Recent insights from neuroscience have confirmed the theory of neuroplasticity, the notion that the brain is not fixed, but an organ of experience. The structure and function of neural networks are constantly adapting to meet the demands of our day-to-day lives. One of the exciting implications of neuroplasticity is that it can be self-directed, meaning we can deliberately cultivate some brain states over others. In short, we can train our brains for happiness, resilience, and compassion.
Unfortunately, as anyone who practices mindfulness can attest to, this training often feels like an uphill battle. Despite over 16 years of training my own brain with mindfulness, my mind continues to conjure up regretful ruminations about the past, udgemental commentary about the present, and worst-case-scenarios about the future. While I am far less preoccupied by these stories than I used to be, I often wonder why negative thoughts are so difficult to uproot?
According to Rick Hanson, negative thoughts are so enduring because the brain evolved a built-in negativity bias. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Hanson suggests that our Homosapien ancestors, who emerged 200,000 years ago, faced very similar evolutionary pressures to the simpler organisms from which he evolved: live long enough to have viable offspring. This challenge requires getting “carrots” – pleasurable things such as shelter, food, and sex – while avoiding “sticks” – painful things such as predators, starvation, and aggression from others. The key difference between carrots and sticks is that sticks have more urgency than carrots: it’s ok if you don’t find a carrot today, but it’s certainly not ok if you don’t avoid sticks. It’s more important to avoid being lunch today than it is to eat lunch today. Animals who were especially sensitive to sticks were more likely to survive and this orientation was reinforced over millions of years of natural selection. As a result, you and I are the
descendants of animals with a negativity bias.
Evidence for the negativity bias shows up in many contexts. Consider a time when you got feedback from your boss about some work you did; even if the feedback was 95% positive, chances are you’ll focus more on the negative comments than the positive ones. Laboratory studies show that we perceive angry faces more rapidly than happy ones. Research on intimate relationships shows that they require at least 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative one in order to be sustainable. Finally, research on emotions show that people experience good moods when positive moments outnumber negatives ones by at least a three-to-one ratio.
So how do you incline your brain toward happiness when it is like “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for good ones?” Fortunately, there are some simple practices you can use that help counteract the negativity bias.
At the core, getting skillful with taking in the good involves training attention to stay with positive experiences. We already know that our brains adapt to the experiences we have and the kinds of experiences we have depend on what we pay attention to. In that sense, attention is the gatekeeper of experience. The challenge is that the brain’s negativity bias automatically makes negative events more salient to attention. To capitalize on self-directed neuroplasticity, you have to deliberately tune into positive experiences. In other words, you have to be fully present with positive experiences long enough for the brain to metabolise and integrate them. And you have to repeat this often enough to offset the weight of negative experiences (at least at first).
While this may sound daunting or complicated, it really isn’t. You already know how to do this and there are countless opportunities to appreciate good things in every moment. Making it a regular practice can really give you traction with developing the skill. Rick Hanson recommends H.E.A.L., a 4-step technique for processing positive experiences:
Step 1: Have a positive experience
The first step involves bringing a positive experience into awareness. This can be done simply by noticing pleasant sensations in your external environment right now. For example, I’m noticing the calm and quiet atmosphere of the office I’m writing in at the moment. You can also tune into positive, internal cues. In my case that would be the focus and clarity of purpose that is facilitating my writing or my sense of connection to my colleague down the hall who will be reading it later. You can also call to mind experiences that are not part of this moment, such as something that worked out well last week, things for which you are grateful, or an event to which you are looking forward.
Step 2: Enrich it
Stay with the experience for at least 5 seconds. The key is to really activate the full breadth of the experience, so it’s not just positive thinking. Open up to the body sensations, feeling tone, and associated thoughts. Let all the dimensions of the experience fill your mind and build in intensity. Think about what is helpful, nourishing, new, or exciting about the experience. Turn the facts of the moment into a fully-loaded experience.
Step 3: Absorb it
Allow the experience to really sink in. Set the intention to make it feel part of you. You can visualize the elements of the experience coming together in your heart or consolidating in the neural networks of your brain. Note that this state of mind is accessible to you at any moment and that the experience is a resource that you can call upon when needed some other time.
Step 4 (optional): Link to positive and negative material
Once you have a strong, stable sense of the positive experience in the foreground, you might also notice related negative content in the background. Try bringing these two experiences together, seeing if the current positive disarms negative one a little. As I attend to the peacefulness in my current environment, I can still pick up a trace of the frustration and impatience I felt leaving my house this morning, as my 2 young daughters were difficult to manage. As I make room for both experiences, I can feel the current peacefulness resolve the tension from earlier. Be careful not to let the negative experiences hijack your practice and launch a rumination. If that occurs, simply let go of the negative and refocus on the positive.
Techniques like HEAL simply bring together common mental operations to create a formal practice. It may feel awkward or overwhelming at first, but with practice your brain will get the hang of it. Be especially mindful of thoughts that these practices are self-indulgent or that you don’t deserve to have positive experiences as they can undermine this practice very quickly. Try letting them be like any other internal distraction and get back to training your brain!