Hijacked by the negativity bias
Do you recognize the tendency of your mind to overfocus on the negative? Maybe you are giving a presentation at work and several people compliment you, but one colleague criticizes you. Most likely you will pay attention to the criticism and maybe even start thinking that all the others are only trying to be polite but in fact were surely thinking the same thing as the person who criticized you. This is how the negativity bias influences our thinking. When we focus on the negative we do not see clearly anymore. It can make us feel stressed and miserable and sometimes full of self-critical thoughts.
Why do our minds focus on the negative?
This bias towards the negative is completely normal. As the human mind evolved over the last 200,000 years, it was vitally important to learn from negative experiences so that we could outwit predators and avoid dangers. This helped us remember how to avoid potential future threats. So now the mind registers negative experiences very quickly and highlights them and stores them in memory.
On the other hand, positive experiences normally don't register in the same way. They need to be held in awareness for some time before they get stored in our memory.
The Problem with the negativity bias
We don't live in a world anymore where there are constant life threats like thousands of years ago, but our brain still operates in the same way. The problem with the negativity bias for us these days is that over the long term we can develop a growing tendency to be pessimistic, stressed and negative. We can become sensitive to upsets and resentments. It can also decrease our confidence and cloud our ability to see things clearly. Especially when we are stressed, we become increasingly negative, resentful and bitter.
Neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson often uses the metaphor that positive experiences are like teflon for the mind – they slip right off – whereas negative experiences are like velcro. This is a great metaphor for understanding how ‘sticky' negative experiences can be in the mind.
How to counter your negativity bias
So how do we counter this negativity bias? How can we start to see life in a more balanced way? Here is the great news. Over time, with a bit of practice we can counterbalance the negativity bias and even totally rewire our brains to see things in a more accurate way. As Rick Hanson says, "neurons that fire together, wire together." In other words, the more you train your brain to take in the good, the more it becomes an ingrained way of being.
Taking In the good: A three step process to use daily
Rick Hanson has a wonderful technique that can help you reshape your brain's neural pathways. It will help you balance out your negativity bias and rewire your brain towards the positive.
The technique has three basic stages based on the acronym HEAL. First, you need to activate the experience in your brain. Therefore, he uses the H – having a good experience. This means noticing or looking out for a beneficial experience in your current environment. It can be simple, like appreciating the beauty in your garden, enjoying a nice cup of tea or coffee or feeling the sun on your skin.
Secondly – the E - enriching the experience. To do this you need to stay with the good experience for at least five seconds. Open up to the body sensations, feelings and all that is happening in the moment. Letting the beneficial experience fill your mind and body and make it more intense. This will help to install the experience in the brain and not let it sink through it like through a sieve. As you do this, the experience will move from your short-term into your long-term memory which is important in rewiring your brain to take in the good.
The third step is the A- absorbing the experience. Allow the experience to really sink in. You can imagine water going into a sponge or golden dust sinking into you ro whatever image works for you.
The fourth step- the L – is about linking positive with negative experiences in the same category, but this will be for another time.
This technique can be used to help you truly appreciate the positive moments in your life. The more you take in the good, the more you can enjoy life and experience inner peace and contentment. It is not about ignoring negative experiences or trying to stop bad things from happening as they are a natural part of life...but you can take control of how to perceive them so you become overwhelmed by the negativity bias.
And not only that: By consciously taking in positive experiences of inner strengths you want to cultivate you can increasingly install them in your mind. This is what we call positive neuroplasticity.
So for the coming days, see if you can focus on taking in the good with this three-step approach. Take a moment to consider what are some good aspects in your current experience. What is beautiful that you can savour in your daily life? You can practice it with this guided meditation on the HEAL practice.
As you cultivate this capacity for taking in the good, you'll notice a shift in your perceptions towards a more positive view of life. You will also experience a little more joy and wonder flowing into your days.
If you would like to learn this technique and other skills of positive neuroplasticity click here.