Your brain has something called a negativity bias. Simplified, this means that we are wired for survival, not for thriving. Our brains were evolved to scan for and hold onto the negative in order to keep us safe. Better to assume the rumbling in the bushes was a tiger and worry about that in vain, then not worry and risk being someone else’s supper, right? Today, we face so much less imminent risk to our survival, but our brains haven’t caught up as much with how societies have evolved.
Do you tend to be so much more hung up on the one piece of negative feedback you got, even if the rest was good? You’re not alone, and part of the explanation for this habit might lie with the brain’s negativity bias.
This is partly why we spend some time as part of our mindfulness journey in a course such as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) not only developing better awareness and clarity of a situation (what is really going on here?) as well as learning to be a curious observer of our experience (huh, what does it really feel like to be upset about this? Are my thoughts about this true?), but we also do things like label our emotions which helps calm the emotional centers of the brain.
In developing our inherent capacity to approach our experiences more mindfully, we practice not automatically turning away from difficult thoughts, emotions, or body sensations. Instead, we just gently notice, and become familiar with the fullness of our human experience.
In addition to learning to be a little more comfortable with our challenges by gently turning towards discomfort when appropriate, we can also practice seeking out the good. This means we train our brains to linger with the sensations of what is already pleasant and good in the moment, adopting the attitude of an explorer seeking hidden treasure. While meditating, this might be the feeling of warmth from the sun through the window, a soft belly, or cozy socks.
Outside of formal meditation, it might be the warmth of the morning coffee, the taste of your favorite chocolate, or the smell of fresh air after the rain. This rewires our brain (it’s neuroplastic! It can change with practice!) to view things in a more balanced way and to help counter the negativity’s bias hold can have on us. By practicing taking in the pleasant aspects of your experience, you are teaching your brain to do so with more ease in the future.
Here are three easy steps from psychologist Rick Hanson that you can try today to help your brain practice to take in the good:
Step 1: Intentionally seek out good experiences every day (the warmth of your cup of tea or the sun on your skin, a comfy bed or a smile from someone) – no thing is too small.
Step 2: Enrich the experience: stay with the pleasant experience for at least 5 seconds (tune into body sensations, feelings, and your whole experience in that moment). Turn up the intensity by letting the appreciation fill your body and mind. This moves the experience from short-term to long-term memory, and is important in training your brain to take in more of the good.
Step 3: Absorb the experience. Let the experience truly sink in. Set the intention to take it with you in your memory, becoming part of you.
Remember, the more you practice this, the more you train the brain and the easier it will be for this to happen more naturally!
We don’t want to ignore or push away the negative, but rather have a more balanced mind where we take more control over how we perceive what is happening in our lives, and to not be as easily overwhelmed by the negative.
By the way, this is very different by the way from what is called toxic positivity, which expressed might look like:
“Come on, look at the bright side!”
“You’ll get over it!”
“Come on, it could be worse.“
“Positive vibes only!”
This communicates the idea that you are simply just a positive attitude away from a better situation or life.
Forced positivity is unhelpful and sometimes harmful experiential avoidance that can leave us actually less happy, depleted, and capable of taking things on. Not recognizing what is difficult for us in the moment and not having this reality acknowledged, but instead glossed over or pushed away (by ourselves or others), doesn’t feel good and isn’t useful in the long run. Perhaps counter intuitively, allowing ourselves not to feel good, with gentleness and compassion, is sometimes the wiser choice.
Toxic positivity is really the opposite of mindfulness where we practice taking in all of our experiences – pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. This grows our capacity to be with the full spectrum of life, making us more resilient.
Increasing our ability to be with all of life isn’t at odds with both seeking out the pleasant in our moments as well as intentionally cultivating joy in our lives in general though. Purposefully and genuinely cultivating joy and elevated mood states by training our brain, inside and outside of your meditation practice, can be an incredible way to boost your resilience with those feel good chemicals that follow and to just experience more joy, period.
Beyond the tips provided above, when it comes to general mood elevation, you might like to make a list of things that make you feel good that you can make a deliberate effort to engage in weekly. My list includes: dancing to fun music, walking in nature, sitting in the park, reading with a cup of tea, and watching stand-up comedy.
The more we do things to laugh, to smile, and feel good feelings, the easier it becomes for the brain. Pushing away the bad, that’s not the goal. But to have more good in our lives, why wouldn’t we?
So to recap:
- Mindfulness practice trains our brain to approach our experience with more clarity.
- Mindfulness practice includes noticing the pleasant aspects that are already with us in the moment, and doing so trains our brains to view things in a more balanced way, countering the hold of the negativity bias.
- You and your brain have much to gain from both this AND intentionally creating more opportunities for joy in your day-to-day life. Don’t forget to linger with all the feel-good sensations when you do!
I’m going to go really savor my lunch now. What is something pleasurable that you can notice this moment? And what is something joyful that you can plan to do today or later this week?
Images via Unsplash