I was delighted when I learned that my brain is hardwired to focus on the negative—that all our brains are. That may sound strange but really, it was a relief to me. That’s because I assumed my tendency towards negativity was a basic weakness, or was due to a lack of willpower on my part, especially since it has persisted (albeit to a lesser degree much of the time) in spite of tons of inner work, recovery programs, counseling, etc.
Scientists theorize that, over the course of our existence, the human brain developed in a way that makes it particularly aware of problems or potential problems. If you miss noticing a beautiful tree you may have a little less pleasure in your life. But if you miss a stalking lion you may not have a life at all. So we are hardwired to pay attention to difficulties. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we have other parts of our brain that can think rationally and make wise decisions based on what we have learned. So knowing we have a negativity bias, we can make choices to focus, even for just a few seconds at a time, on things positive, like beautiful flowers.
This is not a naïve Pollyanna approach that denies the problems in our lives or in the world. It is a survival method.
In this modern world, our brains perceive hundreds of potential threats every day, coming at us via TV, the internet, movies, our phones, or while driving or walking down the street—a veritable cascade of the negative. And that's if you live in a fairly peaceful environment. If you live, or ever have lived, in or near a war zone, in a neighborhood or household where violence is or was common, it is much worse. Via stress hormones like cortisol, these frequent real and/or perceived threats significantly increase the likelihood of heart attack, diabetes, stroke, and other chronic diseases.
In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, psychologist Rick Hanson offers a method for learning to focus more on the positive. Basically, learning to pay attention is the method: (1) notice something you appreciate in the world, or remember or create something good in your mind; (2) take a few seconds to allow those good feelings; (3) now let that noticing/enjoying expand a little. Obviously there is more to it than that but that's the simplest way to describe it.
It turns out those religious/spiritual type people were right—gratitude, which is basically noticing the good, can help you feel better. And any number of research articles indicate it is also good for our bodies, in part because it helps reduce those stress hormones.
Of course we can’t ignore all the troubles of the world. But consider this: what if everyone—everyone—spent a few minutes every day focusing on the good around them, on what they had instead of what they didn’t have? What if everyone stood back at various times during the day to count their blessings, find small pieces of good news, and maybe even share them? Maybe that would slow us down a little bit. Maybe it would help us connect with and appreciate each other a little more. Maybe it would bring a little more peace into our lives. And, God knows, we need all that these days, rather desperately.
You might even give it a try right now...it just takes a few seconds.
But wait! It seems that for some of us feeling good—even briefly—can be kind of scary. So we may end up finding ways to avoid it. Strange but true.
Next time I’ll write about that fear, and how a concept from high school chemistry might prove helpful in dealing with it.
Tulip photo: Sergee Bee, unSplash
Lab photo: UVA