We’ve always known that the human brain is pretty excellent – but with research in the field of neuroplasticity, it just keeps getting better. Neuroplasticity refers to the capacity of the brain to heal itself, grow new neurons and be shaped by our deliberate efforts. The science is gathering huge momentum in the mainstream, and well it should. Some things are just too good to keep quiet.
Positive mental experiences such as happiness, compassion and accomplishment (to name a few) can actually change our brain structure. The more we can fully experience positive feelings, the more those experiences can be hardwired into our brain and have a lasting effect. This is important. Let me explain why.
There’s this thing we humans do that tends to bring us unstuck and it’s this: We pay attention to bad information quicker than we pay attention to the good. Bad feelings, bad experiences, bad feedback – we’re drawn to it and tend to let it stick to the insides of our head like honey – thick, sticky and hard to shift just by wishing it would go.
Like positive experiences, negative experiences will also change the structure of our brain – but even more so than anything positive will. If we have a good experience and an equally powerful bad one – it’s the bad one that will curl around our thoughts and keep us up up at night.
Try this quick test: Imagine that you’ve won $1,000 – a crispy pile of good looking notes just for you. How would that feel? Well of course it would feel brilliant, right? Now imagine that you’ve lost $1,000. Gone. Just like that. Never coming back. How does that feel? It’s very likely that your distress around losing the money would outweigh the happiness you would feel about winning it. That’s the negativity bias. And it’s real. We all do it – anyone who is any version of human.
A negative bias? Why oh why?
Once upon a time the negativity bias would have been a lifesaver – literally. The existence of the negativity bias makes sense when you think of it in evolutionary terms. Paying attention to the bad would have served our ancestors well, keeping them safe from wild animals and any other potential threat. It would have been much more important for them to stay clear of danger (by paying attention to warnings from the environment) than to pay attention to the things that made them feel good. Fast forward to a time where we’re less likely to be dinner, and the negativity bias is not as useful as it once may have been.
Here’s the good news: We can actually diminish the effect of the negativity bias.
Wiring our brain for happiness.
Yep. We actually can. Here’s how:
Feel the good. (AND enjoy it.)
This method is based on the work of neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD. By creating an experience that feels good and then staying with the feeling for 10 to 20 seconds, we can actually change our brain. Change. Our. Brain. (Things that make you go, ‘What!’). After 10 to 20 seconds, the thought starts to change into an experience and the more often we do this, the more that positive experience will be hardwired into our brain. There are three steps to this:
1. Have a good experience. This can be as simple as thinking about something that makes you happy. It could be someone who loves you, or who you love. A pet. A text that thrilled you. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to make you feel good.
2. Enrich the experience. Let the experience grow. Enjoy it and allow yourself to feel the full effect of it for 10-20 seconds.
3. Absorb it. Feel it sinking into you and let it become a part of you. After a short while, the thought will change into a feeling. This is where your neurons start to fire and the experience becomes wired into your brain.
One 10-20 second experience won’t change your life, but continuously repeating the exercise will. The more you can get your neurons firing by letting positive experiences soak into you, the more you’ll be rewiring your brain with that positive experience.
Use the good to soothe something bad.
This is another one from the work of Dr Rick Hanson. Link the positive experience you have with something negative. You don’t want to be swept away by the negative so you have to be gentle with this. Don’t start with a negative experience that’s highly charged, at least until you get used to this technique.
After you’ve done steps 1-3 above (have the experience, enrich, absorb), here’s something else to try. Link something negative that you’d like to soften, to your positive feeling. It’s important to stay strong with the positive to avoid having the negative take over. Bring in the negative while your experiencing the positive. Let them happen together. When you’re ready, let the positive move into the negative and soothe it. Keep strong with the positive and don’t let the negative take over. Slowly, let the negative be softened by your positive experience. This method can be used to heal old pain.
Keep a gratitude journal. (I know. Everyone’s telling you to do this, right? And with good reason.)
Gratitude is heroic. It just is. It can ease stress, anxiety and depression and supercharge relationships – amongst other things.
Sometime during the day, write down three things you’re grateful for. This will orient you towards appreciating what you have, rather than wishing for what you don’t. It’s powerful. Rather than writing them down and closing your book, stay with them for 10-20 seconds so the appreciation you feel can find it’s way into you. Don’t be teflon for your happy thoughts. Stay with them, feel them and let the feelings that go with them settle into you.
5:1 (The ratio to remember. 5 good experiences to every bad.)
It takes five positive experiences to neutralise a negative one. This goes for anything that happens to you personally and in your relationships. Now that you know about the negativity bias, you’ll understand why sometimes relationships need an extra hard push to get them out of a rut. 5:1 is an average figure. Of course, if the negative emotional experience is a solid one, need more than five. It’s also the reason relationships need an average of 5 good experiences to neutralise the effect of every one bad experience – because we’re wired to pay attention to the bad.
Have your ‘happy stuff’ ready and waiting.
Negative things aren’t always going to come with a glaring warning and a permission note. They’re just not. Be ready when they do come by having a store of positive things to neutralise them. This is a gem by happiness expert, Gretchen Rubin. Find the happy things that work for you and keep them within easy reach. Maybe it’s a memory, a text from someone wonderful, a quote or a photo on your phone. Anything that will quickly lift your mood when it’s knocked around a little. For me it’s words. I have the words – quotes – that lift me when something bad comes at me with its slap hand ready. Music works for me too. Find what it is for you and keep it within easy reach. Maybe it’s a memory, a text from someone wonderful, a quote or a photo on your phone. Anything that will quickly lift your mood when it’s knocked around a little.
Do something physical.
Exercise works in a couple of ways to neutralise the negative bias. First, exercise causes endorphins to be released. These are the feel good chemicals and they can work towards reversing the negative effect of a bad experience. If it’s hard to change your mind from negative to positive, let your brain look after itself by unlocking its happy hormones. Second, exercise in itself is a good experience. When you’re done, let yourself feel proud and accomplished for having done something good for yourself. You know how this works. Savour the experience for long enough to have it melt into you.
In the same way that lots of little bad things will add up and sweep us away before we know it, lots of good little things will add up to something bigger if we let it. We just have to be more deliberate with the good ones. Good change doesn’t often come with fireworks. It happens moment by moment, little by little.
It’s not the big moments that make our lives breathe. It’s the little ones – the little ones that could slip by us no trouble at all and the little ones we can learn to control. The more little moments we make our own and use them with purpose, the more we can direct ourselves to head in the direction of something wonderful.