Has this ever happened to you? You're in the midst of a day full of positive experiences and then that one thoughtless, hurtful comment. You know, the one that ruins the entire day and badgers you for the rest of the day. It sticks like Velcro! Why is it that just one stupid thing can overshadow a multiplicity of great things that also occurred that day?
The neuroscientists and psychologists have an explanation for us. The clinical term is called Negativity Bias. It turns out that the brain is evolutionarily predisposed to this bias. It works this way: Consider our ancient ancestors living in a very different world than what we do today, and they come across some food. Positive right? And now, a negative event like being attacked. The brain prioritized the potential of being attacked over the food because if we miss the food, chances are we will find more food. However, if we are attacked there is a good chance that we may not be alive to find our next meal. The brain is wired to give preference to negative experiences to keep us safe.
Fast forward to modern day, and many of us do not face the same challenges for survival, but the negativity bias is still very much at work! These challenges look very different for us today. These threats might include relationship struggles, office politics, a bully, a potential job loss, financial loss or illness, as examples. Negative experiences reside in implicit memory (longer term memory), and while the specific details may not be remembered the emotion, threat and pain are. Many have experienced the sting of rejection, betrayal and other very unpleasant events in life. During these experiences, we have neurons being built and firing together which fortifies the negativity bias (or pathways). As we dwell, relive and even just anticipate negative things this causes the neurons to fire and new ones to grow, and negative pathways to be fortified. These thoughts processes then become habitual in a similar way to ruts in a gravel road - directing our minds down the negative pathways in the brain.
Positive experiences, on the contrary, are stored in the simple memory which is more short-term - in and out. The short duration means we don't experience the positive event for as long it reduces the length of time the neurons are firing, growing and creating positive pathways. As such it is necessary to interact with a positive event for much longer for the affects of a positive experience to be transforming. Research suggests that we need to focus on positive things for as long as twenty to thirty seconds, to even revel in and celebrate them to have a more lasting impact.
Can't teach an old dog new tricks?
That may not be entirely true! Neuro-plasticity is the idea that our brains continue to be mouldable. The idea is quite simple; consider that as we experience new things, and when we learn about our environment our brains change. With new information and experience, it changes our mind. Neuro-plasticity affirms that we can use our mind to change our brain which will change our mind! Did you follow that? We have the capacity to change the way our brains process stimulus, and this affects how our minds work for the better!
We can engage in learning and new positive experiences that can help us restore a healthier balance to our negative bias which results in more balanced thought life and a greater experience of peace, contentment, and happiness - resulting in a reduction of feelings of depression and anxiety.
Cultivating a Positive Mindset
The key here is balance not an unhealthy avoidance of situations or strong emotion. It is by cultivating a positive mindset that includes healthy discernment and a deliberate focus on looking for the good things in our life and our ability to overcome challenges in our life.
We can build this capacity meditatively, and it has been demonstrated that it develops an area of our brain called the Insula.The Insulae (there are two of them) are deep in the center of the brain. Research has shown that the Insula tracks the internal state of your body including our emotions and sense of well-being and makes sense of the input our body takes in and then gives direction to other areas of the brain to regulate the body in response. When we practice positivity, it causes neurons to fire and creates new neurons building positive neural pathways. Like exercising a muscle, practicing being positive stimulates growth in neuron mass, builds neural pathways that increase our capacity for greater resiliency/recovery during and after a stress event as well as a greater sense of well-being.
To develop our capacity for positivity, we can employ a couple of different strategies. Here are a few quick suggestions:
1). Think on these things... The Christians scriptures have a wonderful strategy to help us cultivate a greater sense of peace and well-being. A follower of Jesus by the name of Paul, writing to the Church in Philippi:
"Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy."
Paul is encouraging folks to be deliberate to focus on those things that are lovely, true, pure, etc. He knew that we need to be deliberate to focus on life-giving, inspiring, beautiful things. Research confirms this wisdom. When we focus on, deeply experience, celebrate and intentionally integrate positive experiences, the neurons that process positive experience are firing and making more neurons. As we make this a practice, this area of the brain will impact our mind in positive ways. The more we focus on life-giving, lovely things the more time we give them to fire and wire!
2) Practice Gratitude - I have written extensively on gratitude and practicing gratitude is a powerful tool in creating balance and greater experience of positivity. While there are many techniques, it is a practice of awareness, reflecting upon you day and identifying all the positive things present in your day.
Many people find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal where they keep track of the things in their day they are thankful for. Those who particularly like to express themselves, they can engage with each item of gratitude in a deeper way by exploring feelings and celebrating each one. It is also helpful to regularly review your gratitude journal to actively remind yourself of the life-giving things in your life.
3) Prayer and Meditation - Along the same lines, practicing a variety of forms of prayer, meditation, and mindfulness has been demonstrated to fire and wire the neurons in our Insula. These kinds of practices can be useful to ground us in our bodies and in the present moment, and can help cultivate a growing sense of contentment and greater resilience to stressors.
Personally, I have a variety of practices that I employ on a regular and rotating basis. Often I am aware that certain practices will better serve me in different seasons. Contemplative prayer and Lectio Divina are favourite practices, but I will also practice Tai Chi or Qi-Gong exercises that can be particularly grounding especially during times where I have a particularly busy mind. Full body engagement and intention towards prayer can be effective.
I particularly enjoy an old Ignatian practice called the Examen. It is a prayer exercise led by the Holy Spirit where you review your day remembering the day's events, the things you enjoyed, didn't enjoy, and the ways and places that God was present in your day. It is also becoming aware of your emotions as the Spirit leads you through the events of your day.
To create a more positive mindset, we need to:
- Transition positive experiences to positive events thus having it stored in the implicit memory.
- Celebrate and deeply feel the positive experience deep in your body. Whatever is good, pure, lovely... Think on these positive things for at least 20-30 seconds.
- Cultivate a habit of gratitude.
- Practice meditative prayer, meditation - those things which help us connect deeply with our bodies.
- Our goal is balance not avoidance.