Rick Hanson

For the last 42 years, Dr Rick Hanson has been getting to the bottom of human happiness.

The American psychologist, who is a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkley and a New York Times bestselling author, says the answers lie in the most fundamental aspects of biology.

Since his teens Rick has studied the human potential movement, spiritual practice, brain science, meditation and contemplative wisdom. 

“In the late 1970s very little was known about the mind-brain interface,” he says. “But since the turn of the millennium, there has been an exponential increase in understanding the links between happiness and brain science.”

Since then Rick has consumed, integrated and applied research from around the world and like a number of other people has been able to catch the knowledge wave. “We live in extraordinary times – we have access to information right now about contemplative practice, happiness and the brain.”

Learning to make the positive stick

Rick believes we are the product of evolutionary pressures. In the past, fear and negative thinking helped our ancestors survive. Today, most people in the developed world don’t need to be constantly searching for food or safety and we need to re-train our brains.

“It’s hard for us to be satisfied with the present. We are always looking for more, or something new whether it is shopping, drugs, alcohol or food,” Rick says. “It’s all stone-age thinking and it made sense on the Serengeti, but in modern times it is a relic – making you more prone to depression and anxiety.”

Rick developed Positive Neuroplasticity Training (PNT) to combat the natural focus on the negative – and to take charge of what he describes as the lizard, mouse and monkey in our brains. PNT uses the latest developments in neuroscience, psychology and contemplative practice to teach people how to experience and savour positive emotions.

“By learning skills to develop a more positive frame of mind, you can rewire your brain so that positivity is the default, not the exception.”

Feel mo betta – soak up the good like a sponge

Rick sees PNT as a three-legged stool built on a foundation of wisdom and virtue, where the legs are:

  1. Mindfulness: just be, and focus on your strengths.
  2. Warmth and love: let go of anger, unwholesome desires, and emotions.
  3. Cultivation: let in those moments of relaxation, recognise the complexity of life, but appreciate the little things..

“In any given day we have 24 hours to learn and grow from our life experiences,” Rick advises.  “Each daily gain may be small, but over time it becomes a curve with a rising trend that provides you with resilience to handle life’s challenges.”

The first step is to find one thing you know you can do every day that will make a positive difference – whether it is reading the kids a story, catching up with a friend or exercising. 

“Don’t be afraid of the positive in your life,” Rick says. “Have beneficial experiences, enjoy them and feel ‘mo betta’ – soak the good in like a sponge and let it stick to your ribs!

“Then life becomes this phenomenal opportunity for personal growth. It can be transformative. As you feel filled up inside, you have more to offer to others and find giving easier – and once that starts, it becomes a positive cycle.”

Dr Rick Hanson (centre right) with Andrew and Michelle Morrison. The couple was instrumental in bringing Rick to New Zealand in January 2016 for a Mindful Aotearoa event hosted by the Mental Health Foundation.

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