Here’s How to Keep a Positive Mood Going and Going and Going

·6 min read
Photo credit: akinbostanci - Getty Images
Photo credit: akinbostanci - Getty Images


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My 6-year-old daughter, Marty, has a book her aunt Mary gave her called In a Jar, by Deborah Marcero. In the story, a little boy rabbit named Llewellyn explores beautiful natural settings—the sea, a forest, a sunset, a snowy hill. Then he bottles the things that bring him joy—rainbows, hot cocoa by the fire, scenes of ice skating, snowball fights, fields of flowers, and shells—and puts them on display on rows of shelves in his house.

Every time I read this beautiful book, I think of how lovely it would be to be able to bottle up positive emotional states or memories and open them up for our enjoyment anytime. Or better yet, how life-changing it could be to be able to hold and continually regenerate the beauty and happiness they engender inside of us. Science has finally caught up to and mapped out this fantasy. For the first time ever, groundbreaking research out of the University of California, Berkeley, proposes that we can do just that—"grow the good," as the study's lead author, Rick Hanson, PhD, says—and turn our desired mental states—feelings of serenity, competence, contentment, or bliss—into permanent personal attributes that we can lead with in our daily lives.

"We showed that if you teach people simple, powerful, evidence-based methods for turning passing states into lasting traits, to grow the good inside themselves, such as resilience, positive mood, self-confidence, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills, the sky's the limit," Hanson says, outlining the details of his study.

He and his coauthors recruited 46 participants to enroll in an 18-hour program (three-hour classes held weekly over a six-week span) to receive his "positive neuroplasticity training," which employed a methodology he designed called H.E.AL. (Have, Enrich, Absorb, and Link) to help study subjects reinforce and expand their positive experiences and emotional states through the brain's ability to form new neural connections.

It's a simple practice we can all adopt immediately, Hanson says, pointing out that we have exercises for meditation and self-compassion, but none, until now, "to teach people to deliberately grow anything good inside." The practice is surprisingly easy. When you experience something that lights you up with good feelings—like when your kids says, "I love you, Mom," or your boss says, "Great job on that report," or your cute kitten hops in your lap—do these three things:

1. Slow down with a few diaphragmatic breathes to savor the happy moment. "Let's say someone has complimented you at work. Instead of brushing it off inside your mind, you could slow it down and receive it into yourself," Hanson explains. In another example, he says to lasso the calm and reassurance when your boss tells you not to worry about something. "You can let it go. You don't need to be so stressed about it. Slow down. Let it sink in," he says. Breathing into your next affirming experience will help you relish and stay in the moment.

2. Next, identify where you feel the positive sensation in your body, Hanson says. Locating your joy somatically will not only feel good and extend the duration of the pleasantness but will help create new neural pathways of positivity in the brain that will continue to grow and nourish your happier self. "Staying focused on those body sensations for a few seconds or longer will increase the lasting impact of that experience on the nervous system," Hanson says.

3. Finally, he says, zero in on what's enjoyable or meaningful about the experience. For example, you might think on how a kind remark electrifies your self-esteem and encourages you to stay the course. "It will increase activity of dopamine and norepinephrine, two major neurotransmitters related to your reward system, which will flag the experience as a keeper for prioritization and long-term storage," he explains.

Using 10 gold standard self-reporting measurements of things like happiness, self-compassion, and depression, Hanson and his team found that participants enjoyed "substantial, statistically significant improvements in most of the measures," even four months later. "We showed that there were dramatic and durable increases in a whole variety of important psychological resources—increases in gratitude, self-compassion, calm, love, and self-regulation and decreases in depression and anxiety," Hanson says.

Hanson's colleague and coauthor on the study, Shauna Shapiro, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor in the School of Education & Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University, stresses an important point, as does Hanson: A few one-offs of the practice won't provide lasting results. "It takes work. It actually takes practice," she says. "What neuroplasticity means is we can re-architect the structure of our brain through repeated practice. That means over and over again," she emphasizes.

Shapiro, the author of Good Morning, I Love You and Rewire Your Mind, offers two go-to practices she uses to take advantage of a disciplined re-sculpting of our neuroplastic brains. She begins every day with "Good morning, Shauna; I love you," which, she admits, to an untrained mind sounds like "new agey" and "squishy" nonsense, but it's far from it. "It's actually neurochemical. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we release oxytocin, a soothing love hormone that makes us feel safe, so we're actually building resources in ourselves," she says. (The passionate journaler, who published a guided journal based on the science in her book Good Morning, I Love You, gave an inspiring Ted Talk x that garnered nearly three million view, chronicling her resistance and happy surrender to saying this phrase to herself.) She also starts her morning out saying, "'I wonder what surprising and beautiful thing will happen today.'" Doing so, she says, activates the RAS (reticular activating system) of the brain, which serves as a filter, alerting your mind to look out for what you expect. It's telling your brain, "Pay attention, look for the good," so you can create more opportunities to practice Hanson's three-part process of growing the good.

Recently, I urged Marty to skip her usual bedtime reading material, Dog Man and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, to revisit In a Jar, a far more contemplative and melancholic read for a high-energy, fun-seeking 6-year-old, to be sure, but I wanted to use the opportunity to illuminate the ways she can bottle and grow the good for her own sustenance.

Me: How do you feel right now?

Marty: Cozy!

Me: Let's slow down and breathe into "cozy."

Marty: Come on!

Me: Where do you feel the cozy in your body?

Marty: My butt.

Me: Come on, Marty.

Marty: Please read!

Me: Let's think about the joys of being cozy.

Marty: Mom!

It may have been a shaky start, but I'm not giving up on Hanson's revolutionary precepts for helping her grow her garden of good. In just a few years, when she's a teen, she will need it more than ever.

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