Here’s me having breakfast and taking in “a view of a lifetime”. And there is some happiness re-wiring going on in my brain as well (More about that below).
I am perched on a ridge between the Arun and Tamor rivers in eastern Nepal. The high peak is Makalu and left of picture are Nuptse and Lhotse in the Everest Himal. Also in view, just to the right, is the towering mass of Kanchenjunga.
I did more than “see” the view; I “experienced” it in the sense that neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes. I spent time with it; I dwelt on it, savouring the sensations and feelings it evoked; and I lost myself in the experience as it became part of me. The staggering beauty of the scene coupled with its novelty and awesomeness made experiencing it in this way very easy.
I was “taking in goodness” to borrow one of Hanson’s apt phrases. In fact, almost every waking moment on the trek contained an opportunity to take in goodness. Apart from the grandeur of the mountains there was the magnificence of the forests,
As my attention was being captured again and again by the goodness of natural beauty, my brain was being incrementally rewired. It was becoming a happier brain. And it was not only my encounters with natural beauty that was doing this for me. The immensely enjoyable meals Peter and I were served along with the comfort of our camps, our companionship and the warm relationships we developed with our support team added different dimensions of goodness. (If you would like to have a Nepalese trek like ours, contact Himalayan Sunrise for support of the highest quality and reliability.)
Why and how these “good” or positive experiences were re-wiring my brain is explained by Rick Hanson in his best-selling book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence.
His starting point is the fact that our brains are constantly being rewired by experience and particularly by what most captures our attention. Our brains, however, are not even-handed when it comes to paying attention. They are biased towards registering and remembering negative experiences. Recall your experience of school exams, for example – how you easily remembered and stewed over the few questions you thought you did badly while almost completely losing sight of your handling of the others.
Evolution shaped our brains to be biased in this way because avoiding harm (and staying alive) has to take precedence over everything else in the business of survival. As a result we have a brain that works like Velcro as far as bad experiences are concerned – grabbing and holding onto such experiences tenaciously – but like Teflon when it comes to positives ones – letting these come and go without anything sticking.
What can happen if negative experiences are not balanced by positive ones is that our brain becomes wired to expect bad things as a matter of course. The threat-detecting centres in our brain, especially the amygdala, become over active making us depressed anxious, suspicious, defensive, angry and inward-looking. The risk of this threat to well-being is increasing in an age when news of murder, mayhem, war and disasters is on-tap 24/7.
To prevent this happening, says Hanson, we have to make “taking in goodness” a constant ingredient of life. To do this, we have to transform a “fact” of goodness into and “experience”. The “fact” can be anything from a personal compliment, the taste of an espresso coffee, a lick of greeting from your pet dog, the scent of a flower, to something on a grander scale like a story of human compassion or a desert sunset. The steps (H.E.A.L.) Hanson recommends are
- Have the experience (that is, activate a positive mental state) by noticing something positive that is already in or on the cusp of your awareness, or by creating one;
- Enrich the experience first by staying with it for 20-30 seconds or longer, and then by enjoying it, by sensing its effect on your body, by finding something fresh or novel about it or by considering how the experience might help you in some way;
- Absorb it by seeking to lodge the experience securely in your mind and memory – make it part of you;
- Link the experience to related negatives ones with a view to ameliorating the latter (but only if your focus on the positive is not compromised).
We need to be deliberate and mindful in giving ourselves to positive experiences because, compared with negative ones, more repetitions (five times as many, Hanson suggests) are needed to achieve the re-wiring effects we desire.
Among the examples of “good” or positive experience Hanson mentions in his book are many from nature. I don’t think that readers of my blog or my book, Claim Your Wildness, will be surprised by this. Nature offers us countless opportunities for all manner of positive experiences. Our brain, in fact, disposes us to seek and benefit from these opportunities.
But it is not simply a process that flows one way. The same brain that prompts us to seek positive experiences in nature is itself changed by those experiences. Claiming your wildness is as much about rewiring your brain for “contentment, calm and confidence” as it is about anything else.