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.