You get a glowing performance review from your boss, but you replay the few constructive criticisms over and over in your head. Even though a first date was pretty awesome, you can’t stop thinking about that piece of lettuce that you found stuck in your teeth after. You’re running late for yoga class and seem to hit every single red stoplight on the way. (You didn’t even notice the two green ones you zoomed right through.)
Why is that?
It’s because your brain is wired to spot and remember the negative. In the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Rick Hanson writes, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
Your brain is wired to notice the negative
Your brain has a natural negativity bias which means it constantly looks for, learns from, and holds onto anything it considers a danger or loss with much more gusto than something neutral or pleasant. Bad memories even get stored differently.
Your brain has a good reason for its natural negativity. Your ancestors were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes by remembering where they were chased by a predator than a prime napping spot.
This tendency to notice and never forget the bad is just your brain doing its job, protecting you. Your brain is continually learning from experience to adapt your behavior to be better suited to survive in its environment. Even though you don’t need a brain that’s this super sensitive now, this hair-trigger reactivity still exists. As you can imagine, it doesn’t do you any favors today.
It means your brain is always on guard, looking for danger and tilted towards erring on the side of caution – which means a more negative, uneasy, jumpy you. Having your nervous system continually activated leaves you feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, and anxious. No wonder anxiety is the most common mental diagnosis in the United States with depression not far behind.
So, how do you find some good, happiness, and joy in the middle of all the muck when even your brain is working against you? You have to intentionally look for, put emphasis on, and create good experiences. That’s how.
You have to notice the good
Your brain doesn’t automatically acknowledge the good that’s present in your life every day for two reasons.
First, there isn’t usually a stimulus to catch your attention in something good. There’s no threat, no fear, nothing to make your brain stop and take notice. (It doesn’t automatically note all the bad things that didn’t happen.)
Second, through a process called habituation, your brain filters out all of the daily ho-hum things that don’t change, whether it’s the constant hum of the refrigerator or the routine absence of disasters. While habituation is an efficient use of your neural resources, it causes you to miss a lot of the positive that’s around you at all times. By becoming mindful of the present moment, you can find the good that’s already in your life, shift your perspective. and refocus your mind.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you stick your head in the sand and ignore the ugly realities of your life that require your attention. I’m telling you to not give them any more time and mental energy than necessary. Intentionally direct your attention and efforts to areas that could yield positive experiences for you.
You do this by looking for and finding good in your current setting, recent events, ongoing conditions, personal qualities, the past, and the lives of others.
Finding the good in the bad
- You’re alive.
- You ate today.
- The sun is out.
- That trip to the beach last summer was the best.
- You exercised this morning.
- There’s a beautiful salmon colored rose blooming on the bush out front.
- You met your goals at work last month.
- Your cousin just had a healthy baby boy.
Noticing small, good things helps build positive momentum in your brain. Pleasant thoughts cause your brain to secrete feel-good neurochemicals which yield a happier, calmer you. It’s important to keep the good going by following through on any positive actions that occur to you with the thoughts, like writing a note or making a phone call to extend and internalize the nice feelings.
Even bad things can contain seeds for good experiences. You have to intentionally look for the good in the bad even harder. What lessons did you learn? Are you stronger for having had the experience? What did you gain?
Sometimes, it’s impossible to think of anything even remotely positive when you’re in the middle of a crisis. You might be in excruciating emotional pain, have suffered a devastating loss, be buried deep in depression, or consumed by total panic.
That’s normal. That’s being human.
Feel your feelings. Extend compassion to yourself, accept where you are, have patience, and look for the good when the time feels right.
Finding the good in my mess
After a suicide attempt, I was seriously brain injured and lost custody of my two sons, who moved to a different state with their father. As part of my emotional recovery in the years that followed, I HAD to consciously look for the good around me because there wasn’t any readily apparent anymore.
More often than not, I had to get out my magnifying glass to find the slightest shred of good, but it was always still there. I just had to notice it.
The sun warming my cheeks as I walked the dog on a chilly winter morning; the silkiness of the cat’s fur as I scratched her rumbling chin with her curled up on my lap; a favorite tune playing on my iPod were the smallest of joys, but they were worthy of noticing. And, focusing on these minuscule positives felt a heck of a lot better than dwelling on all the glaring negatives.
Noticing the good has become a way of life for me. It’s a choice, costs nothing, and I can do it anywhere at any time. Making a conscious effort to notice the good and internalizing it makes it easier for me to stay calm and positive, no matter what is going on. With repetition and over time, the practice of directing your attention and internalizing the good, changes the default pathways in your brain, through a process called neuroplasticity. In this way, you can counter your brain’s natural negativity bias and help it have a more positive slant all the time.
Look for the good, and you’ll find it.