“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones, ” says neuropsychologist Rick Hanson. Left to its own devices, the human brain scans the environment looking for anything that could go wrong. This unfortunate tilt toward the negative is the result of a nervous system wired for life in the wild. Our cave ancestors who survived to pass on their genes were not the ones who, upon hearing rustling in the bushes, calmly considered, “I wonder what that could be? Perhaps a beautiful bird.” To the contrary, the early humans who survived to pass on their genes were those who heard rustling in the bushes and assumed, “Tiger! Run like mad.”
While hypersensitivity to signals of danger was helpful for our ancestors, whose physical survival was threatened daily, modern humans now suffer the consequences: Negativity bias refers to the process by which the human brain preferentially notices, stores, and recalls negative stimuli and events. The devastating fallout of this natural brain process is that we are not seeing reality as it is or experiencing ourselves as we really are. For example, when you look in the mirror, do you look for the things you like best about yourself? Or do you zero in on all your imperfections? When you get a review at work, do you focus on all the areas your boss says you are succeeding? Or do you focus on all your “areas for improvement”? The truth is that good things are happening all around us, but because of the negativity bias of our brains, we fail to notice them, focusing instead on everything that is not going right.
For thousands of years, contemplative and spiritual traditions have recognized the need to overcome this “evolutionary hangover” by ritualizing practices that focus on the positive. Meditation, prayer, song, and dance were essential parts of daily life. Formal practices that celebrate safety, community support, connection to a higher power, hope in the midst of hardship, gratitude, and love are essential ingredients for well-being. This month, experiment with both formal and informal practices to overcome the negativity bias by magnifying what is going right in your life.
- Build a daily ritual. Develop a morning meditation or prayer practice. First thing in the morning (before you check your e-mail or jump in the shower), take five minutes to pause and connect with yourself. My favorite practice is to light a candle, close my eyes, and reflect on two questions: What am I grateful for in this moment? What kind of energy do I want to bring to my day and the people around me?
- Shift perspective. Turn your attention toward the positive by shifting your perspective in the moment. Throughout the day, simply pause to ask yourself, “What is going right?” When you enter a new space, look at yourself in the mirror, or navigate your commute home, pause to notice what is right with the situation.
- Celebrate. When you do notice something good, turn the event into a positive experience by bringing your full presence to the moment, allowing the positive to intensify and feeling it in your body. Stay with the feeling for ten to thirty seconds, giving your neurons time to fire and wire together, and ultimately develop a new neural structure in your brain!