Hi friend. How has 2020 been going for you? It’s been a tough one, and I’ve found myself thinking “ugh, when is this year going to be done?”
But then I realized the other day, that it’s about this time of year every year, that many people start to think/talk/post on social media about how “this year has been just the worst.”
Why does this happen?
Yes, this year has had many exceptional struggles, but are things really getting worse? Or are we shooting ourselves with second arrows, perpetuating our pain and suffering?
In the past, I’ve talked about optimism and pessimism, and even shared some research pointing to the fact that pessimistic thinking puts us at risk for physical illness and disease, while optimism can help us avoid those risks, while also preventing and protecting against depression, illness, and premature death.
Sure, we’d all love to be optimists all the time. So, why is it so hard? The answer is actually pretty simple…
As humans, our brains have a built in “negativity bias.”
Evolutionarily, it was there to prime us for avoidance—after all, back in the cavemen days when, perhaps, we were at risk for being eaten or attacked by wild animals, we needed our brains to pay a lot of attention to the bad stuff so that we could be prepared.
Just as our body’s today can get stuck in the “fight-or-flight” stress response even though we aren’t getting chased by a tiger because of the way our brains have evolved, such is the case with our innate negativity bias. It scans for unpleasant experiences—neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson says the negativity bias is “like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
Even when positive experiences outnumber the negative ones, our pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. That's negativity bias.
Understandably, this causes us a lot of suffering and anxiety.
The negativity bias intensifies other unpleasant emotions, like anger, sorrow, depression, guilt and shame.
It highlights past losses and failures and downplays our abilities. It exaggerates future obstacles.
Clearly, all of these facets of the negativity bias hold us back and keep us suffering.
As our brain continues these patterns of negative thinking—without our conscious awareness—our neural pathways become more and more grooved into our brains, making these patterns our normal and default response. These habit loops are hard to break.
The good news is—we now know that we can actually change the wiring and connection in our brains because of neuroplasticity. Our brain can reorganize synaptic connections in response to learning or experience.
Essentially, the more we do something, the easier it becomes—a habit!
In this way, we can overcome our habit of negativity bias.
First, we can simply notice the negativity bias when it comes up. Notice a negative thought—be aware of it, and then just let it be a thought and nothing more.
Perhaps, be willing to “let it go” and choose not to tell a story about it. We must intentionally choose to NOT give our unpleasant experiences all of our attention.
We can also take action to internalize the positive.
Dr. Rick Hanson suggests we savor good experiences.
We encounter small, wonderful things every day—a blooming flower, the first sip of a hot coffee, noticing an admirable quality in yourself or someone else, a kind smile, or finishing a difficult project—and we overlook these facts and instances.
Instead, can we make those moments last for 5, 10 or even 20 seconds?
The longer we can keep our attention and awareness with the positive experience, the more emotionally stimulating, and so more neurons will fire and rewire our brain during that time.
A simple gratitude practice is one of my favorite tools—I try to write down 3 things I’m grateful for every day. Don’t rush through it—spend a good 30-60 seconds with each item on your list, if you can!
I think a lot of people hear about gratitude and think “that’s just a nice thing to think about it, but it doesn’t do anything.” But contemplative neuroscience says it does—the simple act of noticing the good in your life can actually rewire your brain over time.
Even if your skeptical—what have you got to lose?
Sending light and love your way,