Excerpt from GETTING MY BOUNCE BACK: Hardwiring happiness
Below is an excerpt from my book, Getting My Bounce Back: How I Got Fit, Healthier, and Happier (And You Can, Too). The book is available everywhere!
Day 98, July 5, 2014
“I can’t say what life will show me but I know what I’ve seen.”
– Jimmy Cliff, “Sitting in Limbo”
I’m under an umbrella with my toes in the sand in Ocho Rios, in St Ann’s Parish, Jamaica. I’ve been here before but every time I return I’m moved by the natural beauty of the place and the people. I know it’s important to visit new places but this is where I want to be.
Part of it is the music, of course. Calypso, reggae, rasta – as intoxicating as the fresh mint infusing my single mojito of the day. We got a dose of Jamaican politics from our driver on the way from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios passing through pockets of abject poverty and herds of goats.
Without any hesitation or self-consciousness the driver refers to Jamaica as “third world.” The temperature at this time of year is nearly 90 degrees, and it doesn’t cool down much in the evenings. We’re comfortable on the beach and under ceiling fans during meals served in rooms open to the sea, but the air conditioner runs cool all night in our room while we sleep. Most of the homes we passed on our drive did not have screens or glass on the windows so it’s safe to say there are no air conditioners.
Yet from the moment you arrive in Montego Bay, which, like Negril and Ocho Rios, thrives on tourism, you are greeted by people who despite living in a developing country give off an unmistakable happiness vibe. Big generalization I know and tourism is a smallish part of a larger economy focused on the hard work of coffee, sugar, and almond farms, but all of that recognized it is impossible to be unmoved by the Jamaican smile.
On the plane I was reading the latest issue of More magazine – the one with Lisa Kudrow on the cover – where I came across a piece on neuropsychologist Rick Hanson’s new book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
Hanson’s thesis is that the human brain has a natural negativity bias. He says from the time of our evolution in the Stone Age we’ve trained ourselves to let good experiences bounce off the brain while bad ones go right in.
He says we can train ourselves to alter the bias so we can be happier. For example, we can register a simple good experience, such as feeling relaxed as we exhale or by looking at a beautiful tree. Or we can think about someone in our life who cares about us. So that’s the first step – activating a positive mental state.
It only counts if you look at the beautiful tree and consciously register it as a positive experience. The next step is to dwell on the positive experience by staying completely aware of it for about twelve seconds. Hanson says to try to enrich the experience by accessing different senses. For example, if you’re outside your house standing by the beautiful tree, inhale the scent of the soil, and feel a slight breeze cross your face. His point is by prolonging and enriching the positive memory you’ll get as many neurons as possible to start firing so they can wire together.
Once you train yourself to consciously absorb the positive experience or to tell yourself you are absorbing the positive experience, the payoff is you’ll begin to create new neural connections that transform passing mental states, such as feeling cheerful, into lasting neural traits, i.e., being a cheerful person.
Maybe this is what happens subconsciously to people who live amid incredible natural beauty. I suspected this when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’m wondering if this is what is happening in Jamaica.
At the end of a long travel day yesterday we changed into our bathing suits after dinner and took a late night swim in the pool. Nearby, the old timers in the calypso band played Bob Marley’s intensely poignant and personal “Redemption Song,” which some say is the unofficial Jamaican national anthem.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / none but ourselves can free our minds.”
What I know about the song is that Marley wrote it after he was beginning to face his own mortality when he was diagnosed with cancer. But when I listened to it last night I was thinking about Hanson’s ideas of training our brains to register the good instead of the bad.
My work this week on the beautiful beach in Jamaica.
After two and a half weeks and five two-hour sessions of physical therapy, including five dry needling treatments, my strained hamstring is on the mend. Adorable and Really Smart are talking with each other and coordinating to ensure I progress. At first my reaction to this was, there’s only one thing worse than a single person focused on your body and that’s two people focused and talking to each other about your body.
But after reading about Hanson’s theories I’m filled with an overall sense of happiness as I contemplate two professionals who care about me, talking to each other about me on my behalf. They are both really smart and both completely adorable but they are so much more than smart and adorable.
This morning after my workout day off yesterday, I waded in the turquoise blue water on my way to the fitness center. I did 30 minutes on the recumbent bike, and with Really Smart’s okay, and Adorable’s guidance, 30 minutes on the elliptical, which I loved. Really Smart told me I could then move into a gentle jog on the treadmill if I felt okay. Of course you know I did and then after one mile at 4.5 MPH on the treadmill I felt more than okay. I felt great.
And I remembered to register the feeling.