My friends Eileen and Laurie were talking about a book called Hardwiring Happiness. They mentioned a part of the author’s practice from “Taking in the Good” that zooms in on observing or recalling a positive experience for 10, 20, 30 seconds. Why? Unless an experience is intensely wonderful, our positive experiences stay in short-term status and never get downloaded into our memory.
Hanson talks about how our brains act like Teflon with positive experiences, which can slip right out of our memories while negative experiences are more like Velcro. They grip and stick easily. That helps us in survival situations (don’t eat small, red berries, bad!), but it doesn’t help most of us in our everyday lives. Thinking about negative and positive experiences as Velcro and Teflon is helpful for me. Most of us would like to be able to release the negatives and retain the positives. Lucky for us our plastic brains can do that more often if we are mindful.
The mindfulness exercise is simple. When you experience something positive, just stop. For 20 whole seconds. Notice everything you can about the experience. What are the colors and shapes? The sounds? The body sensations? The emotions? I tried this on walks. I’d see the first crocuses poking up or the dew on a spider web and stop to let my body and mind record it. Or I’d hear a birdsong or kids laughing and stop myself 20 seconds to listen and take it in. I shared this with my teenage son and he started doing it too on his runs.
Now I’ll warn you the result of this practice means that you might look like Walter Mitty at times. In the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays a character who zones out while life is happening around him. I’ve had people pass me on a trail with questioning looks as I record the beauty of a fern’s fiddlehead. The other cool thing is that you don’t have to be in a breathtaking setting. Once you start looking for things that make you feel positive, you’ll find them everywhere. It could be a color, the taste of homemade raviolis, a sharp pencil or even the smell of fresh basil. Or you can just sit and recall those things and let your brain bathe in the positivity.
By writing this I’m reminding myself to do this more. As Rick Hanson writes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So if you can stay with the positive experiences longer and more often, you’ll truly be able to take in the good.