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With some simple strategies, you can hardwire more happiness, love and wisdom into your brain, and thus your life, according to psychologist, speaker and New York Times bestselling author Dr Rick Hanson
1 Know That You can Change Your Brain for the Better
In order to learn, we have to change something in the nervous system, especially the brain. If, for example, we want to cheer ourselves up, we may think about something that makes us feel good – but this doesn’t result in lasting change.
To achieve lasting change, says Dr Hanson, we must consciously experience what we want to learn – this may simply be the feeling of being loved or enjoying a walk. Now, turn that passing experience into a lasting change of neural structure or function, by “staying with” the experience for up to 20 seconds at a time.
Studies show that self-compassion actually makes people stronger, kinder, and more successful
“Feel it,” Dr Hanson says. “Allow it to sink into you like a sponge. The richer and more intense the experience, the more you will remember it. Focusing on it helps it to become ‘big’ in your mind.
“This is about the gradual accumulation of little moments that add up over time to make you feel better about yourself.”
2 Come Into the Present
Researchers have found that about half the time, the average person’s mind is wandering. They are not concentrating on what they are doing, because their brain has ‘defaulted’ to a kind of ‘resting place’ where they daydream or ruminate. The bad news is that the more a mind wanders, the more likely it is to be caught up in negative rumination, often with themes of resentment, helplessness, falling short or self-recrimination.
“If your neurons are firing about negative thoughts, you will wire that negativity into your brain,” Dr Hanson warns.
By coming into the here and now, you can short-circuit this wear and tear on your self-worth.
3 Have Compassion for Others
Compassion is simply the wish that someone not suffer – broadly defined – usually with sympathetic concern. Besides being a kind thing to do, having compassion helps you feel good about your own warm heart. It also helps you see the common humanity in your own challenges and reactions, and thus, be more self-accepting and less self-critical.
4 Have Compassion for Yourself
Studies show that self-compassion actually makes people stronger, kinder, and more successful. It is not about wallowing in self-pity, Dr Hanson explains. When you notice you are tired, worried, hassled or in pain, take a moment to give yourself the same quality of support and encouragement that you would offer a friend in a similar situation. This will interrupt any dismissive, critical, or punishing ways of relating to yourself – which undermine self-worth – plus give you sense of being someone who deserves kindness and concern.
5 Notice Little Accomplishments
From the time they wake up, to the time they crawl into bed at the end of a long day, everyone accomplishes hundreds of small goals, such as making a cup of tea, getting on the bus, or having a conversation. Each of these is an opportunity to register a little sense of completion and success, which can gradually increase a person’s sense of capability and self-esteem.
6 Stop Fuelling Self-Criticism
Yes, recognise what needs correction and improvement, and take action as best you can. But banging on at yourself critically tears you down and does not lead to long-term success.
See criticism as “over there,” and don’t bring it ‘into’ yourself, Dr Hanson counsels. When you notice you’re being self-critical past the point of usefulness – which, he adds, is usually early on – step back and label it as “over the top”.
This will increase activity in your prefrontal cortex – which is calming and regulating – and decrease activity in the alarm bell of your brain, the amygdala.
7 Make One Thing Right
Stretch yourself each day to straighten up a little corner of the world. Make a contribution to the world in some way every day, focusing on what is small, simple and do-able. For example, pick up a piece of litter on the sidewalk, let one person go ahead in line, or smile at a stranger. Just do one thing, and then let yourself have a moment of feeling good about yourself. You can do more, of course, if you like!.
8 Give Love
You can’t make anyone love you, but no one can stop you from loving others. Love is love, flowing in or out. The giving of love increases the activity of the neurotransmitter, oxytocin, which in turn calms down the amygdala while nourishing a sense of connection and belonging with others.
Start with someone who is easy to give love to – such as a baby or a dear friend and then, if you like, “work up the ladder of challenge”.
“This is not about letting people use and abuse you, or about becoming a doormat,” he emphasises. “I am talking about deliberately expressing your own natural warm-heartedness in ways to help others and help you feel good about yourself.”
9 Learn One Thing Daily
Each day, try to learn something new. Perhaps a cool weird fact about penguins or the planet Mars. Or maybe it’s a slightly better way to make spaghetti. Or recognising a flower you hadn’t noticed before. This will help you feel good about yourself as a lifelong learner. Plus, it just might protect your brain and help you maintain your cognitive capabilities as you get older.
10 When You Feel Included or Seen – Take It In
We are profoundly social mammals, so feeling part of a group or believing that one exists for others is a fundamental source of self-worth. Look for those times when others make room for you, ask you along, treat you as a fellow member of something such as an apartment floor or political cause, recognise how you are feeling, or try to understand your deeper feelings and wants. When you recognise inclusion or empathy, and are open to feeling included or seen, this will add to your sense of being a worthy person, plus, it will help you build resilience and bounce back sooner when you feel left out.
11 When You Feel Appreciated – Take It In
It is normal to want respect from other people. Our ancestors lived mainly in small hunter-gatherer bands in which being of value to others was critical to survival. So be aware of little moments in which another person – or pet! – is grateful, thankful, appreciative, or complimentary to you. This is their gift and it would be rude to refuse it. Recognising the fact of their appreciation, let it become an experience that sinks into you, becoming a part of you, helping you feel deservedly good about yourself
12 When You Feel Liked or Loved – Take It In
We all want and need to feel liked and loved. Recall good times when people were friendly, warm, affectionate, fond, loving, or cherishing toward you, and let these memories become rich experiences that you savour and internalise.
Also, notice these days when you have opportunities for similar experiences. The relationships needn’t be perfect (few if any are); just focus on the slice of the relationship pie that is or has been genuinely good for you.
13 If Someone Hurts You…
Look for the learning, which means acknowledging what is legitimate. Leave the rest.
Next, have compassion for yourself – acknowledge that the nastiness hurt. This is not about wallowing in self-pity! If possible, find compassion for the person who hurt or embarrassed you. This is a moral thing to do and helps you feel less upset. Finally, make a plan – will I let this pass? Should I talk to this person about what they said?
14 Admit Fault and Clean Up the Mess
We all make mistakes; we all hurt other people. As fast as you can, see whatever is worthy of correction, guilt, or remorse and take maximum reasonable personal responsibility for it – although others may have their inputs, but ultimately, you decide this for yourself. Then, make amends and repairs as best you can. Knowing that you operate in this way brings moral backbone to feeling good about yourself. And it lays a foundation for what’s been called “the bliss of blamelessness”.
15 Know that you’re a basically good person
Consider several people you know and how easy it is to recognise someone as a basically good person. They don’t need to be saints or to have cured cancer, and they certainly have faults and lapses. Then, consider how people see each other as basically good persons… and how people see YOU as a basically good person. Be open to recognising this about yourself. See the good you have done, the people you have treated with friendship and kindness, the efforts you have made over the years. Feel the relief, the reassurance spreading inside you. Take it in and know that you are, indeed, a basically good person.