We’re Negative by Design… So How Can We Rewire Our Brains for Happiness?
In an unguarded moment, a good friend of mine recently revealed a carefully concealed secret - “I’m a pessimist”. It seems that 'being negative' has become something to hide from others. Whenever negativity pops up (as it invariably does) at work or at home, with our kids or our partners… shame, guilt and judgement never seem too far behind.
But 'being negative' is something we all share…. In fact we’re negative by design.
The lives of our great, great… great grandparents literally depended on 'being negative'. Back when our ancestors roamed the Saharan desert, it was more important for them to focus on what was wrong (a predator in the bushes), than what was right (watching the sunset). Those who paid more attention to threats and danger survived, and passed this 'negativity bias’ on to us... In other words, it’s hardwired into our DNA to notice, think about and remember the bad stuff.
This 'negativity bias' would be useful if we were still living in dangerous times, like our caveman ancestors. But most of us live pretty safe, comfortable lives. In any one day you probably have many more good or neutral experiences than bad ones. For every 20 mildly pleasant emails we receive… we probably get one snarly email from the resident office troll. And YET what swirls around your head when you close your eyes and get in to bed at night?
Unless you are some kind of yogi – your answer is probably the snarly office so-and-so. And it’s not your fault. Our brains are engineered to hold on to the bad... and let the good stuff slide right out. Neuropsychologists have found that bad experiences grab our attention and are registered into our long-term memory much more quickly than positive experiences. Unfortunately, the more we focus on worries and problems, the more likely we are to feel stressed, agitated or down in the dumps.
Luckily we can intentionally undo this ‘negativity bias’. We are in the driver’s seat and can choose which experiences we pay attention to and absorb along the way. Brain scientists have shown that with regular practice we can quite literally rewire our brains and cultivate our own bias towards happiness.
But How? Here is one simple ways to get started:
Each day there are many small, enjoyable experiences that we overlook whilst running from A to B or ruminating on something we wish we hadn’t said or done. When we stew on the bad things, they grow bigger in our minds and ultimately we feel a general sense of doom and gloom. If we learn to ‘stew’ on the good things in the same way – they too will grow and quite literally build a stockpile of positive experiences that support our wellbeing. Dr Rick Hanson (one of the great neuropsychologists of our time) outlines 4 steps for ‘taking in the good’:
1. Stop to notice one thing of beauty in your world each day (it can be simple like the dew on a strand of grass, or the warmth of the sun on your face, or a cuddle with your child on the couch).
2. Once you have noticed it – stay with it. Focus all of your attention on this experience for 20 seconds (enough time for your mind to absorb it into memory). Let the experience fill your body, heart and mind with feelings of contentment, warmth or gratitude.
3. Let this experience sink in to your body and mind. Intentionally registering it deeply in your emotional memory. It can help to let your body relax and imagine a warm light or golden balm sinking in to your core.
4. Sense that this light or balm is flowing down into old wounds and filling them up. Soothing and replacing old feelings of hurt, rejection or weakness.
We so often stop to capture happy moments with our phones for instagram, facebook or pinterest. But how often do we stop to capture these moments of beauty in our hearts and minds – for ourselves?
We may all have a negativity bias – but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. We can start the process of rewiring our minds for happiness by...
STOPPING to notice the little moments of beauty or joy…
STAYING with these experiences
…long enough to let them SINK IN….
And using these experiences to SOOTHE the secret little pockets of pain or hurt that we all carry around.
If you’d like to learn more about this practice – take a look at Rick Hanson’s TED talk on Taking in the Good.
With Warmth, K & A xx