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The Key to Beating the Brain’s Negativity Bias: Take in the Positive

A Practical Habit Central to Emotional Well-being

Today I wanted to focus on a deep, dark secret of good therapy and thriving in your day to day life: creating space to let in the good, to take in positive experiences. This is a habit we can all work on developing no matter where we find ourselves in life. Let me explain the unfortunate facts first, then I’ll get to the good stuff: what we can do about it. 

Scientists have found that we have a built-in negativity bias in our brain (Baumeister et al. 2001; Rozin and Royzman 2001). Said another way, our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive. Unfortunately, this can shade implicit memory – your expectations, feelings, beliefs and mood- toward an increasingly negative direction. If you think about it, most experiences in your life are positive – or at least neutral – but when you think back upon your day or week, your brain tends to recall the one thing that went wrong  instead of the fifty that went right or neutrally. 

Further, studies have found that people typically learn more quickly from pain than from pleasure, that people more readily recall painful experiences over pleasureful ones (Baumeister et al. 2001), and that most people will work harder to avoid having something taken away than to try to gain that very same thing (Rozin and Roysman 2001).

The Metaphor

Imagine that your brain is like a ship that is designed in such way that it already tilts to the port side (negative bias). In order for the ship to be, at the very least, upright to take on the difficulties of the ocean, you have to make a concerted effort to focus your attention more so on positive experiences and those which bring you happiness and benefit to yourself and others to even the keel.

Allow me to clarify. I’m not encouraging you to live in state of denial about negative or upsetting feelings, events, experiences, etc. because that also won’t be of benefit. Difficulties also have an important role in emotional wellness. It is a matter of acknowledging both with an emphasis on savoring or dwelling in the positive experiences so that we can see and experience life more accurately given that we are taking the negativity bias into consideration. You might find that by making this positive shift, you handle difficulties in life with greater ease since the challenges will be put in greater perspective, you feel more hopeful and energetic in approaching the concern, and you may be more aware of your strengths and resources to address the task at hand. 

Practical Application

Notice positive events in your daily life and see if you can let yourself feel good about it, even briefly.

  • Step 1: Notice that something good or positive happened.  (Sometimes this can be the hardest step!)
  • Step 2: Try to connect to it emotionally. (Often times we know something good happened, but it is different to connect to that experience emotionally so as to change that implicit memory I mentioned earlier.)
  • Step 3: When you notice the positive feeling, name it, and notice where you feel it in your body (if you can).  
  • Step 4: Finally, in this place of joy, gratitude, appreciation, strength, take a few deep breaths and savor it before continuing on in your daily life. 

An example may be:

  • Step 1: Your boss complimented your work on a difficult project.
  • Step 2: You take a moment to let the compliment land. You notice you feel surprised and encouraged. Maybe you feel grateful that you have a boss that gives positive feedback and recognizes your hard work.
  • Step 3: Perhaps the main emotion you resonate with is encouraged, you pause and scan your body from top to bottom and notice you feel a lightness in your chest and arms. 
  • Step 4: You take a few deep breaths and set your awareness on the good feelings and body sensations. Maybe the sensations in your chest and arms even grow.

Remember, many positives in daily life are often small and relatively minor but important to take in no less. Here are some possibilities: finishing a task (emails, cleaning, making dinner), spending quality time with loved ones, receiving a complement, enjoying the outdoors, having time to read a good book or watch your favorite show, sharing a meal, or being aware of having your daily needs met.

You may notice reluctance to letting the good in or even anxiety upon feeling good emotions. Sometimes people feel ashamed, unworthy or selfish by doing so. If those feelings come up, you may just notice them, give yourself permission to feel good, and try to gently bring your attention back to the positive experience and feelings. Should you not be able to feel positive emotions at all or have high distress in doing so, you may decide to explore this more yourself or seek professional support. Feel free to contact me directly for further support or set up services today.

 

Sources:

Baumeister, R., E. Bratlavsky, C. Finkenauer, and K. Vohs. 2001. Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology 5:323-370.

Robin, P. and E. B. Royzman. 2001. Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review 5:296-320

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new. – Socrates
Heal, Grow, Thrive.
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