Does your brain feel like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones?” You don’t have to accept this “negativity bias.” Learn how to “tilt” toward the good…
Rick Hanson, PhD, a leading neuropsychologist, is the author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom; Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence; Just One Thing; and Mother Nurture.
Here’s an excerpt from his best-seller Just One Thing about how to experience good times in such a way so they stick with you.
Do Positive Experiences “Stick to Your Ribs?” The Practice Take in the good.
Why? Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias” because as our ancestors evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, sticks had a lot more urgency and impact for survival. This bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:
- In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one.
- People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money.
- Painful experiences are more memorable than pleasurable ones.
In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done . . . In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, inclinations, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction. Which is not fair, since most of the facts in your life are probably positive or at least neutral. Besides the injustice of it, the growing pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue – plus harder to be patient and giving toward others. But you don’t have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good – “good” in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others – you merely level the playing field. Instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve, they’ll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. You’ll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you’ll become more able to change them or bear them if you take in the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others. And by the way, in addition to being good for adults, taking in the good great for children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.
1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences. Good facts include positive events – like finishing a batch of emails or getting a compliment – and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it. Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day. Each one takes about half a minute – there is always time to take in the good! You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning). Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don’t deserve to, or that it’s selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen. Then turn your attention back to the good facts. Keep opening up to them, breathing and relaxing, letting them affect you. It’s like sitting down to a meal: don’t just look at it—taste it!
2. Really enjoy the experience. Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that’s fine. But try to stay with it for 10, 20, even 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else. As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory. You are not clinging to positive experiences, since that would lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by taking them in, you will increasingly feel more fed inside, and less fragile or needy. Your happiness will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on external conditions.
3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you. People do this in different ways. Some feel it in the body like a warm glow spreading through the chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in his or her heart. And some might simply know that while this good experience is held in awareness, its related neural networks are busily firing and wiring together. Any single time of taking in the good will usually make just a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.
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