In a recent training with renowned neuroscientist Rick Hanson, he explained that our inherited negativity bias is an outdated tendency that kept early humans and human ancestors alerted to potential threats in the environment. Negativity bias is the tendency to see what's bad versus what's good.
Our bodies tend to react more intensely to negative stimuli than to positive experience, and even reinforce it. According to Dr. Hanson, Ph.D., psychologist, and senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley, "the brain is like velcro for negative experiences but teflon for positive ones."
How to "install the good."
He shares his practice of "installing the good," a simple method he claims may gently adjust the amygdala—the brain's alarm bell—set point to soften reactivity, stress, and negativity bias. By staying with beneficial experience or memories an extra 30 to 60 seconds, we can reinforce a healthier landscape in our mind.
Positive experience not only feels good, he's observed, but also helps to shape our brains. Being happy can accelerate personal growth and human evolution by installing and "transforming temporary positive states into lasting neural traits." While negative experience or mood disrupt our capacity to recognize, recall, or reinforce neural connections, positive events and exposure make us more attentive, cognizant, and productive. He reminds us that, while many of us may presuppose that our thoughts are random and unmanageable, we can, in fact, decide which thoughts to keep, reinforce or "install" and which to deemphasize, minimize, or neutralize. Circulating happy, optimistic thoughts reduces cortisol and increases dopamine and serotonin (and the reverse is true, too). This helps your brain to function at peak capacity, supporting more mental alertness, creative problem-solving, and an overall sense of well-being.
Awareness is key to rebalancing this predisposition to negative experience that can distort reality and undermine quality of life. Research shows that simply labeling with a single word a negative state of mind—pain, anxiety, irritation—calms activity in the amygdala. And, by intentionally and repeatedly registering beneficial experience, we can actually slant our amygdalas in a new direction.
Five steps to shifting negative thoughts:
- Remind yourself of the plain existence of human negativity bias and the extent to which your brain is wired toward fear and anxiety.
- Notice the inputs coming in from your various environments—mind, body, family, colleagues, community, and the world and how they might be affecting you internally. It can be helpful to simply notice that the feelings you have aren't synonymous with your identity—there's some separation.
- To the extent possible, engage in and savor joyful, beneficial experiences in ways that allow them to take up residence in your body and mind.
- When you begin to ruminate or become bogged down by negative thoughts or commentary, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it helpful?
- Then, gently reframe any harmful thoughts and shift gears in your mind to positive thoughts, memories, or affirmations.
There are 100 billion neurons in the average human brain, and each makes 5,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. Learning occurs when these neurons begin to associate with one another.
Awareness of both our inherited negativity bias, as well as our capacity to absorb positive experiences simply by staying with them longer, has the potential to shore up your personal power. Remember, neurons that fire together wire together, and our thoughts are a choice. What we think, do, and say matters. You can retrain your brain to install, absorb, and harness the positive in your life for more joy and less suffering. With repeated practice, we can gradually resensitize our brains to the good. Finding what’s right about what’s wrong simply feels better.
If you're looking for the source of negativity, perhaps hormones to blame. Here's how to find out.