Do you find yourself scanning through your Facebook feed or news sites these days, looking for the next bad news (this has a name now– doomscrolling!)? Do you feel like you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Does it seem like it’s hard to find anything good at all, some days? It’s not your fault, friends– it’s our DNA.
Staying alive over the past 10,000 years hasn’t been easy. Conflicts with other humans, starvation, illness, injury, parasites, and the threat of predators were omnipresent. In order to survive and pass on their genes, our ancestors had to learn to recognize and avoid danger. As a result, our brain developed a unique solution– a “negativity bias.”
Our brain is always looking for potential hazards, from social (is this other human angry?) to global (is the pandemic going to change life as we know it on this earth?). This constant scan is present even when we’re in our window of capacity— that is, even when things are going pretty well. When we experience a stress response of any kind, our vigilance for threat is even more heightened. It can feel as though it’s taking over. It’s hard to think about anything else.
Negativity Bias: It’s a Real Thing
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson explains our brain places more value on negative experiences than it does on positive ones. We store our negative experiences in our memory more easily, and this can lead to what he calls a “vicious circle:”
“Over time, negative experiences make the amygdala even more sensitive to the negative. This snowballing effect occurs because the cortisol that the amygdala signals the hypothalamus to call for enters the bloodstream and flows into your brain, where it stimulates and strengthens the amygdala. Now the alarm bell of your brain rings more easily and more loud. Making matters worse, even after the danger has passed or turns out to be a false alarm, it takes many minutes to metabolize cortisol out of your body…
..In the meantime, in a one-two punch, the cortisol in your brain overstimulates, weakens, and eventually kills cells in your hippocampus, gradually shrinking it. This is a problem because the hippocampus helps you put things in perspective while also calming down your amygdala and telling your hypothalamus to quit calling for stress hormones. So now it’s harder to put the one thing going wrong in the context of the many things going right.” -Rick Hanson, “Hardwiring Happiness”.
He goes on to explain that research demonstrates that positive experiences (feeling pleasure, comfort, joy, etc.) are less likely to be installed in our memories. We tend to zoom through the good moments, busy solving problems or scanning for more threat. We don’t take the necessary time to feel, appreciate, and notice the positive experience. Without consciously making an effort, the positive event will be so fleeting that it never has a chance to re-shape the brain.
Good News: Your Brain Can Change
The solution, Hanson says, lies in manually reprogramming our negativity bias into a positivity bias. We can do this by consciously “taking in the good;” pausing to notice the good feeling or experience. We activate it by noticing it, or even by creating it. This might be as simple as feeling a comfortable breath, or looking at the face of a loved one.
Next, he says, we take a moment to install the good experience in your brain. We do this by “enriching it,” staying with the positive experience for 5-10 seconds. As you do this, open to the feelings of the good experience. Let it fill your mind, or notice how it feels in your physical body. Encourage the experience to be more intense; recognize its relevance, how it could help you or make a difference in your life. This teaches your neurons to fire in a new pattern– one that you will learn to repeat again and again.
Finally, we “absorb” the experience. Imagine, or visualize, the experience sifting down into you, or that you are breathing the experience into your whole being. If you’re more pragmatic, you might see this as the installation of a new software program to form a new circuit in your brain. In this way, the experience becomes a resource that you can draw on again and again.
I’ve been working with this “taking in the good” practice for a while and find that it’s been quite helpful. While I do have a regular habit of practicing gratitude and mindfulness, it’s clear to me that there are hundreds, even thousands of opportunities to “take in the good” throughout my day that I’ve been missing. This practice is so simple, but in the midst of a pandemic– when it can feel as though there is so much for my brain to worry about– it has real potential to lift my spirits. I have no doubt things will continue to be challenging. I feel hopeful that installing a more robust positivity bias will support my health and give me better resources to support others.
Want to try “taking in the good” with me? Here is a 10 minute video I created to practice together. If you like it, leave a comment and let me know how it worked for you!