Choose Your Focus

There are good days and bad days, for everyone. Even on a bad day, some good things happen, but it can be hard to recognize them if we are focused on the negative. There have been times in my life when I had a truly negative outlook. If you had asked me to name a good thing that happened in a day, I would be hard pressed to think of one. I know it affected my mood. I was irritable, and I expected the worst from everyone and everything. I didn’t even recognize this tendency in myself until I started my psychiatry training. We had a class on cognitive therapy, and I heard for the first time that I could choose what direction my thoughts took. After my mind was done being blown, I started to look at myself, and recognize my tendency to be a Debbie Downer. This started a long effort toward changing that aspect of my personality. At first, I had to think about it constantly. It’s easier now, but far from automatic.

I have also learned over the years that this is a common problem. As beings capable of rational thought, we spend a lot of time focused on the bad stuff! It turns out there is a biological reason why we do this, called The Negativity Bias. In his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Rick Hanson explains how we’ve evolved to see the negative first. My take on it is this: Primitive humans learned more about survival from negative consequences, like don’t touch fire, run from the tiger, find shelter in a storm. That type of knowledge needs to be accessed immediately, and became stored in our memories to provide quick responses, especially when we are afraid. We remember the good things, too, but in an area of the brain that isn’t as tied to our emotions. Our brains preferentially store the bad stuff, to help us survive. In modern society, however, imminent danger isn’t usually a primary concern. Now, this negative bias creates a tendency to notice bad situations and create stories around them. I don’t have to run from any tigers, instead I wonder what my boss meant by the look she gave me. If we are all wired this way, it will clearly take some effort to counteract this tendency.

Start by noticing when you are in a negative frame of mind. Like anything that is part of an automatic response pattern, we must bring this from subconscious into conscious awareness. Then we can begin to change our focus. I like to keep meaningful things around, so I can look at fresh flowers, or a picture of my family, and immediately remind myself of what’s good in life. Another thing that changes my outlook is gratitude. I list three to five things for which I’m grateful, and quickly remember how positive my life really is. Lastly, I turn to mindfulness. Inhaling and concentrating on the miracle of my breath, I am aware that this moment is always positive, just as it is. Some days I need a lot of cues to focus on what’s good, but as soon as I do, I feel my mood lighten. It’s so wonderful to be able to choose a positive focus, positive attitude, and positive mood!

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