experience is wasted on the brain. Besides the impact on everyday life, this is the weakness of much psychotherapy, coaching, human resources programs and spiritual training.
This general problem is worsened by the brain’s evolved “negativity bias,” which makes it like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones. We overlearn from stress, worry, irritation, sadness and hurt, while underlearning from moments of confidence, determination, calming, kindness and realization.
Here are two practical suggestions a person can use every day:
1) Half a dozen times a day, focus on and stay with a useful, usually enjoyable, experience for a breath or longer. Feel it in your body and notice what feels good or meaningful about it. This will help the experience be more consolidated and installed in long-term memory systems. In effect, you can make it “stick to your (mental) ribs.”
2) Pick an inner strength that would really help to have more of. Perhaps greater calm, gladness or the sense that your own needs matter, too. Then look for opportunities to experience this strength each day and take these experiences into yourself.
You’ll notice that most experiences of inner resources are enjoyable – an aspect of well-being. Resilience promotes well-being and as you take in experiences of well-being – including experiences of inner resources – that will make you more resilient. Resilience fosters well-being and well-being fosters resilience, in a wonderful upward spiral!
FD-C: What are some things you do to take care of yourself?
RH: Firstly, I try to frame taking care of myself in a larger context of service to others. Second, I try to take care of myself by having many little moments in the day in which I take in whatever might be calming, soothing, wholesome, beautiful, loving or happy.
Fiona Douglas-Crampton is the president and CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, a charitable organization focused on “Heart-Mind Well-Being.” dalailamacenter.org
February 23-24: Rick Hanson, Ph.D will be speaking on resilient well-being at the next Heart-Mind Conference hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Langley. For information and to register for Heart-Mind 2018: Take Care of Yourself – the Science and Practice of Well-Being, visit www.dalailamacenter.org/conference/heart-mind-2018-take-care-yourself