Editor’s Note: Over the last month we’ve been publishing regular installments in the Pillars of Well-Being series from Dr. Rick Hanson. In case you missed it, here is the whole series presented as one complete article. The Foundations of Well-Being program is being offered at a $50 discount through the holidays, so if you were on the fence before now’s the time to act!
I am really happy to offer my new experiential online program, The Foundations of Well-Being. This yearlong journey uses the power of positive neuroplasticity to hardwire more happiness, resilience, self-worth, love, and peace into your brain and your life. Thousands of studies show that you really can change your brain – and your life – for the better.
Millions of years of evolution have embedded in our brains a negativity bias that helped our ancestors pass on their genes. Ancient animals, hominids, and early humans had to make a critical decision many times a day: do you approach a reward or avoid a hazard — pursue a carrot or duck a stick? But there’s a key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact in terms of raw survival.
This approach is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote long-term health, satisfying relationships, inner peace, and success. So I created the Foundations of Well-Being, based on the evolution of the human brain. The program teaches the fundamental methods of positive neuroplasticity – how to turn everyday experiences into lasting, beneficial changes in neural structure and function – and then applies these methods to growing psychological resources inside yourself, such as relaxation, feeling protected, grit, determination, sense of accomplishment, gladness, compassion, patience, empathy, and feeling cared about.
During the reptile, mammal, and primate/human phases of evolution, the brain developed its brainstem, subcortex, and cortex. Consequently, there is a kind of lizard, mouse, and monkey inside us all. I know this is a goofy metaphor, but it sure feels sometimes like there’s a little zoo inside the head! Today, the brain works as a whole to meet our core needs – for safety, satisfaction, and connection – by Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to others. These needs and systems are loosely related to the reptilian (brainstem), mammalian (subcortex), and primate/human (cortex) structure of the brain. In effect, to put it loosely, we need to pet the lizard, feed the mouse, and hug the monkey in order to develop the healing, effectiveness, loving heart, and ordinary happiness we all long for. The question of course, is HOW to do this.
The answer takes us to the four primary factors of well-being:
• Recognizing – seeing the truth inside and outside you; understanding what leads to the happiness and welfare of yourself and others, and what leads to suffering and harm
• Resourcing – finding and growing those things in your mind, body, and world that protect, support, encourage, guide, ease, and inspire you
• Regulating – bringing balance, effectiveness, and direction to your thoughts, emotions, bodily states, desires, actions, and relationships
• Relating – bringing your well-being into life; expressing yourself authentically, ethically, and skillfully; embodying and enacting your abilities and talents
Applying these four factors to our three core needs gives us the 12 Pillars of Well-Being – key inner strengths for greater happiness, love, and wisdom:
Recognizing Resourcing Regulating Relating
Safety Self-Caring Vitality Calm Courage
Satisfaction Mindfulness Gratitude Motivation Aspiration
Connection Learning Confidence Intimacy Service
Each month we focus on a new Pillar. When you use the Foundations program to develop these twelve strengths, you repeatedly weave experiences of safety, satisfaction, and connection into your brain – and build up an increasingly unconditional sense of peace, contentment, and love.
Even if you’re not planning on participating in the program, understanding these Pillars and how they work in daily life can be a great way to further your well-being. So here’s a quick summary of each one.
Pillar #1 – Self-Caring
A basic model in healthcare says that your life is shaped by three kinds of things: challenges, vulnerabilities, and resources. Of these, you can usually affect resources the most.
Resources are located in the world, the body, and the mind. Mental resources, inner strengths like gratitude, confidence, calm, self-acceptance, determination, compassion, assertiveness, and happiness are often the easiest and quickest to develop.
Developing inner strengths – growing the good inside yourself – means using your mind to change your brain for the better. To do this in the flow of daily life, you have to care about yourself and feel that you matter. So we’ll focus on three things:
- Getting on your own side; being a friend to yourself
- Self-acceptance and self-compassion
- Opening to the longings in your heart. What do you wish was better in your life?
Pillar #2 – Mindfulness
The mind changes the brain based on its experiences. Scientists call this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” Another way to say it is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Therefore, sustained attention to beneficial – and usually enjoyable – experiences is the primary pathway to changing the brain for the better. So training attention through mindfulness practices is really valuable.
As mentioned earlier, the brain has a negativity bias. It looks for bad news, over-focuses on it, over-reacts to it, and quickly stores the whole package in emotional memory. The brain also has two basic settings: the Responsive “green zone” that is the resting state of the brain – our natural home base – and the Reactive “red zone” we enter when we feel stressed or upset. Because of the negativity bias, we are vulnerable to getting stuck in the Red Zone – a major reason to learn how to use your mind to change your brain to change: what the Foundations program is all about.
Developing greater mindfulness:
- Helps you sustain present-moment awareness and better absorb the small, everyday positive experiences that make up most of life.
- Helps you recognize when you’re getting pulled into the red zone, and see how to get out of it and come home to your brain’s Responsive mode
Pillar #3 – Learning
There is a two-stage process to learning: experiences held in short-term memory buffers must be transferred to long-term storage; mental states must be encoded as neural traits; activation must be followed by installation.
We grow traits by turning passing experiences into lasting neural structure; traits come from states. Inner strengths are thus beneficial traits acquired through the internalization – the encoding – of beneficial states. Beneficial states that are not installed in the brain are wasted, with little to no learning, little to no lasting value.
Unfortunately, most informal and formal efforts at psychological healing and personal growth – including psychotherapy, coaching, human resources development, and mindfulness training – put little focus on the installation stage of learning. There’s an assumption that if people are having beneficial thoughts, feelings, and other experiences, that’s all they need, and somehow change for the better will magically happen on its own.
But healing and growing doesn’t usually just happen on its own – especially given the negativity bias: a kind of well-intended universal learning disability in a brain that’s been ruthlessly shaped for peak performance by Stone Age conditions. As a result, the brain is really good at learning from bad experiences but relatively bad at learning from good ones – even though learning from good experiences is the main way to grow the inner strengths you need most.
Taking in the Good is my informal term for deliberately internalizing beneficial experiences in order to grow resilience, happiness, and other inner strengths – and to beat the negativity bias. How do you do it? Remember that learning – including the emotional, motivational, attitudinal learning that we all care about – is a two-stage process, moving from activated mental state to installed neural trait. This gives us the four steps of taking in the good, summarized in the acronym HEAL:
1. Have a beneficial experience.
2. Enrich it.
3. Absorb it.
4. Link positive and negative material. [optional]
Using these steps boosts the impact of any given positive experience and increases the likelihood that it imprints on your neural structure, thereby becoming an installed trait. Positive experiences become key resources you can draw on to help heal old pain and fill the hole in your heart. And we apply the HEAL process to grow each one of the Pillars inside you.
Pillar #4 – Vitality
To be and to feel safe, we must develop a basic sense of aliveness, energy, and can-do capability – in a word, vitality.
So it’s important to address blocks to vitality, such as numbing, negative judgments about your body, or indifference to your health. You can develop more kindness toward your body, as well as release any feelings of helplessness related to it.
This Pillar of the Foundations program contains a down-to-earth summary of effective ways to improve your diet, exercise, and sleep. We explore how a person’s lifestyle could harm the body and lower vitality, and how to do (and keep doing!) realistic things to change this.
Vitality also involves a sense of grit, determination, patience, and the capacity to endure and not be overwhelmed by stressful or upsetting experiences. We’ll cover how to develop these strengths, and also how to use the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in skillful ways to rev up to avoid harms (fostering safety) without tipping into the red zone.
Pillar #5 – Gratitude
Well-being has two components:
- Hedonia – pleasure, delight, happiness at the happiness of others, love, sensuality, accomplishment, joy, cheering on a favorite team, comfort, etc.
- Eudaimonia – fulfillment, sense of meaning or purpose, overall satisfaction in life; for example, getting up at night to walk a crying baby may lack hedonic rewards – your back hurts and you’d rather be asleep – but it feels deeply important, the most fulfilling thing you’ve ever done.
Gratitude and gladness – the sense of receiving and enjoying the gifts, beauties, and pleasures of life – feeds both hedonia and eudaimonia. Unfortunately, many people develop mental blocks throughout life around feeling truly valuable or worthy, minimizing their ability to absorb the good around them and feel grateful.
This program will cover two big areas to increase your capacity for Gratitude, allowing you to take more pleasure from the little things in life:
- Heightening your sensory awareness, which allows you to take greater pleasure through seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and imagining.
- Recognizing and releasing any inhibitions on experiencing pleasure, gladness, and joy.
The essence of gratitude is developing an increasingly unconditional sense of happiness, less and less dependent on external conditions. Through the Foundations program we’ll put you on the path to getting there!
Pillar #6 – Confidence
We have natural needs to feel seen, understood, recognized, included, and valued. There’s nothing wrong with this! Having these needs fulfilled, particularly during childhood has a variety of positive consequences: secure attachment, resilience, self-regulation, optimism, self-worth, and exploration. The resources that fulfill these needs are sometimes called “healthy narcissistic supplies.”
On the other hand, not meeting our interpersonal needs can lead to insecure attachment, reactivity, poor self-control, pessimism, inadequacy, and withdrawal.
Whether positive or negative, these traits often carry over from childhood to adulthood.
“Confidence” in the deepest sense is an umbrella term referring to a sense of worth in your core – that you are loved and lovable, giving and contributing, valued, and a good person. We grow this sense of true confidence through repeatedly internalizing a sense of worth. This enables us to stretch our wings and fly high, knowing that there’s a goodness and loveableness inside that we can rely upon in times of trouble.
In effect, we grow strong “inner allies” that protect us from our “inner critics.”
Pillar #7 – Calm
The brain’s negativity bias makes us tend to overreact to the negative and minimize the positive. One aspect of this bias is a vulnerability to “paper tiger paranoia” – the overestimating of threats and the underestimating of opportunities and resources.
As our ancestors evolved, it made sense to jump away from a hundred imagined threats to protect themselves from one real one. But in the modern world, threats are usually less deadly and unforgiving. You’ll learn how to see the world more clearly, including its real threats, and when it’s true – as it usually is – cultivate the powerful experience that you are really “alright right now.”
Pillar #8 – Motivation
In some ways the key to a good life is learning to want the things that are good for you – that you don’t yet truly want. This Pillar focuses on identifying important desires and actions, and then associating these with actual or anticipated rewards, so your brain will increasingly incline in the right direction.
The mind/brain is always looking for something new to want. You’ll become more aware of this and more able to nudge your things in a good direction. This way, you can experience the pleasant without “going red” into chasing it.
Then you become increasingly centered in the healthy self-discipline that comes from the inside out, rather than being pushed and prodded “top-down” by the bossy voices in your head.
Pillar #9 – Intimacy
We evolved to be the most social species on the planet. Our social lives are largely built around balancing two great themes: autonomy and intimacy.
Humans have natural desires to both “draw closer towards” and “separate from” those around us. We want to develop a strong sense of individuality (autonomy) while also feeling connected to those we care about (intimacy).
By strengthening your awareness of disturbances in the connection system, including hurt, resentment, envy, jealousy, quarreling, inadequacy, loneliness, and shame, you can avoid “going red” when the oatmeal starts to fly. We’ll explore how to be more comfortable with being both “me” and “we,” how to strengthen the three neural substrates of empathy, and how to swim in the deeper waters of intimacy without drowning.
Pillar #10 – Courage
When we feel hurt or threatened by others, anger is a natural response. But in a traditional metaphor, blasting others with anger is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.
So, in this Pillar of the Foundations program, we’ll explore how to establish a foundational sense of safety in your relationships through grounding yourself increasingly in the sweet spot of being both assertive and kind: strength with heart.
You’ll learn to recognize the signals that things are awry in your relationships. And to keep in mind the bigger picture so you take things less personally. The actions of others are usually the result of many, many causes, most if not all of which have nothing to do with you.
We’ll cover how to:
- Build a framework of understanding and agreement in your relationships
- Improve communication skills
- Acknowledge your faults, repair upsets, and move on
- Engage life, including its challenges, on the basis of an increasingly unconditional sense of peace
Pillar #11 – Aspiration
It’s important to identify, honor, and support your wholesome desires. But much suffering comes from getting too attached to the results. It is said that liking without wanting is Heaven, but wanting without liking is Hell.
In this Pillar, we will explore how to live with passion, purpose, and pleasure – dreaming big dreams and pursuing them with a whole heart – without tipping into the drivenness and stress that comes from getting hijacked by wanting.
So many of us have amazing dreams when we’re young, or even when we’re still just children. Let’s explore those dreams and focus on the possibilities even amidst the risks.
We will explore the intersection of three circles: what you love doing, what you are talented at, and what you value. We’ll also focus on:
- Clarifying your priorities, and creating a realistic vision for your life to come
- Releasing fears about being seen or successful
- Finding the inner peace and freedom in offering your own contributions without getting caught up in the reactions of others
- Engaging life, including its challenges, on the basis of an increasingly unconditional sense of contentment
Pillar #12 – Service
We evolved needs and desires to be generous and helpful to others, and supporting those needs and desires also improves our own life. In this way service to others is worth doing in its own right, but also becomes a service to yourself.
There are many sorrows in the world, and a true sense of service sometimes requires that we open ourselves to those sorrows. Growing inner strengths through the previous Pillars enables you to feel open and compassionate about those sorrows without being overwhelmed by them.
Sustainable well-being requires doing what you can, and accepting what you can’t. During the final Pillar we’ll focus on:
- The felt realization that everything is connected to everything else, so that harming others harms you, and helping others helps you
- Receiving the good heartedness of others
- Sustaining compassion without getting burnt out
- Engaging life, including its challenges, on the basis of an increasingly unconditional sense of love
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this article. I hope that understanding these Pillars has helped you develop the twelve strengths, allowing you to repeatedly weave experiences of safety, satisfaction, and connection into your brain – and build up an increasingly unconditional sense of peace, contentment, and love.
If you found this series of articles interesting, or want to hardwire more happiness, resilience, self-worth, love, and peace into your brain and your life, I hope you’ll consider joining me for the Foundations of Well-Being!