Book Review-Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence

I’ve never considered myself particularly gifted at mixing audio for live performances. I’ve been a servant who has done them. There’s been more than a few worship services that I’ve supported over the years where I’ve been doing the mixing. However, I’ve never considered it to be a gift of mine. Experience has taught me how to use some tools to make things sound better and how to keep myself out of trouble. However, perhaps the most useful thing that running live sound has taught me is that you can listen through the noise and pick out a single voice or a single instrument. If you focus your attention on it you can hear how hard the keyboardist is playing – or pounding — the keys. You can hear when the electric guitar starts to muddy the vocals. You can hear when the electric bass is too loud – or too soft.

However, most folks don’t hear these things when they’re listening to music. They simple don’t listen with the intentionality of figuring out how to make the music better – and why would they? If you can’t change the music why try to find specific things in it? Most of the time we go through life just enjoying the music. We sit back and if we get a little bad with the good so be it. If we need a little more rest or feel a bit too stressed, it’s not a big deal. However, for some just listening to the music without being intentional isn’t a happy thing. For some the happy song isn’t so happy. This is at the heart of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. That is that it’s possible to focus your attention on parts of the music of life that make you happy. You can breathe them in more deeply and in doing so improve your happiness in life.

Feelings that Grow into Moods

If you’ve spent much time with babies you know that some babies just seem happier – and some of them are just – well – less happy. There’s something to them from the very beginning. This is what the Happiness Hypothesis would call winning the cortical lottery. They’re naturally born with a higher happiness “set point” than others.

As children grow older it seems like they’re all moody as hormones and the creation of new neurons seems to push them from mood-to-mood over days and weeks. Through the storm of these moods you can still see the child’s natural happiness “set point” coming through like the harbor that they always return to when the storms are done. Moods are much less permanent than the neurological happiness “set point” but are still able to hang on for days, weeks, and sometimes even months.

Compared to the relatively stable foundation of moods, feelings can feel like a plastic bag caught up in the wind, moving wherever the wind blows. Feelings seem to mostly fit into the space of the mood. Rarely do you have a sullen mood and a feeling of intense joy. There’s just something incompatible between a positive mood and a negative feeling – and vice versa.

This is the order we often think of happiness. We consider it from the perspective that our feelings are cast upon us – that we don’t have the capability to change them. If you believe that you are helpless and can’t change your neurological set point why even bother to try to become happier? Well, Mindset points out that our situation isn’t nearly as fixed as we believe it to be.

What if the flow occurs – sometimes – in the opposite direction? What if by directing your feelings you impact your moods? What if your moods become so long that they actually change your happiness “set point?” This is, of course, the point of the book that you can learn skills to direct your feelings which will lead to better moods and ultimately a shift in your neurological happiness “set point.”

Discover the Truth

Pack Your Happiness

What if instead of just unconsciously listening to the music of life you started to actively look for the happy things in life? We’re not talking about just the top of the mountain type happiness experiences. I’m talking about the everyday moments of warm-heartedness that we often look by. Consider the smell of your favorite coffee brewed by your spouse just because you like it. Perhaps it’s the sun on your face as you sit at a stoplight on your way to work.

You can choose to focus on the traffic or you can focus on the warmth of the sun. You can find happiness in little things or you can find the negative. Your reticular activating system (RAS) is the part of your brain that controls attention along with your sleep-awake cycle. You can teach it what you want to focus on more. Consider the last time you bought a new car. Before you started shopping you probably rarely ever noticed another car on the road like the one that you wanted. However, once you started the process and decided on the new car, you likely saw many more of them. It’s not like the car suddenly hit the streets. It’s that your RAS started focusing you on them. (You can see more about RAS in Change or Die.)

Hardwiring Happiness is about choosing to focus on the things that will bring you joy.

Love

There was once a time when folks sold untested and unproven medicines – snake oil – to cure a variety of diseases. Now we have the Food and Drug administration to oversee manufacturer claims about effectiveness of their drugs. Strict regulations have curtailed the outrageous claims that some manufacturers were making and have – generally speaking – made it easier to know that a drugs claims are backed up by some level of research. (Despite this there are still many findings in prestigiously published research that are reversed on further review and study as was discussed in The Heart and Soul of Change.) One thing that is challenging for the Food and Drug administration to test or regulate are feelings like compassion – or said differently love.

While hope may be the primary ingredient in placebo (as was discussed in my review of The Heart and Soul of Change) , Love is like the daily vitamin. It’s not associated to specific resolution of pains but is amazing at improving your overall health. The Bible says that “Perfect love casts out fear.” We’ve learned that fear, shame, guilt, and other “negative” feelings are detrimental to our health. Daring Greatly brought us face-to-face with the shame and guilt we all carry and how that shame and guilt can bring us down. Love – including self-love and compassion – is the general cure for the maladies caused by these emotions.

From giving and receiving love we develop a sense of peace and joy that leads us to a long-term happiness. We unconsciously expect the law of reciprocation. If we give love then we are more likely to expect that others will do the same. And for us love is like that blanket insurance policy. We don’t have to go it alone if others love us. It becomes more ok to fail and less stressful. It’s no wonder that love can have such a profound impact on our happiness.

Neural Darwinism

From a neurological standpoint there’s a battle going on. It’s not the survival of the fittest that Darwin discussed. It’s the survival of the busiest. That is to say that the neurons that are the busiest are the ones that are the most connected to the rest of the brain and the rest of life. Instead of being off in a lonely place with few roads, the neurons that you fire tend to wire. That is they build pathways between themselves and other neurons and make it easier to get back to them in the future.

What this means on the journey of developing happiness for yourself is that if you want to be happy you should make a point of encouraging happy thoughts. Some may say that they don’t have happy thoughts but that’s not true. We all have happy thoughts and sad thoughts. We can all focus on, enhance, and amplify the time we spend thinking about happy thoughts and in so doing create a long term bias towards them.

Consider the idea of addition and subtraction. For most of us we’ve overlearned our addition and subtraction tables. (See Efficiency in Learning for more about overlearning.) Because we overlearned them we rarely think about them when we’re doing a task that requires basic addition and subtraction. They’ve become so wired into the rest of our brain that they’re automatic. (See Thinking Fast and Slow for more about System 1 – the automatic system.) We can learn happiness the same way so that it’s automatic and doesn’t require a thought. However, just as learning our addition and subtraction tables took effort at first to get it ingrained in us, so too must we focus on learning to soak in happiness until it becomes automatic.

Leaning a Ladder against Happiness

There’s not a direct line between our circumstances and how we feel. In truth, there’s a ladder. Chris Argyris created a metaphorical ladder of how we take the information through our senses and create meaning – and judgement from it. (I discussed this in my review of Choice Theory as well.) While most folks want to blame their circumstances for their level of happiness I can tell you that in my own experience and in the research I’ve read from Stumbling on Happiness to The Happiness Hypothesis and beyond, people in the same circumstances see things differently. They focus their attention on additional data – they apply meaning to the data they have – build assumptions – and so on.

I can tell you that I’ve seen people transform their attitude through recovery/care programs. From the time where they’re unhappy to the time when they are happy their objective circumstances haven’t changed. Their finances may be out of control, there may still be impending doom in their marriage but their attitude changes and they become happier because of how they choose to view things—not because things have changed.

The point here is that it’s not your circumstances that controls your happiness – it’s how you choose to see your circumstances.

Desire to Be Happy

So the key to being happy is to truly desire to be happy. Some will say that they strongly desire to be happy – and yet their behaviors say something entirely different. In recovery programs they tell you to believe behavior – that is you’re only really ready to stop an addiction when you’re ready to change your behaviors. (I’m not speaking directly about the addiction. I’m speaking more about dangerous behaviors that lead to indulging in the behavior.) The first step in a 12 step recovery program is to admit you have a problem. It’s that admission – or in this case determination – that drives the rest of the process forward. It’s great that you’re interested in being happy – but are you committed to becoming more happy. Are you willing to invest time in life giving activities that make you happy – or are you too busy to make time?

Good enough for now (Not seeking perfect)

One of the final factors that influences the ability to be happy is the desire towards perfectionism. Whether it’s perfectionism in ourselves or in the things that we do, perfectionism is hard work and a road filled with only disappointments. In the language of The Paradox of Choice we should seek to be satisficers – looking for good enough – rather than maximizers – looking only for the best. The trick is that there is no best. There is no perfect way. There’s only good enough for now. So go be happy enough for now – until you’re ready to be happier. The first step may be reading Hardwiring Happiness.