Cultivating Positive Experiences

I recently watched a webinar with Dr. Rick Hanson and Dr. Lee Freedman about positive neuroplasticity. I have followed Dr. Hanson’s work since graduate school, when I was introduced to it by a professor, and find that I always take so much away from his teachings. This webinar was no exception, and I spent the next few days turning over several ideas.

  1. “The world is slow to change, but meanwhile no one can stop you…” It is true, there are many things in the world that we may wish to change; that we may feel helpless to change; or that even prevent us from pursuing our own change and growth. It can be easy to justify our own reluctance to change with the perception that the world around us is remaining the same- it's those moments when we throw our hands into the air and say “What’s the point?”. However, you are in control of the change that you pursue- whether it be behavioral change, emotional change, or cognitive change. You are in control of how you receive and interact with the world around you. How can we expect the world to change if, as individuals, change is not something we pursue?

  2. “We blow right past so many opportunities every day” If, at the end of a day, I were to ask you about the strongest emotions you experienced and the triggers to these emotions, where would your mind go? Would it go to feelings of gratefulness, contentedness, pride, or empathy? Or would it more quickly recall the moments of frustration, anger, hurt, or disconnect? If you answered the latter, you are in good company. Humans have developed a negativity bias, meaning that our brains are wonderful at recognizing and integrating a negative experience; meanwhile, we barely pause when we come across an enriching experience. These small, easily dismissed moments of joy are opportunities to change your brain. What if rather than blowing through these moments, we stopped to give them as much attention as those negative moments that stick to us like Velcro? What if we chose to cultivate these experiences, rather than tend only to hurt? This is not the same as denying the hurt, simply “thinking positively”, or putting on some rose-colored glasses. So how do we do it?

  3. HEAL                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         In the webinar, Dr. Hanson describes the acronym HEAL as a means of taking in these positive experiences and, ultimately, changing our brain. 

    • Have a positive experience. This may be more difficult for some than others; remember, we have developed a negativity bias. Keep your eyes out for moments- even small moments! - in which a positive feeling is sparked within you.

    • Enrich: So you’ve had a positive experience- now what? Enrich the experience by making it bigger. Perhaps you stay with this moment for a bit longer; and by longer, I do not mean that you now must dedicate 10 minutes to marinating in this experience. Dedicate a mere 5-10 seconds to experiencing this moment! Notice how this experience affects all of your senses; notice what this experience means to you, and its relevance to your life; notice novel aspects of this experience that you may have not appreciated in the past.

    • Absorb: Focus on the intention of receiving this moment and allowing it to sink in. Imagine welcoming this moment into your being.

    • Link: Dr. Hanson describe this last step as an optional one. If you find your positive moment to be powerful, you can try calling to attention a moment or feeling from the past that has more negative associations. Be aware of both experiences while allowing the positive experience to remain primary. The goal of this step is to soothe, reduce, and potentially replace negative material with positive material.

I recommend checking out the articles written by Dr. Hanson on his website at www.rickhanson.net, as well as his book Hardwiring Happiness which discusses HEAL and other related ideas in greater detail.

If you are stuck in a cycle of feeling overwhelmed by negative experiences and unable to create positive change and growth, contact me via telephone or email.

Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.