The Twelve Pillars of Well-Being – Presented in four bite-sized chunks

How do you go from fight or flight to tend and befriend?   Rick Hanson, Ph.D., the New York Times best-selling author of Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha’s Brain has created the Foundations of Well-Being program to help yUnknown-2ou re-wire your brain by practicing positive neuroplasticity. Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist and leading expert in positive neuroplasticity, the science of teaching people to train their brain to develop stronger tendencies towards happiness, love, and wisdom. His new online program, The Foundations ofWell-Being, is a great resource for anyone who wants a greater sense of deep, abiding happiness!

The following guest-posts by Dr. Hanson focuses on developing the “Pillars of Well-Being,” the twelve foundational inner strengths that promote overall wellness. 

Millions of years of evolution have embedded in our brains a negativity bias that helped our ancestors pass on their genes. Ancient animals, hominids, and early humans had to make a critical decision many times a day: do you approach a reward or avoid a hazard — pursue a carrot or duck a stick? But there’s a key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact in terms of raw survival.

This approach is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote long-term health, satisfying relationships, inner peace, and success. So I created the Foundations of Well-Being, based on the evolution of the human brain. The program teaches the fundamental methods of positive neuroplasticity – how to turn everyday experiences into lasting, beneficial changes in neural structure and function – and then applies these methods to growing psychological resources inside yourself, such as relaxation, feeling protected, grit, determination, sense of accomplishment, gladness, compassion, patience, empathy, and feeling cared about.

During the reptile, mammal, and primate/human phases of evolution, the brain developed its brainstem, subcortex, and cortex. Consequently, there is a kind of lizard, mouse, and monkey inside us all. I know this is a goofy metaphor, but it sure feels sometimes like there’s a little zoo inside the head! Today, the brain works as a whole to meet our core needs – for safety, satisfaction, and connection – by Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to others. These needs and systems are loosely related to the reptilian (brainstem), mammalian (subcortex), and primate/human (cortex) structure of the brain. In effect, to put it loosely, we need to pet the lizard, feed the mouse, and hug the monkey in order to develop the healing, effectiveness, loving heart, and ordinary happiness we all long for. The question of course, is HOW to do this.

The answer takes us to the four primary factors of well-being:

  • Recognizing – seeing the truth inside and outside you; understanding what leads to the happiness and welfare of yourself and others, and what leads to suffering and harm
  • Resourcing – finding and growing those things in your mind, body, and world that protect, support, encourage, guide, ease, and inspire you
  • Regulating – bringing balance, effectiveness, and direction to your thoughts, emotions, bodily states, desires, actions, and relationships
  • Relating – bringing your well-being into life; expressing yourself authentically, ethically, and skillfully; embodying and enacting your abilities and talents

Applying these four factors to our three core needs gives us the 12 Pillars of Well-Being – key inner strengths for greater happiness, love, and wisdom:

                          Recognizing           Resourcing           Regulating            Relating

Safety              Self-Caring                 Vitality                    Calm                  Courage

Satisfaction     Mindfulness             Gratitude             Motivation          Aspiration

Connection       Learning                Confidence             Intimacy              Service

Each month we focus on a new Pillar. When you use the Foundations program to develop these twelve strengths, you repeatedly weave experiences of safety, satisfaction, and connection into your brain – and build up an increasingly unconditional sense of peace, contentment, and love.

Even if you’re not planning on participating in the program, understanding these Pillars and how they work in daily life can be a great way to further your well-being. So here’s a quick summary of each one.


Pillar #1 – Self-Caring

A basic model in healthcare says that your life is shaped by three kinds of things: challenges, vulnerabilities, and resources. Of these, you can usually affect resources the most.

Resources are located in the world, the body, and the mind. Mental resources, inner strengths like gratitude, confidence, calm, self-acceptance, determination, compassion, assertiveness, and happiness are often the easiest and quickest to develop.

Developing inner strengths – growing the good inside yourself – means using your mind to change your brain for the better. To do this in the flow of daily life, you have to care about yourself and feel that you matter. So we’ll focus on three things:

  • Getting on your own side; being a friend to yourself
  • Self-acceptance and self-compassion
  • Opening to the longings in your heart. What do you wish was better in your life?

Pillar #2 – Mindfulness

The Prefrontal lobe region of the brain, responsible for self-regulation, is strengthened during mindfulness meditation
The Prefrontal lobe region of the brain, responsible for self-regulation, is strengthened during mindfulness meditation

The mind changes the brain based on its experiences. Scientists call this “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.” Another way to say it is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Therefore, sustained attention to beneficial – and usually enjoyable – experiences is the primary pathway to changing the brain for the better. So training attention through mindfulness practices is really valuable.

As mentioned earlier, the brain has a negativity bias. It looks for bad news, over-focuses on it, over-reacts to it, and quickly stores the whole package in emotional memory. The brain also has two basic settings: the Responsive “green zone” that is the resting state of the brain – our natural home base – and the Reactive “red zone” we enter when we feel stressed or upset. Because of the negativity bias, we are vulnerable to getting stuck in the Red Zone – a major reason to learn how to use your mind to change your brain to change: what the Foundations program is all about.

Developing greater mindfulness:

  • Helps you sustain present-moment awareness and better absorb the small, everyday positive experiences that make up most of life.
  • Helps you recognize when you’re getting pulled into the red zone, and see how to get out of it and come home to your brain’s Responsive mode

Pillar #3 – Learning

There is a two-stage process to learning: experiences held in short-term memory buffers must be transferred to long-term storage; mental states must be encoded as neural traits; activation must be followed by installation.

We grow traits by turning passing experiences into lasting neural structure; traits come from states. Inner strengths are thus beneficial traits acquired through the internalization – the encoding – of beneficial states. Beneficial states that are not installed in the brain are wasted, with little to no learning, little to no lasting value.

Unfortunately, most informal and formal efforts at psychological healing and personal growth – including psychotherapy, coaching, human resources development, and mindfulness training – put little focus on the installation stage of learning. There’s an assumption that if people are having beneficial thoughts, feelings, and other experiences, that’s all they need, and somehow change for the better will magically happen on its own.Unknown-4

But healing and growing doesn’t usually just happen on its own – especially given the negativity bias: a kind of well-intended universal learning disability in a brain that’s been ruthlessly shaped for peak performance by Stone Age conditions. As a result, the brain is really good at learning from bad experiences but relatively bad at learning from good ones – even though learning from good experiences is the main way to grow the inner strengths you need most.

Taking in the Good is my informal term for deliberately internalizing beneficial experiences in order to grow resilience, happiness, and other inner strengths – and to beat the negativity bias. How do you do it? Remember that learning – including the emotional, motivational, attitudinal learning that we all care about – is a two-stage process, moving from activated mental state to installed neural trait. This gives us the four steps of taking in the good, summarized in the acronym HEAL:


  1. Have a beneficial experience.


  1. Enrich it.
  2. Absorb it.
  3. Link positive and negative material. [optional]

Using these steps boosts the impact of any given positive experience and increases the likelihood that it imprints on your neural structure, thereby becoming an installed trait. Positive experiences become key resources you can draw on to help heal old pain and fill the hole in your heart. And we apply the HEAL process to grow each one of the Pillars inside you.

Check back tomorrow to learn about the next four pillars in the Foundations of Well-Being Program or click on the banner bellow for more details.

CEUs are available for health care providers who complete the program.

We wish you twenty minutes of mindfulness every day!

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