2023 Mental Health Tips for Heritage Professionals

This article is based on the book Hardwiring Happiness by clinical psychologist, Rick Hanson, PhD.

Table of Contents

A resource for GLAM professionals (GLAM stands for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums)

Why in the world was I reading a random book called Hardwiring Happiness? Straight up curiosity. I'll have you know it was followed by the audible rendition of Penguin's Book of Hell and Book of the Undead too, in case you're interested.

I have very eclectic reading habits. So if you want a new crazy article later on how historical renditions of hell and ghosts are related to museum work today, I'm sure we could have a lot of fun doing that too. Let me know, hey?

In any case, I wanted to be able to give you this fantastic resource, especially at the beginning of a new year.

While rewarding, most of us can also agree that working for heritage and culture can be stressful, frustrating, and difficult.

It is not the same in every country. Our challenges are similar but not always the same. In some countries, we are frustrated by the lack of high quality education or access to materials and knowledge.

In other countries, the profession has been going for long enough that we may feel we are considered redundant after having put in so many years and money into training. Or perhaps we see our field as being inaccessible and difficult.

In many countries, we feel we are not recognised or valued as we should be.

So I'll just say it now before you think I'm about to drop a Holy Grail: Doing these mental health exercises is not going to solve the big ticket items.

It is highly unlikely that you will solve entrenched problems of toxic environments, accessibility or diversity.

These exercises are also not going to increase your budget or your salary. Unless, of course, their practice means everybody becomes just a little bit nicer to each other and makes problem-solving into a team effort.

Let's be clear that I am also not negating the bad things. They are real. They are there. Being a chill, calm sort of cookie is not going to change that at all. We must all make our own decisions on whether we stay or leave or [insert choice here].

However, this article is intended to give you some tools to face your everyday challenges with a sunnier disposition for the sake of improving your own quality of life and mental health. We can't control what other people do or how they treat us, but we can control how we react and what impact things will have on our own days.

So, for your benefit, here are my personal notes on the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson, PhD. This is not an affiliate link.

Quick annoying but necessary disclaimer: You know this, but I'll say it again just to be safe. I am just a humble conservator, everyone. The following are nothing more but my own notes on a book I read out of personal interest for your benefit because I thought it would be great to share. I am, obviously, not a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist or anything like that. Except for the final examples for GLAM professionals, I didn't come up with any of this myself. Please take things with a grain of salt and critical thinking. I am also not saying that you can address diagnosed mental health illnesses or past personal trauma with a few exercises on your own. I would, in fact, advise against that. Please seek professional help if you think you need it. All I hope is for this to give you a new way of looking inwards and finding peace on your hectic days. If you like these notes, I strongly recommend you read the full book.

Pages in my book journal
The original pages of my book journal where I made the first notes and tables you are reading about here.

The theory behind Hardwiring Happiness

I will now attempt to give you the theory behind the book as briefly as possible so you understand the point when the exercises come in. Please bear with me. There's a fair bit of fancy biology science coming up.

Matt Damon in The Martian, via GIPHY

How does the brain work?

"Neurons that fire together wire together."

This idea posits that our mental states slowly become neural traits. The neurons that are constantly reacting together when we are feeling our different emotions become used to connecting to each other so that if you are repeatedly experiencing specific emotions and reacting in specific ways, the brain will wire this in for the long run.

In other words, your most common thoughts/feelings are literally building your brain, which also means that, to a certain extent, you can make conscious decisions on what kind of brain you want to have - as in, a Zen brain that keeps you calm and drinking tea or a brain that messes with you and makes you want to jump into the void.

This is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Keep this concept in mind!

How does our brain process events or feeling?

Warning. This is a bit technical, so here we go.

  1. First, there is a trigger - for example, someone says something we dislike - like the exhibition schedule you had just got shorter.
  2. Then, the amygdala in our brains sends an alarm to the hypothalamus and the sympathetic nervous system.
  3. The hypothalamus freaks out a bit because, hey, you just got an alarm, and it requests your body to start releasing adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine and stress hormones.
  4. Your hippocampus checks everything that is going on like a manager, forms a neural trace of the event and consolidates the response in your cortical memory networks. In other words, your hippocampus goes ok, cool this is how we react when we are told the exhibition schedule just got messed up.
  5. Over time, your amygdala (step 2) becomes over sensitive to negative things and since we are lazy office humans these days and don't run around as much as we used to, all the cortisol that gets ordered into our system by an alert amygdala ends up hanging around longer than it should instead of being metabolised away quickly - which, unfortunately, overstimulates the brain and weakens/kills the cells in your hippocampus.
  6. This is really bad because your hippocampus is the chill little person in your brain telling you to put things in perspective and settle down and carry on and have tea. The last thing we need is to be shrinking our hippocampuses. Hippocampi?

Phoenix from X-men labeled as "oversensitized amygdala in your brain" standing over destroyed area labeled as "shrunken hippocampus". Underneath, image of Ian McKellen as Magneto labeled "hypothalamus" saying "What have I done?"
My attempt to turn brain science into a meme.

Little side tip: Apart from that amygdala-hypothalamus-hippocampus network going on, you have another part of your brain called the insula.

The insula of your brain is continuously monitoring your health and central functions and tells your brain that everything in your body is okay so even just consciously thinking about:

  • how you don't feel pain
  • how your breathing is nice and deep
  • how your heart is beating regularly
  • Etc.

can sensitize your brain to notice the good things. Noticing positive experiences like this gives the amygdala more dopamine.

This makes the amygdala more reactive to good experiences (as opposed to mostly bad ones) and tells your hippocampus to remember the good stuff too. Again, this is called self-directed neuroplasticity and it's real.


What is the negativity bias?

You can divide your memory into two types: explicit and implicit.

Explicit memory has to do with declarative knowledge: things like phone numbers, shapes, ID of objects.

Implicit memory holds procedural knowledge: how to cook/drive/read, what to expect from people or situations, your values, your emotions, your likes and dislikes. Your implicit memory is negatively biased.

What does it mean that it's negatively biased?

Our brains have evolved to focus on the bad things more than the good things because we have spent several hundred thousand years running away from animals that wanted to eat us or fellow groups who maybe wanted to kill us because our cave looked way better than theirs (3 bed +2 bath + open concept - can you tell I'm flat hunting these days?).

It is much better for you to think there is a tiger hiding in the bush when there is none, than to think there is no tiger in the bush when there most definitely is.

Focusing on the negative would literally save you from becoming the next meal or being the next victim of an aggressive neighbour.

So, people who survived were people who expected the worst.

And here we are, the lucky descendants of a bunch of paranoid hominids.

What does the negativity bias mean for our modern lives?

Now that we're mostly out of the food chain (except maybe if you live in Australia? - I love you guys), the negativity bias affects us in emotional ways.

It means our brains will naturally focus on bad things that happen. We may overnanalyse our conversations looking for insults or attacks.

If you get 10 compliments and 1 piece of negative feedback, you can guess which one of those will be weighing on your mind over the next few days. And no, it likely won't be the bit that said you are amazing 99.9% of the time.

What is "taking in the good"?

In the face of this negativity bias, the author advises "taking in the good" which means that we attempt to develop happiness and inner strengths by using our good mental states and consciously turning them into neural traits.

In other words, we deliberately internalise positive experiences into our implicit memory to counteract the negativity bias.

We train our brains to see the good and then "install" this feeling permanently into the brain by taking a few seconds to actually enjoy the feelings. This, way, the next time we get a bad trigger, we can consciously pull up a good feeling to calm ourselves down before our amygdala runs away with us.

What are our three core needs?

But how will we know what kind of memories to pull up when we need them? Let's start with a bit of theory here too.

We can divide our brain into three sections which are loosely associated to our evolution:

Brain section In charge of Needs Related behaviour
Brain stem Basic breathing and life-related functions Safety Avoids harms
Subcortex Emotions, motivations, bonding Satisfaction Approaches rewards
Cortex Abstract reasoning, reflections over time, empathy, language, cooperation, planning. Connections to others Attaches to others

What are the characteristics of our three core needs?

Characteristic Avoiding harm Approaching rewards Attaching to others
Needs Safety Satisfaction Connection
Is challenged by Threats Loss Rejection
Attends to Risks Opportunities Relationships
Prioritises Prevent decline Promote improvement Sexuality, intimacy, self-worth
Capabilities Freeze/Flight/Fight Forage, sustained chase Empathy, bonding, language

What are our two main states of mind?

Each of these three core needs with associated wants has two states of being:

  1. Reactive --> Stressed, ready for bad stuff to happen. Kicks off when we are triggered.
  2. Responsive --> Chilled, relaxed, content. Default mode.

Our default mode of being is the responsive state and it is the mode of being we want to be in for as long as possible. When our bodies/brains feel that the three core needs are being met, the system remains in the responsive mode.

How do our core needs feel when you are in the responsive state?

Characteristic Avoiding harm Approaching rewards Attaching to others
Sense of self Safe Satisfied Connected
View of the world Protection Sufficiency Inclusion
Stance Confident Fulfilled Relate
Copes through Asserting Aspiring Caring
Related actions Dignity, gravity, restraint Generosity, creativity Empathy, compassion, kindess, cooperation
Central experience Peace Contentment Love
Related feelings Strong, calm, chill, empowered, efficacy Grateful, glad, enthusiastic, accomplished, successful Seen, liked, worthy, appreciated, special, cherished

According to the author, increased time spent in the responsive state, makes the neurobiological causes for stress, fear and frustration actually disappear!

How do our core needs feel when you are in the reactive state?

When you are in reactive mode, your body literally stops caring about long-term functions because it thinks it's saving you from potential immediate death. It will not prioritise long-term health until you come back down to the responsive state.

This means that the more time you spend in this "urgent emergency" mode, the more your long-term health will be impacted.

  • The reactive state depletes your resources.
  • Your immune system is put on hold because, hey, if the tiger eats you today who cares about the flu season next week or cancer next year, right?
  • Inflammation increases.
  • It wears down your cardiovascular system.
  • It atrophies neurons in your prefrontal cortex.
  • It impairs myelination (the insulation of neural fibres) and reduces brain connectivity.
  • Chronic stress reduces neurotrophin, which is needed for learning.
  • Adrenaline and cortisol rush through your blood. Your three core needs feel fear (avoiding), frustration (approaching) and heartache (attaching).
  • The already existing negativity bias heightens the experience and enriches the bad memory. Being in the reactive state can promote vices such as eating disorders, drugs, alcohol and even excessive gaming. Over time, it can lead to or worsen already existing mental health problems.
Characteristic Avoiding harm Approaching rewards Attaching to others
Sense of self Unsafe Dissatisfied Disconnected
View of the world Dangerous Scarcity Exclusion
Stance Aversive Coveting Separated
Copes through Resisting Grasping Clinging
Related actions Appease, freeze, flee, fight Drivenness, addiction Reproach, quarrel, prejudice
Central experience Fear Frustration Heartache
Related feelings Angry, immobile, defeated, weak, overwhelmed, helpless Disappointed, failed, sad, grieving Hurt, dismissed, abandoned, envious, mistreated, jealous, provoked, lonely, aggrieved, rejected, ashamed, unworthy, inadequate
Associated long-term mental illnesses exacerbated by the reactive mode Generalised anxiety, agoraphobia, PTSD, OCD, dissociative disorder, panic attacks, social anxiety Substance abuse, addictions Insecure attachments, narcissism, borderline disorder, antisocial behaviour.

Summary table of Responsive vs. Reactive state

Characteristic Responsive Reactive
Sense of self Safe, satisfied, connected Unsafe, dissatisfied, disconnected
View of the world Protection, sufficiency, inclusion Danger, scarcity, exclusion
Stance Confident, fulfilled, related Aversive, coveting, separation
Coping mechanism Asserting, aspiring, caring Resisting, grasping, clinging
Metabolism Replenishing Depleting
Health effects Salutogenic (promotes health) Pathogenic (promotes disease)
Central experience Peace, contentment, love Fear, frustration, heartache

The TLDR (Too Long, Didn't Read) Summary

Okay, now we have all the theory we needed to get to this point. If you couldn't be bothered to read, I don't blame you. Here's the executive summary:

  • Your brain is pre-wired to focus on negative things.
  • Your brain remembers your reactions after every trigger and wires them into your brain to make it "easier" to react that way next time. This is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
  • Your state of mind can be divided into a positive or neutral responsive state and a negative reactive state.
  • The reactive state is conducive to bad long-term health, so you want to avoid as much as possible.
  • It is actually possible to re-wire your brain by consciously focusing on good experiences, thus reducing your overall time spend in the reactive state. This is called self-directed neuroplasticity.

The HEAL exercise

HEAL stands for:

  • Have a positive experience and notice it.
  • Enrich it. Consciously enjoy the experience for at least 5-10 seconds because that's what it takes for your brain to wire it.
  • Absorb it. Imagine the feeling physically sinking into you. Do this for as long as you can.
  • Link positive and negative material. This step is considered optional, especially with traumatic or embedded negative material. You make yourself aware of the negative feeling but don't allow it to take over.

Cool note: Your brain has a "window of reconsolidation" which lasts as least an hour. This means that after activating negative material, you have at least an hour during which you can trigger some positive and neutral feelings. This disrupts the brain's reconsolidation of the negative associations!

How does the HEAL exercise work?

You can...

  • Appreciate the little things (like, really really little too)
  • Find the time in a busy day to notice something good
  • Be grateful for X
  • Enjoy the X
  • Feel like you're on your side, not in a pedantic way, just in a supportive sense
  • Make the HEAL exercise into a daily habit.

Cool note: The greater the duration, intensity, multimodality (using various senses) and personal relevance of a trigger, the greater the memory retention.

The right antidote

But why did I give you all those intense tables? Because we need to find the right positive feeling for the right negative trigger.

For example, if you have scurvy, you don't expect it to be solved by taking Ibuprofen, right? Ibuprofen is for pain, not scurvy. You'd have to get Vitamin C.

Similarly, if we are feeling frustration, this belongs to our approaching rewards system. So if we tried to fix it by actions or memories related to the attaching to others system, it would be like taking ibuprofen for scurvy.

So instead of thinking that we're frustrated, but hey, other people love us! - which wouldn't work at all, we have to think that we're frustrated now but focus on all the things we've accomplished in the past and may accomplish in the future.

For your Avoiding harm system

If you feel Call up feelings and memories of Example of noticing something
Weakness Strength I can carry my own luggage around. I got over a very difficult situation in the past. I am strong.
Helplessness Efficacy Check out this awesome Excel table I just made. My colleagues trust my organisation skills.
Alarm Protection, safety, calm I am safe in this room in my house, in my block, in my country.
Anxiety, fear, worry Reassurance, relaxation Notice that you are alive and well, breathing, you're okay right now
Dirty, contaminated Cleansing, health I have access to a hot bath. It feels amazing. The air I'm breathing is fresh and clean. I had all my vegetables today.
Sensitive, fight/flight Soothing, calming, resting I am lying in on a Sunday. I am relaxed. I feel content.
Immobile, frozen Physical activity, venting, exercising I love running/biking/swimming/yoga. It feels good to be out of breath. I can feel my muscles getting toned.

For your Approaching rewards system

If you feel Call up feelings and memories of Examples of noticing something
Disappointment, sadness, loss Gratitude, gain, gladness, beauty, pleasure Look at this beautiful flower. I love my dog. There is a funny face in my toast today. My sister called today, we had a nice chat. The museum I work in is in a beautiful place/building.
Frustration Past accomplishments I just made something out of nothing. I sent everyone handmade Xmas cards last year. I wrote a book once. My paper got accepted to a conference. I made my own conservation tools and then other people copied them. My colour matching skills are out of this world today.
Drivenness (meaning unhealthy desire to attain more things out of a sense of lacking) Satisfaction, fulfillment I love this sofa I have at home. I have the perfect setup in my small apartment. My car is such a smooth drive. I just had the juiciest orange I've ever had. I am going on holiday soon/now.
Boredom, apathy Rich fullness of this moment This is a gorgeous view. This is the best sunset. I am having the best chocolate chip cookie. Check out my collection of pigments on this shelf.

For your Attaching to others system

If you feel Call up feelings and memories of Examples of noticing something
Abandoned, neglected Feeling loved My cat really loves me. Really! My family want me to come over for dinner. Some friends from out of town want to stay with me.
Ignored, misunderstood Feeling seen, receiving empathy I remember this person reading stories to me when I was in bed. Someone made me breakfast today. My mum still does my laundry when I visit her. The clerk at the shop was amazingly helpful. My doctor really nailed it with this medicine.
Left out, excluded Belonging, feeling wanted Someone remembered my birthday. The concierge in my building says good morning to me every day. My neighbour offered to cat-sit while I'm on holiday. My colleague took me out for a coffee today. Someone invited me to dinner at their house.
Inadequacy, shame, worthlessness Feeling recognised, prized, appreciated Someone is telling me they really like my Tweet. Someone says my preventive conservation program is super good. My boss wants me to share the work I did with my colleagues. My colleagues have complimented my job. A stranger said they loved the visit to the exhibition I worked on.
Loneliness Friendship, being kind to others, self-caring, receiving kindness I volunteered yesterday. Someone told me I am a good person. I made breakfast for everyone. I cleaned the house for everyone.
Impostor syndrome Acceptance by others and by yourself, sincerity I have killed no plants this year. I wrote our internal protocols and people use them. I do the lab tours for out-of-town visitors and special tour groups, and everyone loves it. I made a really good ---- the other day. I am not perfect, but I'm pretty good at ----! People think I make adorable crochet amigurumi. Someone asked me to make them a ---- because they like the way I do it.
Resentment, anger Assertiveness, support, self-compassion I stood up for myself without being rude. Go me! I stood behind someone when they needed it. I supported a friend who lost someone. I cared for myself when I was feeling under the weather and it made things better. I defused a difficult situation today.

How this works over time

The author recommends practicing HEAL every day for an indefinite period of time and stressing the fact that you are, essentially, a good person.

As you become conscious of the positive feelings you are "collecting", your brain will slowly file them away so that when you are then faced by a negative trigger, you will be able to open this filing cabinet and pull out the correct feeling to counteract the negative trigger and lessen the time spent in the reactive state.

Remember the goal is to reduce the amount of time spent in the reactive state and go back to the healthier and happier responsive state.

Over time, you won't even need to do this consciously. Your brain will automatically pull out the positive feelings you need to counteract the negative triggers. You won't even necessarily remember the exact positive memories, but will just feel the good backup feeling supporting you through the bad stuff.

I also happen to believe that if I find I am not recognising enough positive opportunities to save in my brain, then I am perfectly capable of creating them myself.

I feel lonely? Well, let's start saying hello to the neighbours. I don't feel accomplished? Let's take up a free YouTube drawing class! Do I wish I saw more kindness in my life? Let's go volunteer! Etc.

Hardwiring Happiness for museum professionals

So, let's imagine a few examples that are relevant to our field for a bit just so you know where to start. You can then go off and be free! Make your own! If you don't work in the museum field, it's not hard to extrapolate these to your own situations.

Example negative trigger Main system affected Examples of antidotes that could work
I feel my supervisors don't appreciate the work I do. Attaching to others Remember other supervisors, colleagues, clients, friends, family. Think of the times when people told you your work was amazing. They think your job is interesting. They wish they did what you do. They think you have magical hands.
I am stressed by this tight exhibition schedule Avoiding harm Call up past exhibitions where things worked out just fine. Be grateful for the colleagues you have that make things work. Be glad that the printer is working really well today - not everybody has one! Be thankful for your really good registrar who fixed up that TMS package just right.
I am afraid of losing my job in the field Avoiding harm Think about how you got this job. Why wouldn't you be able to get a new one? Remember feeling reassurance. Be grateful for your family, your friends, people who support you. You are alive, you are breathing, you have a home. You have skills. How did it feel when you were told you got jobs in the past?
I don't think I'm good enough to get into/stay the field Attaching to others Think of past achievements. They don't have to be big. Remember times when others told you they believed in you. Have you won any prizes in anything? It means you are an achiever.
I will never get promoted Approaching rewards / Attaching to others Appreciate current achievements, feel the fullness of this moment and be grateful for the things you have already achieved. Remember past times when people appreciated your teamwork or leadership. Recall past achievements and visualise them happening again.
Whatever, I stopped caring Approaching rewards Feel the richness of this moment. Are you working on an object no one else has touched in a hundred years? Are you in an area of the museum most people are not allowed to enter? Is the building you work in beautiful? Was your commute easy today? Did you see any cute animals on your way in? Will you get a cake you want later? Are your friends or family or pets waiting eagerly for you to get home?

The next time something good happens, don't let it go without taking at least 5-10 seconds to HEAL it and impress it into your brain.

As you can see from the above examples, it really doesn't have to be much because what you are doing is just collecting positive feelings and putting them into a mental box.

The author talks about some of patients imagining being bathed in a golden shower or having a jewel that you place on an ornate box or placing a flower in an imaginary garden.

The next time you have a negative trigger, you'll be able to browse your box/garden, bring up a positive antidote and come back to the responsive state.

I hope you have enjoyed what turned out to be a ridiculously long article / book review. I really do recommend reading the original book.

If you get the audiobook, the author reads it himself and guides you through some HEAL exercises, with pauses and a gentle therapist voice that leads you through like a meditation.

Happy HEALing!

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