A piglet(Photo: Courtesy of Self)

As Happy as a Pig

A few winters ago, it rained pretty much constantly for three months. By month two of the unrelentingly wet weather, my thoughts had also taken a predictably dour turn. Inside my head, I heard the same unpleasant soundtrack over and over: What if the economy doesn’t turn around? Why is my husband working such long hours? When did my belly get so flabby? My brain was a scratched CD, and the longer the negative track went on, the worse I felt. I’d like to say that normally I’m an optimistic and sunny person. But the truth is, my mind naturally tilts in the direction of worry. The endless rain simply pushed me more firmly toward the bleak side.

Given my morose mood, it’s surprising that I even noticed the new addition to the fenced-in field at the entrance of our otherwise suburban San Francisco Bay–area subdivision. But one day, as I was driving past the field, I saw her: a black potbellied pig. I later learned that the pig’s name was Chloe, and on that soggy day, she was frolicking in the rain, black snout snuffling deliriously in the soaked grass. I’m not one to throw around phrases such as “my heart leapt,” but that’s exactly what mine did, and my mind did, too. Suddenly, my brain cells were singing the “Hallelujah” chorus. I was so captivated, I pulled over to watch, basking in my little pocket of unexpected joy. Over the next few weeks, I tried to catch glimpses of Chloe’s comical body any time I could, and when I didn’t see her, I’d replay a mental image of her cavorting in the rain. The thought made me smile, jolting me out of my gloom. It’s not that I felt chipper exactly, but I was a tad more hopeful. I couldn’t help but wonder, Had a pig suddenly turned my sodden mood sunny?

Neuroscientists would say that the ebullient little animal was indeed a happiness catalyst, if only because she nudged me out of my negative rut. And scientists increasingly believe that what we think—both the good stuff and the bad—sculpts our brain circuitry, which, in turn, can reshape our overall outlook.

Not that it’s quite as easy as “think happy thoughts and you’ll end up happy.” For most humans, channeling positivity is challenging, with good reason: “Because the human brain evolved during a time when danger was everywhere, it has a built-in negativity bias,” says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. “For humans to survive under these dire straits, the brain regions responsible for detecting threats had to be turbocharged. Evolution favored those who were able to react to danger with lightning speed.” Another way to explain it is that the brain is like Velcro for everything negative and Teflon for the positives. “An upsetting experience in our past can cast a long shadow,” Hanson confirms.