Marty, my six-year-old daughter, has a book her Aunt Mary gave her called In a jar by Deborah Marcero. In the story, a little bunny boy named Llewellyn explores beautiful natural settings – the sea, a forest, a sunset, a snowy hill. Then he bottles the things that bring him joy – rainbows, hot chocolate by the fire, ice skating scenes, snowball fights, fields of flowers and seashells – and displays them on rows of shelves in his house.
Every time I read this beautiful book, I think about how nice it would be to be able to lock up positive emotional states or memories and open them up for our enjoyment at any time. Or better yet, how life-changing it could be to be able to continually retain and regenerate the beauty and happiness they engender within us. Science has finally caught up and mapped out this fantasy. For the first time ever, groundbreaking research from the University of California, Berkeley proposes that we can do just that – “grow good,” as the study’s lead author Rick Hanson, Ph.D., puts it. – and transform our desired mental states – feelings of serenity, competence, contentment or happiness – into permanent personal attributes with which we can lead in our daily lives.
“We’ve shown that if you teach people simple, powerful, evidence-based ways to turn transient states into lasting traits, to develop the good inside themselves, like resilience, mood positive, self-confidence, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, the sky’s the limit,” says Hanson, describing the details of his study.
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He and his co-authors recruited 46 participants to enroll in an 18-hour program (three-hour classes held weekly over a six-week period) to receive his “positive neuroplasticity training,” which used a methodology that he had designed and called HEAL. (Have, Enrich, Absorb and Link) to help study subjects enhance and expand their positive experiences and emotional states through the brain’s ability to form new neural connections.
It’s a simple practice we can all adopt immediately, Hanson says, pointing out that we have meditation and self-compassion exercises, but none, so far, “to teach people how to deliberately cultivate something good inside”. The practice is surprisingly easy. When you experience something that lights you up with good feelings, like when your kids say, “I love you, Mom,” or your boss says, “Great job on that report,” or your adorable kitten hops on your lap , do these three things:
1. Slow down with a few diaphragmatic breaths to savor the happy moment. “Let’s say someone complimented you at work. Instead of brushing it off in your mind, you could slow it down and receive it into yourself,” Hanson explained. In another example, he says to lasso calm and reassurance when your boss tells you not to worry about something. “You can let it go. You don’t need to be so stressed about it. Slow down. Let it sink in,” he says. Breathing into your next affirmation experience will help you savor — and stay in the moment.
2. Next, identify where you feel the positive sensation in your body, Hanson says. Locating your joy somatically will not only do you good and extend the duration of the pleasantness, but it will help create new neural pathways of positivity in the brain that will continue to grow and nurture your happier self. “Staying focused on these bodily sensations for a few seconds or longer will increase the lasting impact of this experience on the nervous system,” says Hanson.
3. Finally, he says, focus on what’s enjoyable or meaningful about the experience. For example, you might think of how a kind remark about art electrifies your self-esteem and encourages you to stay the course. “It will increase the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine, two major neurotransmitters related to your reward system, which will signal experience as a gatekeeper for prioritization and long-term storage,” he explains. .
Using 10 gold standard self-report measures of things like your sense of excitement, happiness, fear, shame, Hanson and his team found that participants enjoyed “substantial and statistically significant improvements significant on most measures”, even four months later. “We showed that there were dramatic and long-lasting increases in a whole variety of important psychological resources – increases in gratitude, self-compassion, calm, love, and self-regulation and decreases in depression and anxiety,” enthused Hanson.
Hanson’s colleague and study co-author Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at Santa Clara University’s School of Education & Counseling Psychology, makes an important point, as does Hanson.: A a few one-offs of practice will not provide lasting results. “It takes work. It actually takes practice,” she says. “What neuroplasticity means is that we can rearrange our brain structure through repeated practice. That means over and over again,” she points out.
Shapiro, author of Hi I love you and Rewire your mind, offers two essential practices that she uses to enjoy a disciplined re-sculpture of our neuroplastic brains. She starts each day with “Hello, Shauna, I love you”, which she admits, to the untrained mind, sounds like “new age” and “spongy” nonsense, but it’s far from be the case. “It’s actually a neural chemical. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we release dopamine, a soothing love hormone that makes us feel safe, so we build resources within ourselves,” says -she. (The passionate journalist, who just published a science-based guided diary in her book “Good Morning, I Love You,” gave an inspirational Ted Talk x that garnered nearly 3 million views, chronicling her resilience and her happy surrender to saying this phrase to herself.) She also begins her morning by saying, “”I wonder what amazing and beautiful thing is going to happen today. “Doing so, she says, activates the brain’s RAS (reticular activating system), which serves as a filter, alerting your mind to seek out what you’re expecting. It tells your brain, “pay attention, seek out the good,” so you can create more opportunities to practice Hanson’s three-part process in developing the good.
Recently, I urged Marty not to read his usual bedtime readings, Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, at revisit In a jara much more contemplative and melancholic read for an energetic, fun-seeking six-year-old, but I wanted to take the opportunity to illuminate the ways she can bottle and cultivate good for her own sustenance .
Me: How are you feeling right now?
Me: Let’s slow down and breathe “comfortable”.
Marty: Come on!
Me: Where do you feel the comfort in your body?
Marty: My butt.
Me: Come on, Marty.
Marty: Please read!
Me: Let’s think about the joys of being cozy.
It may have been a shaky start, but I’m not giving up Hanson’s groundbreaking precepts for helping her cultivate her garden of good. In a few years, when she is a teenager, she will need it more than ever…
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