The fluffy kittens in front of you might be adorable and make you smile for a second, but you keep thinking about the angry guy who tailgated you a couple hours ago, instead. Your friend may be telling you a hilarious story, but all you can think about is your boss criticizing your work yesterday. Why is this? In short, fluffy kittens aren’t going to kill you, but that angry tailgater could be a real threat to your safety. An unhappy boss isn’t likely to kill you, but her ability to fire you represents a threat to your survival. In other words, our brains have evolved to become very sensitive to potential threats that could harm or kill us—negative things. If keeping you alive means you are focused on scary and negative things, well, that’s a trade off your brain is willing to make. This is known as “negativity bias,” where our brain prioritizes attention to negative, potentially threatening, experiences over positive experiences. Does this mean you are helpless against this wiring? Nope! We can take intentional action to make the positive experiences in our lives register more strongly than they would have otherwise.
How to fight your brain’s negativity bias, so that your life has more contentment, calm, and happiness in it, is way beyond the scope of a mere blog post. In fact, it’s the subject of an entire book! For this post, I’m going to share one small but potent practice you can immediately begin doing to magnify the positive experiences and emotions in your life.
Psychologist Dr. Hanson calls it “taking in the good.” What this means is taking a bit of time to absorb a good experience or feeling, letting it sink into you. Savor the feeling and magnify it if you can. Examine each aspect of it that you can and notice how good it feels. Over time, consistently practicing this will literally change your brain, adding more connections that focus on positive experiences, balancing the brain’s inborn bias to focus on negative events. As Dr. Hanson explains, in his case, a childhood of feeling ignored, unwanted, and put down by his peers left him with an empty place in his heart. Overcoming the negativity bias doesn’t happen overnight but, little by little, it does happen:
“In the beginning, the hole in my heart seemed as big as an empty swimming pool. But taking in a few experiences each day of being included, appreciated, or cared about felt like tossing a few buckets of water into the pool. Day after day, bucket after bucket, month after month, I was gradually filling that hole in my heart. This practice lifted my mood and made me feel increasingly at ease, cheerful, and confident.”
One key piece is to experience that positive feeling long enough for it to be encoded into the brain. Try to hold on to this feeling for at least 20 seconds (30 is even better). Even if you’ve had a particularly challenging day with very little that was positive, you can still throw a few buckets of water in your swimming pool by calling to mind a memory of another positive experience. Make that memory as vivid and detailed and strong as possible. You will still be causing your brain to register those positive feelings and make new connections for them. Dr. Hanson notes that it doesn’t have to be big events or experiences. For example, when in college someone would invite him to join them for pizza, he would “take in” the feelings of being seen, of mattering, and of being included.
To learn more about how to counter your brain’s inherent negativity bias, to magnify the positive experiences in your life, and to free yourself from limiting beliefs of the past, I recommend Dr. Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. This is a technique which can have a huge impact on the quality of your life and it’s one which I recommend to the people I work with as a therapist. You can begin doing it today!
If your own “negativity bias” is draining the joy and pleasure from your life, I invite you to contact me. We can come up with a plan customized for you to begin turning that around. Call or text me at (816) 226-4678.