Hardwiring Happiness – Amy Nguyen

Five years ago, as the Head of Employee Happiness for a unicorn company, I thought I had everything. However, when I returned to work after giving birth to my second child, I worked long hours and through the weekend, and at some point, I realized the happy me was gone. So I embarked on a quest to revamp my happiness index by befriending science, including the work of psychologist Rick Hanson, and using that lens to decode the origin of my youthful positivity despite a difficult childhood.

I was born in a poor country, in a neighborhood rampant with drug use and fighting, in a broken family. My father was an “exported laborer” (a term coined during the Doi Moi period, when Vietnam had just opened up to the world) in Germany and had abandoned my mother, sister, and me for his new family there. We lived in a small house with a roof of dried palm leaves so wobbly that rain could easily leak through. Yet I never felt a lot of pity for myself—in fact, most of the time, I felt grateful and full of zest. A second-hand shirt from a wealthy cousin brought me endless joy. An ice cream my mum brought home made me feel like I was being treated to a sumptuous meal.

In the end, I learned that a key ingredient to cultivating authentic happiness was the brain’s ability to hardwire positivity into its structure. The human brain is pre-programmed with a negativity bias, a legacy of the survival instinct from our ancestors millions of years ago. It scans the environment for dangers, and because our mental resources are limited, the brain tends to let positivity slip through. Often when it notices positive facts, it doesn’t hold onto them long and deeply enough so they can be “installed” into our neural structure. With this in mind, I realized there were certain behaviors that had already predisposed me for happiness, like the following:

  1. Reliving a beautiful moment. Sometimes, I recall a memory from childhood, like a sunlit window in my aunt’s French-styled apartment in the old quarter of Hanoi, or a memory of my beloved grandma who passed away a few years ago.
  2. Delighting in small happy things. I tend to notice these and sink into them: a little pumpkin in my summer garden, a piece of dark chocolate, the smell of the dried lavender on my desk. 
  3. Creating opportunities for joy. It could be as simple as spending a day as a local traveler in my neighborhood or cooking something I’ve never attempted before. Whatever it is, I try to experience it with all five senses. 
  4. Connecting with a positive vision. While indulging in beautiful things present and past, I also visualize my future as if it were real and feel excited about it. 
    I’ve been up-leveling my happiness ever since—by hardwiring positivity and joy from the little things to the big things. When I do, magic comes.
    Your prompt for the week:
    Reliving beautiful moments, delighting in small happy things, creating opportunities for joy, and visualizing an exciting future are great ways to hardwire happiness. Choose one that is calling to you, and write about it. Make it a habit and watch the wonders unfold.

Our Song

And we laughed into the sunlight

Ferris wheels spinning in the distance

Sunsets and fireflies and your laughter went on for miles and miles

Into the sunset it would never end it never did

Magic hour was on the dial and we had it over easy every morning

With our midnight jokes you said I was funny and you meant it

It was true and I can still hear your voice late at night

Cause you know this montage spins like a vintage record player

Like Simon and Garfunkel in the rain it just passes the time and someday

On a sunny day when you’re walking around town

And the sun hits just right while you’re getting your ice cream

You’ll put her on and you’ll think to yourself,

This was a good song.

The importance of play: let it happen

Seattle, December 2021

Self doubt is a tricky thing. It fools us into thinking we are not enough; it sends us tumbling into the trap of thinking that we are not alright just as we are. In a world where we are constantly told to do, change, improve, acquire, and produce, we’ve fallen prey to the idea that who and what we are is not acceptable, and we’ve fallen prey to the idea that we are only as good as what we accomplish. And in a world that doesn’t seem to ever stop moving, we’ve rarely had a chance to be still with ourselves for long enough to question these thoughts.

It snowed heavily in Seattle today. I had plans to go out for a drive, to pick up a few items from REI, to get a pedicure in time for the new year, and to do some shopping. When I groggily picked up my phone to begin my wake-up, I was startled by a text from my sister that said, “Did you see the snow?”

I raced up twelve carpeted stairs and into the upstairs living room to be greeted by a thick, white blanket of snow over the yard, the fence posts, and the tops of all the cars. The snow was still falling. I sat on the couch and enjoyed it with a hot cup of coffee, a blanket in my lap and some Christmas music before remembering that there were still errands I wanted to run. The snow was picking up rather quickly and I noticed the wind was blowing it sideways. Determined to make it to REI, I opened my weather app to see how cold it was and how fast the wind was blowing. 21 degrees. 10mph.

21 degrees. I’ve done that before.

Is 10mph fast? I then googled, “Is 10mph wind a lot?” To my relief, the National Weather Service qualified 10mph winds as a “gentle breeze.”

I then googled, “Is it safe to drive in Seattle in the snow?”

Search results: “There are 4 snow plows in all of King County. No.” And then a photo of a bus careening off of an icy freeway overpass. Cool.

A day on the couch it is.

While I was sitting and looking out the window in my cozy nest, my mind immediately wandered to, “What should I do?”

I could…wash the dishes, make a meal, do a high intensity 60 minute workout –

But for some reason, a still small voice inside me begged the question,

“What if you didn’t? What if you just sat here and daydreamed?”

In my mind, daydreaming was not an accomplishment.

But what if it was? What if the concept of “accomplishment” was just something we made up? I used the snow as an excuse to sit still for a while and let myself daydream.

When I did, I noticed a tree out the front window – its sprawling, bare branches covered in snow. The cars and the little white, rounded hoods they donned. A bird outside, leaving tiny track marks in the snow. It was perfect. And yet it was not perfect as perfection is traditionally defined: exact, symmetrical, and nothing “out of place.”

And in my day-dreaming mind, I had these thoughts:

If the branches of the tree outside my window twisted slightly more to the right, would they be more perfect?

Perfection is another concept introduced by humanity that doesn’t actually exist or make sense. Stop trying to attain it, because when you do, you ruin the beauty of what you already are. This isn’t to say “stop growing”; the tree will grow and change naturally over the course of time, but the truth is, it’s still beautiful every step of the way. Nature has a way of showing us that it is beautiful, no matter how it is arranged. It is perfection incarnate: imperfection.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” – Alan Watts

Everything in nature exists in delicate balance, and nothing is “too much” or “too little.” Nothing is missing. What one part has, another part may lack. What the other part has, the first part may lack. And no one part “has it all.” We exist collectively as a single organism, and every person, part, and creature has a place and a role to play. In short, we need each other to be exactly as we are so we can all exist in this balance. If any of us were “more” or “less” of something, we’d disrupt the natural balance of life and the organism would suffer. And, we’d be missing something – you. You are necessary, you have a place in this world, and there’s a reason why you are the way that you are.

In the words of Max Ehrmann:

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

What if instead of judging yourself and trying to produce, you just allowed yourself to unfold? What if you quieted the critical thoughts and just let yourself…happen? No “should”s, no anxiety, and no need to do it differently. No forcing, no changing – just following the flow of you. What if you allowed yourself to bloom into your deepest, truest self?

There is nothing you could be doing wrong other than thinking you need to be anything other than exactly what you are. When you don’t try to change the course of the river, it flows and carves the most beautiful canyons; it is beautiful just as it is.

We need to stop ourselves from “shoulding” and just “play.” It is through play that we nourish ourselves. Kids play until someone tells them to stop…until someone tells them that the rules are to produce and “work.” But some of the best artists are children, and that’s because they never learned to follow the rules. We never needed to follow the rules. We manufactured them ourselves.

What if what we’re supposed to do is play? What if what we’re supposed to do is create? What if what we’re supposed to do is laugh?

The concepts of accomplishment and perfection and the idea that we are not enough just as we are – these are the things that are killing us. We put dollar signs on human beings, when the truth is, we have intrinsic value. We were valuable even when we were just playing.

So by all means, child of the universe, stop doubting yourself. Does a tree doubt itself?

(No, it’s a tree.)

Be you and be no one else, and let yourself be still for a moment to dream – for a moment to play. No excuses. I’m so glad I did.

Photograph

You told me life was impermanent, that like dandelions, we all fade

And I’m too ashamed to say that I don’t want to be alone

I’m too scared to admit

That I find meaning in every little thing you say

And I don’t want to hear what you said circling in my mind

In that empty room in the dark as the lights go out across the city

I’m too scared to tell you that

I wanted to paint you in a memory that I can’t even place

on fingertip, on in-between, on this nonstop reel of

flashing scenes, of poetry, of faded light

She said “I paint flowers so they will not die,”

And I wanted to take this record and make it spin forever.

If I could bottle up your brilliant heart and give it to the

sun

watch it rise every morning

as I lift my head from the pillow

Maybe I’d remember

this is why we love.