The Power of Positive Emotions

Rick Hanson weaves a close connection between new discoveries in neuroscience about the brain and the millennial exercises Buddhist monks engage in to clarify the mind and purify the emotions. They are experts; we are learners.

Because Hanson’s book, Buddha’s Brain, is one of my favorite neuroscience adventures, I especially enjoyed Kalia Kelmenson’s comments on his work, on her website at Light your candle and read here her thoughtful report:

When we hear, or think, of positive emotions, we immediately go to happiness, and that skippy-di-do-da feeling of joyful exuberance. However, the spectrum of positive emotions is as vast as the spectrum of negative emotions. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, tells us that different positive emotions can be used most effectively when you are in the grip of certain negative emotions. For example, when you are overwhelmed by worry and tension, you’d be most helped by accessing feelings of safety, relaxation, and strength. For emotions in the realm of sadness and frustration, you’d be best served by gratitude, pleasure, and satisfaction. And then there’s hurt feelings, being left out, lonely, and envious. For those, Hanson suggests connection, friendship, kindness, and assertiveness.

As a way to harness the power of these positive emotions, Hanson writes about the practice of “Taking in the Good” and offers these four steps:

  • Have a positive experience. This can be an actual experience, or it can be a thought or memory. The key here is to experience that emotion, don’t just think about it.
  • Enrich it. This is an invitation to stay with the positive experience. Let the feelings sink into your body and enjoy the sensations. Feel for the nuances and gently let the feeling intensify.
  • Absorb it. This exquisite step is about intentionally letting the experience settle into you on a deep level. Hanson writes, “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.”
  • The fourth step, which Hanson says is optional, is to link the positive and negative together. I think of this as an advanced step; to be tried once the first three have been mastered. To do this, begin to bring past negative experiences into your awareness at the same time as you are experiencing the positive. Hanson suggests this is a way of healing past experiences and helping to train your brain to move toward the positive.

Hanson offers various ways to get better at taking in the good. He suggests letting the little things really matter. Savor the fact that you finished your email or made that phone call. After a full day, those little celebrations can add up. Do it in your own unique way and really enjoy it.

Finally, Hanson suggests “Being for Yourself”. He writes, “Being for yourself, not against others but on your own side, is the foundation of all practices of health, well-being, and effectiveness.” Often we feel selfish thinking of our own needs, especially when there’s so much to be done, in our homes, our communities, and our world. If we take the time to refuel, to nourish ourselves and return to our own center, we can bring more of our light to the world, and the world will certainly be better for it.


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