The Four Steps of Taking in the Good: HEAL Yourself

The Four Steps of Taking in the Good: HEAL Yourself

In his insightful, practical book Hardwiring Happiness, well-known psychologist and author Rick Hanson, PhD, makes the point that even though our brains are “hardwired” to give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences and emotions, you can learn to retrain your brain to switch that equation. Just how do you do that? The following excerpt provides a brief introduction to this valuable process.

A friend of mine suddenly lost her relationship after more than a decade of happiness with her partner. He was the love of her life. After he left, she felt empty and despairing. She talked with her friends, exercised, meditated, and saw a therapist, all of which helped. But her grief still felt intense, and sometimes overwhelming.

Then she added taking in the good to the other things she was doing to feel better, and something began to shift. “When I went for a run,” she told me later, “I felt good. When I stayed with how this felt, it was like the good feelings were soaking into my mind from the body up.” The same thing happened when she took a hot bath and let the relaxation sink in, or took the extra seconds to enjoy the satisfaction she felt when she finished a project at work. “My sadness and hopelessness began to pass away.” After a few weeks, she said that taking in good feelings a few times each day had played a real role in easing her sense of loss. “I honestly feel it helped me learn to be happy again.”

Her story is pretty dramatic, but it’s true. My friend didn’t try to paper over her hurt and sadness with positive thinking. She let her grief bee, and slowly, over many months, it let go. Along the way, when she could, she let in positive experiences of vitality, relaxation, satisfaction, and eventually joy.

When you tilt toward the good, you’re not denying or resisting the bad. You’re simply acknowledging, enjoying, and using the good. You’re aware of the whole truth, all the tiles of the mosaic of life, not only the negative ones. You recognize the good in yourself, in others, in the world, and in the future we can make together. And when you choose to, you can take it in.

The Four Steps of Taking in the Good

Technically, taking in the good is the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory. It involves four simple steps:

  1. Have a positive experience.
  2. Enrich it.
  3. Absorb it.
  4. Link positive and negative material.

Step 1 activates a positive mental state, and steps 2, 3, and 4 install it in your brain. The first letter of each step produces the acronym HEAL. The first three steps focus entirely on positive experiences. The fourth step is optional, but powerful: It uses positive thoughts and feelings to soothe, reduce, and potentially replace negative ones.

A Quick Walk up the Steps

I’ll summarize the steps here….When you’re actually taking in the good, the three or four steps tend to blend together, but when you’re first learning this practice, it helps to be clear about what is specifically happening within each one.

STEP 1. Have a positive experience. Notice a positive experience that’s already present in the foreground or background of your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone. Or create a positive experience for yourself. For example, you could think about things for which you’re grateful, bring to mind a friend, or recognize a task you’ve completed. As much as you can, help ideas like this become emotionally rewarding experiences; otherwise, it’s merely positive thinking.

STEP 2. Enrich it. Stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; let it fill your mind. Enjoy it. Gently encourage the experience to be more intense. Find something fresh or novel about it. Recognize how it’s personally relevant, how it could nourish or help you, or make a difference in your life. Get those neurons really firing together, so they’ll really wire together.

STEP 3. Absorb it. Intend and sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Let it really land in your mind. Perhaps visualize it sifting down into you like golden dust, or feel it easing you like a soothing balm. Or place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart. Know that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource inside that you can take with you wherever you go.

A TASTE OF TAKING IN THE GOOD

Would you like to get a sense of how it feels to take in the good? I’ll suggest some prompts here that you can use for the first three steps [the fourth step is explored in more detail in Chapter 8 of Hardwiring Happiness]. Take my prompts and go through the first three steps on your own.

Notice something pleasant that’s already present in your experience. Perhaps a relaxed sense of breathing, comfort, or curiosity.
Find something good in your immediate situation. Perhaps something sturdy, well made, protective, useful, or beautiful, such as a cozy chair, a tree out the window, or a picture on the wall.
Think of something you are glad about, in your life these days or in your past. It could be as simple as having a roof over your head.
Bring to mind someone who makes you feel cared about. It need not be a perfect relationship, but the caring – the warmth for you, the wishing you well – is genuine.
Bring to mind someone you like.
Think of some things that help you feel strong…peaceful…grateful…happy…loved…loving.

STEP 4. Link positive and negative material (optional). While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of awareness, also be aware of something negative in the background. For example, when you feel included and liked these days, you could sense this experience making contact with feelings of loneliness from your past. If the negative material hijacks your attention, dropt it and only focus on the positive; when you feel recentered in the positive, you can let the negative also be present in awareness if you like. Whenever you want, let go of all negative material and rest only in the positive. Then, to continue uprooting the negative material, a few times over the next hour be aware of only neutral or positive material while also bringing to mind neutral things (e.g., people, situations, ideas) that have become associated with the negative material.

To learn more about how to actively rewire your brain from a negative to positive or “good” framework, read Rewiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence by Rick Hanson, PhD (Harmony, 2013).