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Hacking the Brain's Negative Bias

You can train your brain to be more positive, happy, and grateful.

Key points

  • By default, negative experiences tend to dominate and prevail in our brains.
  • By purposely focusing on positive experiences, we can overcome the brain's default negative bias.
  • Focusing on what you most enjoy, visually scanning for the good, and gazing more often at the sky can all make a difference.
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unhappy choice
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While the human brain is impressive on many fronts, it has an inherent flaw: its negativity bias. By default, it's our negative experiences that tend to stand out. The news media knows this, which is why it mostly covers negative stories to keep us emotionally entangled and to lock in more clicks, views, and ad revenue. It's the same reason our social media feeds are often full of fear-mongering and anger-inducing content. Happy, enjoyable, uplifting, and positive positive experiences—like smiling at your friend's joke, enjoying a great movie, laughing with your child, hugging your partner(s), or relishing great sunny weather, often pass through the brain quickly, like a race car. But unpleasant experiences, such as feeling unheard by a partner, being stuck in a long line, or being hacked can deeply aggravate, frustrate, or sadden us much longer and intensely than positive moments enliven us. This bias can leave us chronically in a negative frame of mind, and also quite anxious. Why is this?

Human evolution primed the brain with this "negativity bias" to facilitate immediate survival; after all, it's the negative things that can harm or kill us, and so we need to easily and effectively detect them to protect ourselves. Evolution does not care about our long-term well-being or desire to have healthy relationships, as long as we survive long enough to reproduce. The good news is that this can be changed. Here are 4 key ways to do it without needing to meditate or practice mindfulness:

  1. Focus on what you most enjoy in your daily routine. You can start by consistently and purposely attending to the hidden gems in your day: positive experiences like showering, washing your hands with warm water and foamy soap, eating something scrumptious, thinking of something you feel grateful for, or smelling something appealing. I find that even on my hardest, darkest, most stressful and depressing days, there can still be something positive, no matter how small or subtle, to appreciate. Giving or receiving love, and any form of caring can apply here, such as feeling included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved by anyone personally, socially, or professionally.
  2. Visually scan for the good. When you walk from one place to another you can lift up your gaze more frequently and intentionally to include more of what’s around you (Hanson, 2009). Looking up in this way and "scanning for the good" opens and reinforces holistic and inclusive brain pathways, countering the negative, narrow, often self-absorbed view to which our brains default. You can also try Rick Hanson's suggestion: Imagine that you are seeing elements of your life and communities like home, work, relationships, city, state, and world from the view of an airplane. What looks different from this macro view? You can also put current stressors in the context of time. Will the pressing issue(s) today matter so much in a few months, or a year, or five? Not to downplay your stresses or fears, but you can situate them within a wider macro-context to summon perspective and calm.
  3. Attend more frequently and intentionally to what's going well. You can train your brain to scan your current situation to identify specific things that are going well. Personally I’m aware of feeling grateful to live in this almost-perfect San Diego weather, having a car with no issues, my own lungs breathing effortlessly, and my heart continuing to beat to keep my body strong and healthy. As you observe these things, see if you notice a sense of peace, calm, confidence, or any other positive emotions. Slow it down and take it in, even for a few seconds. Also, you can think about what has gone well before, even if it's not happening now. When we attend to what’s isn't going well in a larger web of so many things that are working, we can become empowered, humbled, and more connected to others.
  4. Gaze more often at the sky. I know this sounds corny but bear with me. I'd be remiss not to mention the beauty and wonder of our world, especially the sky, always available to us. In the words of Rick Hanson: "The sky is an optical illusion, a well-intended trick by Mother Nature to help her children survive. Sure, deal with the clouds as needed. But remember the sky: the vast networks of human cooperation that dwarf our conflicts, the love that persists, the building up and the mending that dwarfs the tearing down and apart. And remember the sky of mind, spacious awareness through which thoughts and feelings, fear and anger, pass like clouds – never altering or harming the sky itself." We have 24-hour access to natural beauty of the sky. The sky also serves as a wonderful metaphor for our spacious awareness and that we're so much more than the bad things that have happened to us.

So, although the brain has been powerfully wired to constantly search for and focus on the negative, it is also quite malleable and we can train it toward the opposite, thanks to the brain's innate plasticity.

References

Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha's brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger Publications.

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