Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind. Some of the results can be explicitly recalled: This is what I did last summer; that is how I felt when I was in love. But most of them remain forever unconscious. This is called implicit memory, and it helps form your expectations, models of relationships, emotional tendencies, and general outlook. Implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind—what it feels like to be you—based on the slowly accumulating residues of lived experience.
But here’s the problem: Your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences; it’s like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. Then the background feeling of what it feels like to be you can become undeservedly glum and pessimistic.
Sure, negative experiences do have benefits: Loss opens the heart, remorse provides a moral compass, anxiety alerts you to threats, and anger spotlights wrongs that should be righted. But do you really think you’re not having enough negative experiences? Emotional pain with no benefit to yourself or others is pointless suffering. And pain today breeds more pain tomorrow. For instance, according to research by psychiatrist Vladimir Maletic, even a single episode of major depression can reshape circuits of the brain to make future episodes more likely.
The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences; when they happen, they happen. Rather, it is to foster positive experiences—and in particular, to take them in so they become a permanent part of you.
Here’s how, in three steps.
1. Turn positive facts into positive experiences
Good things keep happening all around us, but much of the time we don’t notice them; even when we do, we do, we hardly feel them. Someone is nice to you, you see an admirable quality in yourself, a flower is blooming, you finish a difficult project—and it all just rolls by. Instead, actively look for good news, particularly the little stuff of daily life: the faces of children, the smell of an orange, a memory from a happy vacation, a minor success at work, and so on. Whatever positive facts you find, bring a mindful awareness to them—open up to them and let them affect you. It’s like sitting down to a banquet: don’t just look at it—dig in!
2. Savor the experience
Make positive experiences last by staying with them for 5, 10, even 20 seconds; don’t let your attention skitter off to something else. Loyola University psychologist Fred Bryant has shown that savoring positive experiences intensifies our positive response to them. And research by Marc Lewis at the University of Toronto has found that the longer something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace of it becomes in our memory.
Pay particular attention to the rewarding aspects of the experience—for example, how good it feels to get a great big hug from someone you love. Focusing on these rewards increases dopamine release, which makes it easier to keep giving the experience your attention, and strengthens its neural associations in implicit memory. You’re not doing this to cling to the rewards—which would eventually make you suffer—but rather to internalize them so that you carry them inside you and don’t need to reach for them in the outer world.
You can also intensify an experience by deliberately enriching it. For example, if you are savoring a relationship experience, you could call up other feelings of being loved by others, which will help stimulate oxytocin—the “bonding hormone”—and thus deepen your sense of connection. Or you could strengthen your feelings of satisfaction after completing a demanding project by thinking about some of the challenges you had to overcome.
3. Let the experience sink in
Finally, imagine or feel that the experience is entering deeply into your mind and body, like the sun’s warmth into a T-shirt, water into a sponge, or a jewel placed in a treasure chest in your heart. Keep relaxing your body and absorbing the emotions, sensations, and thoughts of the experience.
Positive experiences can also be used to soothe, balance, and even replace negative ones. When two things are held in mind at the same time, they start to connect with each other. That’s one reason why talking about hard things with someone who’s supportive can be so healing: painful feelings and memories get infused with the comfort, encouragement, and closeness you experience with the other person.
These mental minglings draw on the neural machinery of memory. When a memory—whether implicit or explicit—is made, only its key features are stored, not every single detail. Otherwise, your brain would become so crowded that it wouldn’t have space to learn anything new. For example, remember an experience, even a recent one, and notice how schematic your recollection is, with the main features sketched in but many details left out.
When your brain retrieves a memory, it does not do it like a computer does, which calls up a complete record of what’s on its hard drive. Your brain rebuilds implicit and explicit memories from their key features, drawing on its simulating capacities to fill in missing details. While this is more work, it’s also a more efficient use of neural real estate—this way, complete records don’t need to be stored. And your brain is so fast that you don’t notice the regeneration of each memory.
This rebuilding process gives you the opportunity, right down in the micro-circuitry of your brain, to gradually shift the emotional shadings of your interior landscape. When a memory is activated, a large-scale assembly of neurons and synapses forms an emergent pattern. And Rutgers University neuroscientist Denis Paré has found that if other things are in your mind at the same time—and particularly if they’re strongly pleasant or unpleasant—your amygdala and hippocampus will automatically associate them with that neural pattern. Then, when the memory leaves awareness, it will be reconsolidated in storage along with those other associations.
The next time the memory is activated, it will tend to bring those associations with it. Thus, if you repeatedly bring to mind negative feelings and thoughts while a memory is active, then that memory will be increasingly shaded in a negative direction. For example, recalling an old failure while simultaneously lambasting yourself will make that failure seem increasingly awful. On the other hand, if you call up positive emotions and perspectives while an implicit or explicit memory is active, these wholesome influences will slowly be woven into the fabric of that memory.
Every time you do this—every time you sift positive feelings and views into painful, limiting states of mind—you build a little bit of neural structure. Over time, the accumulating impact of this positive material will literally, synapse by synapse, change your brain.
Why it’s good to take in the good
Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones. When you tilt toward what’s positive, you’re actually righting a neurological imbalance. And you’re giving yourself today the caring and encouragement you should have received as a child, but perhaps didn’t get in full measure.
Focusing on what is wholesome, and then taking it in naturally, increases the positive emotions flowing through your mind each day. Emotions have global effects since they organize the brain as a whole. Consequently, as research by University of North Carolina psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has shown, positive emotions don’t just feel good in the moment; over time, they produce far-reaching benefits, including a stronger immune system and a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress. Fredrickson has also found other long-term benefits of positive emotions: They lift your mood; increase optimism, resilience, and resourcefulness; and help counteract the effects of painful experiences, including trauma. It’s a positive cycle: Good feelings today increase the likelihood of good feelings tomorrow.
These benefits apply to children as well. In particular, taking in the good has a special payoff for kids at either the spirited or the anxious end of the temperament spectrum. Spirited children usually zip along to the next thing before good feelings have a chance to consolidate in the brain, and anxious children tend to ignore or downplay good news. (And some kids are both spirited and anxious.) Whatever their temperament, if children are part of your life, encourage them to pause for a moment at the end of the day (or at any other natural interval, such as the last minute before the school bell) to remember what went well and think about things that make them happy (e.g., a pet, their parents’ love, a goal scored in soccer). Then have those positive feelings and thoughts sink in.
Taking in the good is not about putting a happy shiny face on everything, nor is it about turning away from the hard things in life. It’s about nourishing inner well-being, contentment, and peace—refuges to which you can always return.
About The Author
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist, author, and teacher working at the intersection of psychology, neurology, and Buddhism. This essay is adapted from his latest book (with Rick Mendius, M.D., Foreword by Daniel Siegel, M.D., Preface by Jack Kornfield, Ph.D.), Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom