This time of year it can be hard to maintain a positive mood. The weather alone offers us many reasons to complain! It’s not our fault, though. The human brain has evolved to preferentially focus on the negative. This phenomenon is called The Negative Bias. It ensures that we learn from the bad things that happen to us, so we don’t repeat mistakes that could have dire consequences. This bias affects the way our experiences are stored in our memory, and the bad stuff is preferentially remembered over the good. Negative experiences are also held longer in our consciousness than positive ones. We don’t tend to ruminate on all the good things that happened during our day, after all! So, a mildly bad experience may end up having a far greater impact on us than a really good one.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is more like a muscle than was previously thought. The parts we use get developed, those we don’t waste away. If we allow this Negativity Bias to control us, we are actually increasing its power over time. We can change this, though. The field of Positive Psychology has shown that shifting attention to the good things in life can improve the mood. Initially this takes effort. We have to notice when the mind is going down a dark path and redirect it. Every time. But the more we practice, the more automatic it becomes. Imagine having automatic good thoughts!
It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to increase the power of the positive. Some simple practices involve giving more time and attention to the good things in our lives. For example, spend some time each day cultivating an attitude of appreciation or awe. Really look around you and be inspired by the complexity and beauty of an object, person or scene. Allow yourself to be absorbed in it, feeling how this appreciation affects you, perhaps noting the sensations that arise in your heart center. With practice, we actually develop new connections in the brain, making it easier each time to fall into this state of appreciation. Over time, you may even catch yourself feeling more inspired throughout your day, not just during your time of contemplation.
Another short practice is to spend some time every day absorbing the good things that happened. Take a comfortable seat and focus on your breath for a few moments. Then choose one positive experience from your day, perhaps a compliment you received, or a kind gesture someone made toward you. Allow this to be your point of concentration. Bring to mind the experience and remember every detail. Really embody it, feeling the sensations of pleasure, pride, happiness or joy with your entire body. This practice of absorbing the good effectively moves these experiences up in the hierarchy of memories. They deserve a higher place than the petty annoyances or irritations of life, don’t they? We may have to work a little bit to counteract the natural tendency to focus on the negative, but over time we can tip the balance and spend more time dwelling in the good.
Please see the wonderful book Buddha’s Brain by Dr. Rick Hanson for more information on the negativity bias, and how to overcome it.