In the song “Sun Comes Up It’s Tuesday Morning” The Cowboy Junkies sing “Everybody knows good news always sleeps ’til noon.”
It’s not near as much fun to spread good news, now is it? You don’t usually pick up the phone because you just have to call someone right that minute and tell them what a fantastic day you’re having. This bias is also true in your brain.
In his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, Rick Hanson cites studies which have shown that the brain detects negative information faster than positive. In fact, studies have shown that even when something negative, a fearful face in experiments, is registered by the brain out of conscious awareness, the amygdala still lights up.
Similarly, when an event is flagged as negative by the brain, it’s stored differently and more carefully by the hippocampus. Hanson likens the brain to Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive or neutral ones.
This attention to negative makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because the primary goal of your brain is to ensure your survival. In general, it’s the bad experiences, not the good ones, that impact survival. Our mammalian ancestors would have benefited much more from remembering the maneuvers they used to avoid being some hungry predator’s dinner than remembering a particularly nice napping spot. Not recalling the former could result in death with no chance of passing on their genes.
Negative Events Pack More Punch
Hanson explains that negative experiences have a bigger impact than positive ones on our brains. For example, studies have shown that, in a relationship, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one, because it takes numerous “successes” to undo the feelings created by one “failure.” Even when a person has unlearned a negative experience, the event leaves a path etched in the brain that can easily be reactivated if similar circumstances are detected.
Your brain is always deciding whether to avoid or approach whatever it encounters in the world and is primed for avoidance naturally, which causes suffering by creating anxiety. Surprisingly, approaching also inherently involves suffering because of the cyclical nature of life. Even if all the signals are green to approach and the experience is pleasant, it has to end at some point. Everything that comes together, is separated eventually. Children grow up and leave home. Every one dies. Because of this cyclical nature, Hanson says that experiences are incapable of providing and are an unreliable basis for happiness. So, the same strategies that are ensure your survival cause you to suffer.
I have found in my own life, and Hanson goes on to explain that developing compassion and practicing mindfulness counters the natural negative bias of the brain. These practices can allow anyone to have greater emotional balance, healthier relationships, more effective actions, and greater peace of mind.