Your brain automatically hangs onto the bad.
A snarky comment from a colleague, someone breaking in front of you in line, or a small criticism from your spouse may stay with you all day — or longer. These little, seemingly insignificant moments get stored in our brains and can set or change our moods for quite a while.
While you may not pay much attention to them, lots of happy moments happen randomly throughout your day too. Think about it. You probably have just as many pleasant moments in your day to smile about, like:
- a phone call from a friend,
- a compliment,
- a hug from your partner, or
- some help on a stressful project at work.
Our brains just don’t automatically notice or hang onto the good.
The Same Is True for Memories
Your brain is going to remember and keep bringing up the painful, embarrassing, unpleasant stuff. It’s just how your brain is wired. The bad stands out. The pleasant or neutral events go unnoticed. It may begin to seem like the world is overwhelmingly bleak or that you’re having a really bad day when these things really aren’t true. It’s just you failed to notice the positives around you too.
You can boost your happiness and give your brain a more optimistic tilt by intentionally noticing and recalling positive experiences and memories. The good feelings positive happenings and memories evoke can be fuel for you to use to increase your happiness.
Your Brain Is Wired to Focus on the Negative
Your brain is wired to remember anything it classifies as dangerous, painful, or even unpleasant. This natural tendency is called a negativity bias. In reality, it means your brain constantly looks for, learns from, and holds onto anything it considers negative much tighter than something neutral or pleasant. Bad memories even get stored differently.
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 super sensitive these days, this hair-trigger reactivity still exists.
As you can imagine, it doesn’t really help you today.
In fact, it means your brain is always on guard, looking for danger, focusing on the negative, and tilted towards caution — which means a more nervous, uneasy, unhappy you. Having your nervous system continually activated by the negativity bias can leave 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.
The Positive to Negative Ratio
In her book, Positivity, Barbara L. Fredrickson was the first to suggest a mathematical ratio of positive to negative emotions representing a tipping point to help anyone lead a happier, more fulfilling life. Fredrickson’s theory proposed that we all need three positive emotions for every negative emotion to thrive. This means that for every negative experience or memory, you need three positive ones to balance it out — so the scales don’t tip too far toward negative and stay there.
Fredrickson, a pioneer in the field of studying positive emotions, drew upon over 20 years of research to back this claim. Other scientists have since questioned whether you can accurately apply a mathematical ratio to human emotion — to which Fredrickson responded by updating her position. While it probably isn’t as simple as a three-to-one ratio, the basic premise still holds weight, in my opinion. Your brain needs to notice more good to balance out its natural tendency to notice and dwell on the bad.
Here’s What the Research Says
Research has determined that savoring positive memories correlates with increased positive emotions and well-being and is a healthy coping strategy for managing stress. Increasing noticing and remembering the positive in your life has also been shown to ease the symptoms of depression.
As previously stated, your brain’s your brain does not automatically remember the positive as easily as the negative. However, according to research, you can put positive experiences and memories to work for you. Our positive memories can give us access to a remarkable repertoire of resources that can shape our experiences in positive ways and strengthen our mental health.
Four Ways to Notice and Savor the Positive
Despite your brain’s natural negative tendency, it is possible to find some good, happiness, and joy even if your brain is working against you. You have to intentionally look for, put emphasis on, and remember the positive. Here’s how:
Look for the Good
Noticing small, good things through your day and life helps build positive momentum in your brain. Pleasant thoughts cause your brain to secrete 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?
How to Use Positive Memories to Increase Positive Emotions
Memories are powerful — both good and bad. Science has shown that you can use happy memories to increase positive emotions and change your brain.
Research found that by savoring a positive memory, your brain can ‘re-experience’ the event when recalling the memory. Your senses are re-engaged and pleasant emotions associated with the memory are relived at the time of recall. In addition, the meaning contained in the positive memory helps to strengthen your resistance to negative thoughts and feelings that attempt to surface. Feelings of warmth, how connected you feel to others, and calm increase while negative feelings decrease.
Build Positive Neural Pathways
In Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Dr. Rick Hanson proposes that we develop what he calls “a responsivity bias” to counter our brain’s natural negativity and reactivity biases. You can do this by intentionally taking positive experiences into your brain and savoring them. Hanson calls this “taking in the good.” It’s a four-step process with the first letter of each step forming the acronym HEAL.
- Have a positive experience. The first step involves bringing a positive experience into awareness.
- Enrich it.
- Absorb it.
- Link positive and negative material.
Research has proven significant benefits of practicing gratitude for mental and physical health. Studies show that consciously cultivating gratitude can increase happiness levels by an average of 25 percent and improve overall health by, for example, increasing the quantity and quality of sleep. Beneficial outcomes can be achieved by such simple practices as praying, writing in a gratitude journal, placing a thankful phone call, making a mental gratitude list, or writing a thank-you letter.
Gratitude boosts the happy neurochemicals dopamine and serotonin. Studies have shown that it can have lasting effects on neural activity and sensitivity. Thinking gratefully disconnects us from toxic, negative emotions and the ruminating thoughts that often accompany them. Intentionally looking for things for which to be thankful engages your frontal lobe and shifts your focus to positive emotions.