In order to survive, our ancestors’ brains were wired to notice and remember the bad while ignoring the good. Recalling a near miss or deadly predator’s territory was much more likely to pass on the genes than remembering a nice nap in the sunshine. Although this negativity bias developed for an important reason, it leaves you worried and stressed out today.
Over time, lots of little bad memories can add up to take a person to an unhappy and painful place. To give your brain a positive tilt, you have to intentionally make an effort to notice and take in the good.
No matter what your current circumstances, there is always good in the present. Even if it’s something as small as you turned on the faucet and water came out or you flipped a switch and the light came on. You ate today. You woke up. You can talk to a friendly voice on the phone. A good tune is playing. There was good in your past, there is good in the present, and there will be good in your future, but you HAVE to notice it and make it count.
In his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Rick Hanson writes:
...each day is like a winding path strewn with pearls and diamonds, emeralds and rubies, each one an opportunity for a positive experience. Unfortunately, most people hurry by without noticing them. And even when they do see a jewel, they rarely feel anything about it. Jewel after jewel, left behind, lost forever.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little intention and skill, you can take some seconds here and there each day to weave a handful of these jewels into the fabric of your brain, your being, and your life. Little moments of ease, pleasure, calm, determination, joy, insight, and caring become neural structure.
How To Take In The Good
You can put the law of little things to work for you. All you need to do is notice a few positives, jewels, every day that will add up to give your brain a more positive slant.
You can’t do anything about the past, but you do have the power to take in the good during the next few moments. As a well-known proverb says:
But how, exactly do you do this? According to Hanson:
Taking in the good is the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory. It involves four simple steps (the fourth one is optional.) The first letter of each step forms the acronym HEAL.
Have a positive experience.
Notice a positive experience in the present or create one. You can do this by becoming more aware of your current setting, recent events, or ongoing conditions, the people in your life, tuning into your body and inner speech, and thinking about or imagining positive memories, emotions, and actions.
This requires that you deliberately apply your attention to the positive experience and sustain it. Stay with and breath in the good feeling. Give the experience a label such as “calming, relaxing, or safe.”
This step heightens the installation of the good experience by prolonging and intensifying neural activity which builds neural structure. This involves sensing or visualizing that the good is sinking into you like a gentle rain or rays of sunshine. If taking in the good is like building a fire, step 1) is lighting it, step 2) is adding fuel to keep it going, and step 3) is feeling its warmth.
Link positive and negative material.
Hold both positive and negative in your awareness while keeping the positive more prominent. For example, feel a positive emotion while feeling a negative emotion simultaneously in the background. Know that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Over time, this practice will strengthen and form pathways in your brain to build a more optimistic and resilient default mindset. With conscious effort, you can override nature to give your brain a positive slant, HEAL, and find happiness.
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