Exciting Discoveries

I have made a few exciting discoveries about seeing small lately. Several months after Small: The Little We Need for Happiness was published, I happened upon Rick Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness, where I read that neuroscientists were already studying what I had experienced that afternoon when I stopped walking for a moment to admire a graceful dried Sycamore leaf on the sidewalk. Because of the brain’s plasticity, it’s possible to rewire ourselves for happiness by doing just what I had practiced for an entire year: pay particular attention to what gives us joy. Hanson terms this “installing” the experience in our brain. And he tells his readers that by doing this frequently enough for long enough, we can overcome our negativity bias and feel happier and more resilient all of the time.

When I first read this, I didn’t actually know whether or not to be pleased. After all, I thought I had discovered something new, something that could help people lead more fulfilling lives. But gradually, I came to understand that, although I wasn’t the sole person to have this particular experience, I had, in fact, discovered it all by myself, and I’d had the good sense to practice for an entire year.

And for a few years, I paid no more attention to neuro-science and research. Then, I decided I wanted to teach a course at OLLI or the Fromm Institute that combines Neuroscience and seeing small. With a tentative title in mind, “The Neuro-Science and Practice of Happiness,” I began researching what neuroscientists now understand about the brain and happiness. And I discovered an entire field of research on a phenomenon called “savoring,” which is exactly what I had done that afternoon several years ago.

The more I read, the more excited I became. What I had discovered was one way of savoring experience and rewiring my brain for happiness. There are other ways, including feeling grateful for our joyful experiences and telling others about them. But that wasn’t what I found most exciting. What has been inspiring me lately is the way seeing small can enhance one of the most common forms of exercise: walking.

People walk for many different reasons. Some walk mainly elevate their heart rate. Others walk to arrive at a destination—and return home. And of course, some combine the two. Others walk with friends to socialize. And still others just to pass the time. But whatever their purpose in walking, they can greatly increase the benefit by practicing seeing small while they walk.

All they have to do is pay attention to what gives them joy. Not just any attention, but a sustained and purposeful attention. In other words, it isn’t enough just to point to a beautiful flower and say, “Wow, that’s lovely!”—although that’s certainly fine. But if you want to receive the full benefit of savoring, you need to stop for just a moment, or hold that image and feeling in your mind/heart for a moment or two. By doing this, you’re installing that positive experience in your brain—and beginning to rewire for happiness.

So you can see why I’ve been so excited lately. It seems that my chance discovery over five years ago is becoming for me—as I hope it will for others as well—part of the larger context of living a happy and healthful life. And that’s just the way small becomes large.

Berkeley Gate

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