Have you ever noticed how quickly pleasure fades from your thoughts? How you can do ninety nine nice things for someone and all they will remember is the one thing you didn’t do! That no matter how many wonderful things happen to us that we still end up disappointed and find new things to complain about!
Take an average day… You go to work, make some money, eat some food, interact with people, maybe do some exercise, go home and watch some TV. Nothing particularly bad happens, but you still can’t shake an underlying feeling of stress, worry, inadequacy, loneliness or something else less than positive.
Why? Our two million year old brains are designed not to make us happy. They are designed to help us survive. They are naturally wired to focus on what’s wrong, which can cause us to feel stressed, worried, fearful, sad…even though there are lots of positive things in our lives.
In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.
Our brains are constantly scanning for threats whether that be an email from your boss or a Saber-tooth Tiger. Our brains have a in-built “negativity bias” that helped us stay alive millions of years ago. In the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they didn’t find the berries they were looking for one day, they might go a little hungry, but they usually had a shot at finding some more later on. But if they failed to avoid a Saber-tooth tiger, a natural hazard, or aggression from someone else in the tribe – WHAM! no more chances to pass on their genes or be there to eat the berries.
The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that losing money, being abandoned by friends and receiving criticism / insults has a greater impact than winning money, making friends or receiving praise.
Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones. For example, in a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one.
In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. We gravitate to the negative because that kept us alive in the past. The ancient circuity is loaded and fully operational in your brain as you drive through traffic, argue with your mate, hear an odd noise in the night or receive an unexpected bill.
Consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative memories naturally grows faster. Then the background feeling of what it feels like to be you can become undeservedly glum and pessimistic.
And that’s not fair because most of our experiences are neutral or positive. Every day, lots of good things happen – a lovely sunset, someone is kind to you, you finish a batch of emails, you learn something new, your kids do the washing up without asking etc. And you have lots of other positive ongoing aspects (e.g. your children are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the world) or yourself (e.g. personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness etc.)
In today’s modern world, our negativity bias is no longer necessary for our survival. However, our brains are still wired to constantly be on the lookout for tigers i.e. they are wired for negativity. Left unchecked, the negativity bias can become a serious impediment to our happiness and quality of life. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with the negativity bias and to start improving your quality of life.
If you look at a PET scan of someone who is depressed and someone who is not – look at how differently they light up, at the symmetry and and how much more wide spread activation there is.
Wouldn’t you guess the one on the left is probably in a better space and thinking life is good, with a lot more possibilities and noticing a lot of things other person isn’t? That’s right.
Well the awesome thing is that this isn’t fixed. Our brains are plastic and the brain has an amazing ability to reorganise itself by forming new connections throughout life…this means that anyone can change their life for the better by changing their mental habits.
Energy goes where attention flows.
Like much of your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind. Energy goes where attention flows. If you want to free yourself from the negativity bias, you have to realize that we all suffer at times. The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences; when they happen, they happen. If you want to end suffering you have to make the most important decision of your life which says I am going to live in a beautiful state every day of my life no matter what, even when it doesn’t go my way, even when there is injustice, even when people are unfair. I am going to learn to take in the good, to re-wire my brain, to foster positive experiences and take them in until they become a part of me.
Meditation and gratitude journaling are just two ways you can make a real difference to how your brain sees experiences, especially if you focus on really taking in the good.
In your journal every day before bed for a week, write down (by hand) three good things that happened and provide an explanation for why they went well. These can be little things e.g. “I achieved three things on my to-do list today” today” or big things e.g. “I spoke a friend I haven’t been in contact with for ages.” Next to each positive event, write about one of the following: “Why did this good thing happen?” or “What does this mean to you?” or “How can you have more of this good thing in the future?” If you do this once, it will make a very small difference, but if you make it into a practice, over time these little things will add up and change your brain for the better.
We would love to hear your own reflections and insights – just email me directly. And remember that it only takes one breath to change the direction of your life. Check out our principles, practices, and other resources @onebreathglobal.