Awakin Calls » Rick Hanson » Blog

Rick Hanson: The Science of Happiness

Awakin Call With Rick Hanson

A joyful collaboration by Bethany Lyttle and Anne Veh~

Dr. Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and an authority on self-directed neuroplasticity. Wondering what the heck that really means? Think of it this way: You have a physical brain and neurology tends to focus on that. Then you have emotions, moods, and feelings and psychologists tend to focus on that. What Dr. Hanson does is meld the two, suggesting a two-way street of sorts. The brain’s structure, he says, influences our emotions, but our emotions also influence (very literally) the structure of our brains. In his books Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture, Hanson asserts that the active use of good experiences can be harnessed to alter our overall response to the world.

Hanson was in college when he first noticed
that even the most trivial-seeming positive experiences made a difference to his mental health and wellbeing. A smile from a girl on an elevator, a small compliment from a professor, an offer by a fellow student to get pizza---all of these tiny events made him feel less hollow, somehow, more appreciated, more wanted.
And that’s when it clicked: By taking deliberate notice of what had been pleasurable, by letting
it sink in for a few seconds, he gradually began to feel happier, stronger, and more confident than he had ever felt before.

The problem, he says, is that we have a tendency to rush through (or even ignore) these small moments. Or to notice something pleasant then write it off as insignificant or insincere. What Hanson decided was to let those teensy moments sink in, though, to allow them to enter his heart, drop by gradual drop. And what he discovered was that they began to add up. Soon his confidence increased, and he developed an impulse to do good in the world. And the more he did, the more he wanted to do. Sure, he’d not been intellectually aware of it at the time but this slow-drip happiness-intake was the stuff of neuroplasticity, or as he likes to refer to it, brain-sculpting. Those positive experiences were literally creating new neural pathways that made way for more peace of mind, more happiness, more love, charity and so on.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Hanson began formal studies in the field of neuroplasticity, hoping to understand his own transformation. But his path was not a direct one. In fact, what he learned was a little bit disappointing. Apparently the brain is excellent at turning bad experiences into negative traits. But it is rather weak at turning positive experiences into positive traits! Puzzling! Why, he wanted to know?

Hanson proffers that six hundred million years ago, negative experiences---- natural hazards, predators, and violence---were omnipresent and were quite likely to result in death. So, negative experiences were the best teachers when it came to learning to survive. But times have changed, and he’d like us to honor that, to take note of the fact that not every moment is about life-or-death, or imminent survival. To do so, he he argues for the building of inner strength. And we need positive experiences of those strengths. We need our brains to register them—and keep them. So, how can this be done? To internalize the primary source of internal strength, happiness, love, resilience, kindness, compassion, and commitment to justice (to name a few) Hanson says we need to cultivate an appreciation for these things. This means holding those good moments in a vast and open space where they can be investigated, where we can ask ourselves: ‘What is my emotional response?’ ‘What is my body sensation?’ ‘ What is my attitude?’ And so on. By repeatedly internalizing wholesome, appropriate, authentic, positive experiences, we can cultivate a sense of peace, contentment and love that is not easily invaded by the negativity bias of our “survival brains”. And eventually, this will lead to inner tranquility, an easing and relaxing over time into a state of joy.

Want to learn more about Dr. Rick Hanson’s ideas, methods, recommendations, and discoveries? Please visit

About Awakin Calls

Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...


Subscribe To Newsletter

To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.


Archived Conversations

Or search by date or through tags like:

Contact Us

If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.


  • img
  • img