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Rigging Kids' Brains for Happy Memories (VIDEO)

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When I was in fifth grade, I was teased ruthlessly each morning on the bus to school. I had frizzy hair I tried to style like Farrah Faucet's and buck teeth. I was awkward and had a tendency to brown-nose. Worst of all, my bus stop was the last one, giving the mean kids ample time to plot how they would torture me. (A favorite was simply to throw berries at me.)

You might think this experience would have scarred me, but truly, it didn't—if anything, it has made me more able to empathize with other victims of bullying.

So why isn't this memory painful for me? Neuroscientist Rick Hanson has a scientific explanation. In his fabulous book on "The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, & Wisdom," Hanson explains that we can take positive steps to determine which memories stick with our kids.

Life is full of difficulties and berry-throwing mean kids. But Hanson argues that the key isn't to avoid the pain that life presents—it's through our challenges that we learn deep lessons we couldn't learn any other way. Instead we can foster positive experiences that offset those challenges.

Unfortunately, we are a bit hard-wired to mostly remember bad things while forgetting the good ones. According to Hanson, our mind acts "like Teflon for positive" memories and "Velcro for negative ones." This is not good for our happiness: If most of our memories are negative, we come to perceive the world as depressing, even threatening.

Fortunately, Hanson gives us a method for raising kids who have more positive memories than negative ones: Kids who have happy associations with their childhood and whose outlook on life reflects that. Here's how to "Take in the Good," as Hanson calls it.

  1. Teach kids to notice the good things that are all around them. Practice actively looking for the positive: Those flowers we planted in the fall are blooming; our neighbor was so nice to help us with a difficult project; school was particularly fun today. Regular gratitude practices help with this. The key, according to Hanson, is to "turn positive facts into positive experiences."

  2. Draw out—really savor—those positive experiences. This aspect will forever change the way my kids and I do our "3 good things" practice at bedtime. The idea is not just to hold something positive in our awareness for as long as possible, but also to remember the positive emotions that go along with them. Now my kids list something that is good about their day, like that they had fun with their friends, and we really think about how good it felt to be playing and enjoying friendship. This evokes what was rewarding about a "good thing," and helps use our brain chemistry to strengthen connections associated with the memory.

  3. Let it all sink in. Have your kids imagine that the good thing you were just talking about "is entering deeply into [their] mind and body, like the sun's warmth into a T-shirt, water into a sponge, or a jewel placed in a treasure chest in your heart."

I did this with my daughters last night, individually: I asked them to pick one of their "3 good things" from the day, and then went through the steps above. My 7-year-old did a little disco dance lying down in bed while I instructed her. She seemed quite happy, but not really like a t-shirt soaking in the warmth of the sun. My 9-year-old, on the other hand, had a rather transformative experience for a school-kid. I was so surprised (why, I'm not sure) and delighted, I whipped out the flip camera to record the moment. This is something we'll be doing every night from here on out. Minus the camera.

These good things that we recall and experience can actually over-write negative memories. I don't remember the pain of being bullied, and I'm sure that's because of the way my parents handled the situation.

After school, I would tell my parents all about what was happening. They would give me their full attention and care; their support was palpable, and positive. My dad would lead the whole family in coming up with witty come-backs to the teasing. Although I never had the courage to use the smart and funny one-liners he came up with, having them in my head gave me a sense of power. On balance, the positive attention I got—all the laughing we did at dinnertime, the love and concern—infused a difficult time with humor, comfort, and support.

In addition, my positive-thinking parents always pointed out the good friends I had waiting for me after I got off the bus (in the picture above), which made me feel extra-loved. All the strong pleasant emotions that were evoked in the aftermath of being bullied became key features of my childhood memories. Although my parents didn't know the neuroscience behind what they were doing, I'm glad to understand it so that I, too, can help my kids "take in the good"—even, or perhaps especially, during trying times.

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, whose mission it is to teach skills for a thriving, resilient and compassionate society. Best known for her science-based parenting advice, Dr. Carter follows the scientific literature in neuroscience, sociology, and psychology to understand ways that we can teach children skills for happiness, emotional intelligence, and resilience. She is the author of the new book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents and of a blog called Raising Happiness. Dr. Carter also has a private consulting practice helping families and schools structure children's lives for happiness; she lives near San Francisco with her family.

References:

This post is based on Chapter 4 of Rick Hanson's fabulous book, Buddha's Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, & wisdom (New Harbinger Publications, 2009).

You can find a synopsis of this chapter in Greater Good, too: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/taking_in_the_good/ .

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