Marie: Hey, it's Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life that you love. Now, if you're someone who's interested in a science-backed method to grow an unshakeable core of strength and calm and happiness, our guest today is here to show us the way.
Dr. Rick Hanson is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and a New York Times best-selling author. His books, including Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture are available in 26 languages. He's spoken at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. Dr. Hanson's work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR among others.
Rick, thank you so much for being here. Thanks for making the trip. We were talking off camera, I have talked about you and your work so many times and it has been such a source of education and inspiration. So, I really appreciate you being here.
Rick: It's an honor to be here. Really.
Marie: Thank you. So, take me back to the beginning. You shared that as a young child you realized that there was great unhappiness in the world. In school, in your family, everywhere. How did that realization really shape and then form the work of your life?
Rick: Well, thank you for going there. Right off the top.
Rick: Well, first off, I've done a lot of work with little kids and kids in general and one thing that really strikes me is that so many people knew things when they were young that were really important. Many of which they couldn't put into words. When I look back at my memories and I have a lot of them of early childhood, there was a quality, sort of in the wallpaper, of the experience of this haunting, poignant sense I've had of a wistful sadness and a recognition that there was so much unnecessary unhappiness. Even in a pretty ordinary situation which I grew up. There was just a lot of household stress, tension, unfulfilled longings, et cetera.
And that really set me on my way 'cause I had a strong sense of that and I wanted to do something about it. But, I had no idea what to do. So, that began things and then I had actually a turning point. I was just thinking about that related to what we were saying off camera, that in my mid-teens, and I knew it happened when I was reading Dune 'cause I was a science fiction geek and the main character was 15 at the same time.
I had this insight, even though I was really unhappy and quite neurotic, the thing I could do no matter about the past was to learn and grow from here. I could get better from here a little bit every day. I could learn how to talk to girls. I could learn how to deal with my parents. I could learn how to deal with my mind. I could get a little stronger, a little more skillful every day. That was full of hope 'cause I couldn't do anything about the past, but I could grow and learn from here.
Then, related to that, the most important thing in a sense, is knowing how to grow.
Rick: How can you help yourself, steepen your growth curve, your healing curve, as you go through life? That really set me on my way.
Marie: Did you have that belief that you could grow and improve? Was that something that you felt like was there before you started getting into these books and getting inspired? Or was it something that you feel like was triggered as reading these books and noticing these characters actually developing?
Rick: I think that was deep inside me and where that comes from I don't really know.
Rick: But, I think that's one of the most essential things for a person to have inside themselves. This quality of being on their own side. And I've been a long time psychotherapist and maybe you would not be surprised, but many people would be surprised how few people actually have that stance of being a friend to themselves or being for themselves. Not against others but for themselves. But, if you don't have that, you're kind of dead in the water.
Rick: And for whatever reason, I had that quality inside me. I was miserable but I knew I didn't want to be miserable and I was gonna figure my way out of this.
Rick: What's your phrase? Figureoutable?
Marie: Everything is figureoutable. Yeah. We were talking about, so I am now giving Dr. Rick and all of my guests, they can have their water in our Everything is Figureoutable mugs.
Rick: Oh, I am gonna treasure that.
Marie: Oh, yeah. You're gonna take that home with you.
Rick: Yeah. A hundred percent.
Marie: I think it's so wonderful, though. One of my beliefs, I'm curious if you share this as well, is for those watching who feel like "Okay, I'm listening Rick and I'm listening Marie, but what if I didn't have that sense that I could grow and get better? Is that something I can learn?" I'm a big yes. Are you a big yes?
Rick: A hundred percent. In my experience and observation, and in the research. People can acquire, and there are fancy terms for this, a sense of agency, efficacy, or feeling more like a hammer and less like a nail. And the point about that is that this is not about positive thinking. It's not about denying your situation or how you feel inside. If anything, it's about developing the resources inside to deal with the really, really hard things.
Rick: It is, for me, extremely hopeful that if you look for ways in which you can make a little thing happen like you chose to pick up the cup.
Rick: I love these little examples. Like, reach for the salt instead of the pepper. Know what it feels like to not say something by choice or to choose to say something. What's that feel like? And then when you know what that feels like, to be the chooser, or the poker, or the restrainer, the one who puts on the brakes or the one who hits the gas pedal, then you can start applying that sense of agency to other bigger parts of your life.
Marie: I love it. So, one of the things that you have shared is this thing, we have this three pound piece of tofu or cauliflower in between or ears called our brain, and one of the questions I was curious to hear how you would describe this 'cause I love how you articulate sometimes complex neurological phenomenon in very, very simple to understand terms. What is the distinction between our brain and our mind?
Rick: It's such a huge question. There are many ways of approaching it and it's great that you went right there. The neuroscientific, psychological way of relating to this is that the brain is the meat. It's the hardware. It's physical. It's the stuff. And this nervous system that we have which took 600 million years to evolve, thank you Mother Nature, has a function. And its function is to represent information. Now, that kind of stops you right there but if you think about it we deal with this all the time. Like, I walked here today and I was dealing with traffic signals that were red, yellow, or green. That's material in a sense. Energy and light are part of material reality but the meaning of red, the meaning of green, is not physical. It's information.
Rick: So, right there you have the distinction between matter that exists and also information, which also exists which is intangible.
Rick: So, the information flowing through the nervous system, the motor systems are tracking your sensory systems. This smells good, swim towards it. Ew, this tastes bad, swim away. That is the basis for our experiences. Like, right now you and I are hearing, seeing people listening to this. Hearing, seeing, thinking. Those experiences are made of information, in effect. They are immaterial. They exist, but they're not tangible. The takeaway point for me is you can use your experiences, you can use your mind, the flow of thought where you rest your attention, what you do with your feelings, you can use that because it enlists underlying neural processes. So, you can use your mind to enlist these underlying neural processes that represent your mind to actually change your brain because the repeated patterns of neural activity leave lasting traces behind. Like water coming down a hillside.
Rick: And that means fundamentally as a take away, you have the power inside yourself every minute of every day to use your mind, to change your brain, the change your mind for the better.
Marie: Yes. I get so excited by this stuff and I love the phrase that I learned in one of your earlier books Hardwiring Happiness, it just really solidified home that neurons that fire together, wire together. It just got me so excited because it was this scientific affirmation of something intuitively that I've always believed in my life.
Rick: I know. Yeah.
Marie: I feel like it's so powerful for everyone listening that even if you feel as though you were born into certain circumstances and there are certain pain and trauma in your past, that that doesn't have to be your destiny moving forward.
Rick: That's right. One of the things that struck me about honestly your approach in your programs was that clearly you have what Carol Dweck at Stanford calls a growth mindset.
Marie: Yes. I love Carol Dweck.
Rick: Yeah. A learning mindset.
Rick: Exactly right. Whatever this truth about the past is the truth but we can grow and learn from here.
So, let’s move on to your latest book Resilient.
Marie: Which is fantastic. Congratulations.
Rick: Oh, thank you.
Marie: So, there are big problems in the world and all of us have those everyday stresses. We have illnesses, we have difficulties, we have disappointments. Let's talk about the importance of growing our inner strengths. You share that the world may be chaotic and let you down but you can count on is growing the strengths inside of yourself.
Marie: Talk to me about this focus on resilience and why it's so important right now.
Rick: Yeah. So, it's easy to think of positive psychology or self help as like a magic carpet ride.
Rick: Just do this thing, do this gratitude practice, do this mantra and you will be transported. All of that's pretty good but what about the real world?
Rick: What about everyday stresses, everyday difficulties, and what about the really, really hard things in your life? Walking through the city streets of Manhattan today reminded of Thoreau's line, “most people lead lives of quiet desperation.” So, if we're gonna deal with both the worst day of our life and thrive every day of our life. We need resilience. We need these inner strengths. So, where does resilience come from? It's kind of a common word these days. Resilience comes from capabilities and know-how and determination and positive emotions that you have inside yourself. So, if you need to tap into your inner supply. So, I've done a lot of stuff in the wilderness and rock climbing and so forth.
Rick: So, you think about what's in your backpack. You know?
Rick: What's more important than what's in your wallet when you're out in the boonies?
Rick: What's in your backpack? Is there fortitude? Is there happiness? Is there care and concern for other people?
Rick: So, those are the important things. How do you grow them. That's where this fancy phrase comes in: experience-dependent neuroplasticity. This idea that through focused attention and sustained experience of something that's useful to you, you can actually hardwire it into your nervous system. So, more and more you feel like it's with you wherever you go.
Rick: So many people feel like they're running on fumes. Running on empty. They just don't have it inside. So, how do you actually build up the good stuff inside? The key is really simple. It's to look for those experiences that are useful for you, that are authentic. And then don't skitter on to the next thing. Take a breath or two or longer to feel it in your body, to stay with it, focus on what's rewarding about it, and that will drive the neural processes of installation. That will hard wire and actually in effect, record the song of experience into your nervous system. So more and more you have a with you wherever you go.
Marie: I just think this is so exciting and wonderful. And that's why I was so thrilled when you said yes to come on the show, because this is stuff... Again, I feel like this is the reason I do what I do in life because when I started to discover basic self help concepts, learned how to meditate when I was 17, a bunch of these different things. I was like, wait a minute, why am I just learning this now? And I feel like this keeps happening.
Marie: And we're not taught these things in school.
Rick: I know, it's amazing.
Marie: Right? And children aren't taught that you have to kind of develop these tools and put them in your backpack. And I love this analogy, and I know this is one of the things that I've talked about on MarieTV, quoting your work, one of the things that we really have to be aware of is negativity bias.
Marie: So for folks that didn't catch that episode, can you tell us what negativity bias is, and then give us some pointers on how to navigate it, because I feel like that's one of the things that we have to keep watch out for when we want to really savor those good things.
Rick: A hundred percent true. So if you want to grow the good inside yourself...
Rick: You have to experience it, number one. But most important, once you're experiencing it, you need to internalize it. That's a general truth. That general truth is really sharpened by one of the most powerful findings in neuroscience. The brain's negativity bias, which I say is like having a brain that's like Velcro for bad experiences, but Teflon for good ones. And there are so many everyday examples. Ten things happen in a relationship in a day, nine are good, one is irritating. What's the one you obsess about?
Marie: The irritating one, of course.
Rick: Yeah, exactly right.
Marie: And people in my audience, I hear about this all the time, they'll be like, "Marie, I'm so afraid of getting criticism. I'm so afraid of being judged. I run this business and someone left this really nasty, ignorant comment."
Rick: Oh, yeah.
Marie: And that's the one that stays, not the hundred happy customers.
Rick: A Hundred percent. So I'm a writer...
Rick: ...and you know, it's that one star review on Amazon...
Rick: ...that really bugs you.
Marie: My friend, Author Seth Godin, he actually doesn't read reviews anymore.
Marie: And I think, because he's like, "You know what? Don't need them. I'm going to keep writing." Because the negativity bias of our brain is real.
Rick: It is very real. And why do we have it? And it's really interesting to reflect on the fact that the negativity bias is not your fault. I've had people actually tell me, "Thanks, Rick, you actually made me feel okay about the fact that I'm anxious a lot.” Or “I'm still affected by bad things that have happened to me." It's natural. And the reason for that, is that is the nervous system evolved over 600 million years. Our ancestors had to, in effect, get carrots, like food and avoid sticks, like predators or aggression inside your band. Both are important, but here's the difference. If you don't get a carrot today, back in the Stone Age, you'll have a chance at one tomorrow, but if you fail to avoid that stick today, whack. No more carrots forever.
Marie: You're done.
Rick: You're done. Yeah.
Marie: It's lights out.
Rick: Yeah, so, I know. So you can watch your own mind. It's really interesting to watch your mind...
Rick: ...routinely does these five things, the brain's designed to do them. Look for bad news, over focus upon it. Bad news also inside your body and in your mind. Focus upon it, overreact to it. That one little light in the old inner dashboard, this flashing red. And then fast track it into memory. Once burned, twice shy, never forget. For example, there's research that shows that one negative interaction in a relationship has much more impact than several positive interactions. That was a takeaway for me when I was in grad school and I came upon it. I thought, "Wow, what's my wife's life been with me recently?"
I mean, I kind of.
Marie: We got to tip those scales.
Rick: That's right. Game here.
Rick: Yeah. And then literally the brain, the fifth thing it does through cortisol, the stress hormone becomes sensitized to the negative. We become extra prickly, extra irritable, extra anxious...
Rick: ...which then creates more negative experiences the next day.
Rick: So, it's by design. But what we can do is feel the negative. Feel it, let it flow. And then what am I going to do about it? How can I grow the good inside myself for my own sake and other people everyday forward.
Marie: Love it. Another metaphor that's wonderful is loving the zoo in your head, really honoring the lizard, the mouse, and the monkey. And again, I love this because I'm always a student of brain science. And I feel like this is such a wonderful way to help us all remember it. So can you talk about the zoo in our mind?
Rick: Oh sure.
Marie: Or brains, I should say.
Rick: So, I think a lot of us, I certainly do, have this feeling that what's inside is sort of like a zoo, of all these different voices tugging in different directions. And that's partly related to the three stage evolution of the brain. Like building a house from the bottom up in three floors. So we have the more or less reptilian brainstem, very focused on safety. On top of it we have the mammalian subcortex with strange parts of the brain, like the amygdala or the hippocampus, that's very focused on satisfaction. And then we have the primate human neocortex sitting on top of that, that's very focused on relationships, on our need for connection. So, in effect, each of us has inside themselves a kind of inner lizard, mouse, and monkey.
Marie: Can I ask you a question?
Marie: So the amygdala is not a part of the reptilian, it's a part of the second level?
Rick: It's part of the subcortex that sits on top of the ancient nerve, the brainstem.
Marie: Thank you for teaching me that.
Rick: Oh yeah. So it's oriented around fear and alarm. So it definitely helps us with safety. But the amygdala also lights up when we see opportunities. There's actually a research paper that has a wonderful title, “The Joyful Amygdala.”
Marie: I love this.
Rick: I know.
Marie: This is exciting.
Rick: It is. And we have the opportunity to. Research shows us, you can train your amygdala to shift out of a kind of grumpy amygdala...
Rick: ...into more like of a joyful amygdala. You're still going to see threats. You were still going to see red lights and angry faces. But you're also going to be able to see many more opportunities in your life. And a typical life is full of them. So that's anyway, that's the brain. And so my takeaway from all that is, okay, we have this structure inside us. It's very real. There's no way around it. We have these needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection. What are we going to do?
One of the things we can do is look for those authentic opportunities every day to register an enoughness of safety. We're so scared, we're like scared little critters. And enoughness of satisfaction, of fullness already, a sense of contentment and gratitude and also, an enoughness of relatedness. It would be good to have more five star reviews. It'd be nice to have more people like you. And still there can be a sense of connection already. So if you do that routinely, you start filling yourself up from the inside out and I have this jokey phrase, look for those opportunities each day to pet the lizard, feed the mouse, and hug the monkey.
Marie: When I was thinking about feeding the mouse, I was like petting the lizard, totally got it. Feeding the mouse, it's like I want to give my mouse some cheese.
Rick: Yes. Look for satisfaction.
Rick: Beauty. These lovely flowers.
Marie: Yes, yes, yes.
Rick: You get these things done every day.
Marie: And then the primate in us, right?
Rick: Oh yeah.
Marie: That connection. I feel like every time I've seen these wonderful studies and the work that Jane Goodall has done...
Marie: ...and it's like you just see the connection between these primates and it's like, yeah, that's part of us.
Rick: Oh yeah. Absolutely. If you think about it, back in the Serengeti being exiled was a death sentence.
Rick: And the nice thing also about hugging the monkey, is that it meets all three needs, because it meets our need for connection, but it's also very rewarding.
Rick: Like right now, really nice sense of connection. And then a social experiences are also reassuring. They're a safety signal. Think about a child that wants to connect or people in general want to find a secure base. So I'd say that love is the universal medicine.
Rick: It's the multivitamin.
Marie: It is the multivitamin. One of the cornerstones of the practical work in this book, and there's so much, is about taking our experiences and using them to build resiliency. Taking a state, I love this, and turning it into a trait, something more permanent. Any thoughts about how we can use both are positive and our negative experiences to really turn something from a state into a trait?
Rick: Well you really nailed I think the key question. And as a frame, so I think the dirty little secret in so much clinical work...
Rick: ...as well as in coaching, human resources, mindfulness training. I'm a longtime meditater like you. I was actually a little older than you, so I'm impressed that you were just 17 when you started meditating.
Marie: Yeah. I wasn't consistent. I got more consistent. Like my 20s, I was a mess.
Rick: Yeah, yeah.
Marie: I fell out of it a little bit, but I got better with it.
Rick: Yeah. Yeah. Well, the dirty little secret is we're good at having states. We're good at having experiences.
Rick: Positive thoughts, positive emotions, sensations, connections, we're good at that. Most of them wash through the brain, like water through a sieve, while the negative ones are caught each time.
Rick: Negativity bias, again. We waste them ourselves. So the opportunity is to help our experiences leave a lasting trace behind in physical changes of neural structure or function. Without those physical changes, we've left all that money on the table and by definition there's no lasting value. It's haunting and profound to really let that sink in. So the question then becomes, as you move through your day, half a dozen times a day, maybe just on the fly, and maybe once or twice on something really big, each day, how can you increase the conversion rate of those states to traits? How can you actually help the nervous system change for the better?
That's what's called positive neuroplasticity, and it's really my specialty. That's what I'm especially interested in because if you think of it, learning is the super power of super powers.
Rick: It's the one that brings the rest of them.
Rick: Just like you've said, that growth mindset.
Rick: So the question is really how to do it. There are a lot of details about it that can be applied in different situations, but the essence is super simple. When you're already having some kind of useful experience, which could be an insight you might realize, "Okay, it goes better with my partner, if I lean in, rather than out, when I'm having a tricky conversation." I had to learn that one. Whatever it might be, now that you're having that song playing, how do you turn on the inner recorder, on your inner iPod as it were?
Well, stay with it for a breath or two or longer. Isn't it haunting how rapidly people skitter on to the next thing...
Rick: ...before the current reasonably good thing has a chance to sink in? Stay with it for a breath or two or longer. Second, try to feel it in your body. As you said earlier, those neurons that fire together, will wire together. So it's kind of mechanical. Keep them firing, have as many firing as possible as you feel it in your body. As any good kindergarten teacher knows, embodied experience is what we learned from.
Rick: And then third, focus on what's rewarding about it, what's meaningful or enjoyable. Technically that will increase dopamine and norepinephrine activity in your brain.
Marie: I had to look up how to pronounce that one because I kept want to go someplace else, but thank you.
Rick: Yeah. These little neurotransmitters. These little molecular systems. What they do when you focus on what's rewarding is they flag experiences as keepers for protection as they become consolidated technically in the long-term storage. That's a very pleasurable thing to do, the three things I'm describing. No one needs to know you're doing it. On the outside, if you have to, you can look really miserable and uptight and concerned, but inside you could be like, "Yeah, take it in. Take in the good. Help it really land. I want that to go with me wherever I go."
Marie: I like that. That's actually fun. There was an antidote you write about to disappointment and envy. I thought that it is so simple and so profound and so beautiful this idea of being happy for others. I feel like in the world that we live in and of course, people will undoubtedly stumble upon this video, whether it's through our email list or through social media. Speaking of social media, I feel like that's the place I'm always advising people to spend less time on because it is... I talk about comparison hangovers.
Rick: That's a great phrase.
Marie: When I was in college, I drank this horrible stuff called Goldschläger. It was like this terrible liqueur with gold flakes through it. I totally drank way too much and threw up in the bushes, but I call comparing yourself to others like doing shots of Compareschläger. It's going to make you sick.
Rick: That's true.
Marie: You're going to be in bed for days. You'll have no clue about your own greatness. I feel like we should talk more about this antidote to disappointment and envy, like being happy for others. Talk to me about that.
Rick: Well, first off, the naming of the antidote is great because if you think about it, we have various needs, we have various issues. What's the inner resource that would be matched to it? It's like if you have a flat tire, you could put all the gas in your tank you want. It won't solve the problem. It's not matched to it. For example, if people are worried about something for themselves or others and they do gratitude practice or someone compliments on how they look today, that's nice, but it doesn't address the actual need. What's the antidote? That's a really useful thing to focus on what you named here.
If you think about it, what if it were more present in my mind would really, really help me these days, would help me with my family, would help with my work, with my long standing issues? What would be the good thing to really, really grow? Then when you know what that is, it's so powerful to look for one or more opportunities a day to experience some sense of it or something that supports that antidote. Your own special Vitamin C I call it for which you really need inside, what will actually really fill that hole that in your heart. Then you find a little experience of it, that's a high value growth opportunity.
You don't want to let that one sail on by. Focus on that one. That's the general idea of antidotes. Then just as you say, for envy, a traditional notion in Buddhist practice, there are these four immeasurables, as they're called, or heavenly ways of experiencing things. One of them is to be glad for the good fortune of others. As the Dalai Lama says, "If you can be happy that others are happy, you will always be happy because there's always somebody somewhere who's happy," right?
Rick: I have done meditation retreats where I was sitting there doing practices on being glad for the success that others had that I didn't have. And that really, whatever the benefit might have been for them, it helped me, as you say, feel less envious. Envy is like taking poison and waiting for others to die.
Marie: Absolutely. Whenever I've had that in my own life and looking at someone and I'm like, "Well, if he did it or she did it, I can do it too." They're an example for me to be inspired by. They're showing me possibilities that I may not have ever even considered before had it not been for them being brave and stepping out and doing this inventive work or whatever it is. I loved this, just idea of being happy for others was beautiful. I want to wrap on this. You have two brain strategies to share with us that can change your lives, the two brain hacks so to speak about not marinating and taking in.
Let's just drive this home because it does feel like as simple and direct as these are, they're the power buttons that can change everything.
Rick: It's totally great what you're talking about. One is when you appreciate how quick the brain is and how biased it is to taking in negative experiences, it's like a sponge for the negative. The key distinction is between mindful awareness of something negative, physical pain, worry about something, internal sense of pressure, whatever it might be. Mindful awareness of that in which you're holding it in a space of untroubled awareness is completely different from marinating in it, from ruminating about it, from being preoccupied, looping around that track in hell, digging in a little deeper each time you go around it. Yuck.
I think for many people what's transformative for them is to realize that they don't need to do that. There's a teacher of mine at one point. He said, "Think the same crazy thought again and again. That's okay, but 10 is enough," right? At some point you just go, "I'm not learning anything else from this. There's no more value here for me. I'm going to move on." That's one of the big takeaways. It's the feeling that your inner being is like a temple. Here's a maybe potentially gross metaphor. I grew up with dogs. Temples have dogs. Sometimes they come in. Maybe they leave a mess.
What do you do? If you hate the dog or attack the dog, that's just more mess in your temple. You got to shoo the dog out of the temple, maybe prevent it from coming in the next time, and then clean the mess up before it stains the floor. That's to me the proper way to approach it, and to realize you have to do that. It doesn't mean suppressing your feelings. It means experiencing them in a space of awareness and then helping them on out the door. That's a huge takeaway.
The other one, exactly like you said, is to have a learning orientation that says, "You know, whatever has happened to me so far and whatever the tough hand that's been dealt me in this life, I can everyday look for these little opportunities to experience something good either because I'm just noticing it happening usually or occasionally I get something good going. Either way it's now present in my mind. I'm going to help it sink into my soul. I'm going to give myself the gift and kind of an intimacy with my own experience moment to moment.
“I'm going to give myself the gift of receiving this to grow it inside myself both for happiness and to have more strengths inside that enable me to deal with tough things, and to have more inside myself that I can then offer to other people."
Marie: Rick, thank you so much for the work that you do in the world. I hope you keep writing books because I really adore them, and everyone, you have to not only get Resilient, but all of his other titles as well. Thank you.
Rick: Thank you very much.
Marie: Now, Rick and I would love to hear from you. We talked about so much good stuff today. I'm curious. What's the biggest insight that you're taking away, and most important, how can you put that insight into action right now? Leave a comment below and let us know. Now as always, the best conversations happen at the magical land of MarieForleo.com. Get your butt over there and leave a comment now. While you're there, be sure to subscribe to our email list so you can become an MF Insider.
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