Meditation, Mindfulness, Negative Habits of Mind, Self-Awareness, Striving Styles

Cultivating Happiness: Understanding your Negativity Bias

“If you can extract happiness out of common, everyday moments you will have captured the art of happiness.” ~ Elle Sommer

Do you find yourself dwelling on bad memories and experiences?  Do you tend to fixate on one little negative comment, criticism or feedback? When you’re hurt, upset, or angry with someone, do you fixate on everything you don’t like about them or focus on their flaws? It’s so much easier to focus on the laundry list of bad things about them and why they pissed you off. Thinking about that persons good points takes a lot of energy, and it’s easier to think of all the things you don’t like about them. Maybe you find that you often ignore all the positive events that are happening (or have happened) and focus primarily on the negative or what didn’t happen? We can become consumed with our negative qualities or on negative experiences while ignoring our positive characteristics and experiences.

If you can relate to this, you might get some comfort in knowing that you are not alone.  It comes down to human evolution. Our brains have been programmed over thousands of years to focus on the negative, which was once helpful in protecting us from being eaten by wild animals or eating poisonous plants. Our survival was dependent upon remembering those negative experiences so we didn’t die. This default in our brain is referred to as a negativity bias and causes us to remember or focus more on negative memories than good ones. These automatic negative thoughts can trigger our self protective system (SPS) which can have a powerful effect on our behaviour, our decisions, and our relationships.  Today, this negativity bias is less useful and is ultimately damaging to our overall sense of happiness and well being. It often results in us focusing on unnecessary worries and fears and having a less optimistic outlook on life. 

These negative memories are stored and recalled in our emotional brain, known as the basal ganglia, the strongest part of our brain that recognizes and repeats patterns until told otherwise.  While the basal ganglia is the strongest part of the brain, our prefrontal cortex, or the logical “manager”, understands long term benefits and consequences. The good news is, because of the brains plasticity, our prefrontal cortex can override the basal ganglia.

Cultivating your inner strengths

Understanding how you think and how your brain works is key to cultivating your inner strengths and changing your automatic negative habits of mind. Reprogramming your brain starts when you become aware of how often you think the same negative thoughts about your self or make situations worse by making up stories about what is going on. Recognizing your automatic negative thought patterns and focusing on the positive takes a conscious effort and lot of work. Mindfully refocusing your thinking and responding to events with greater awareness and consciousness will help to build your inner strengths, thus allowing you to feel stronger, more secure and resilient.

To cultivate your inner strengths you must begin to orient yourself and your awareness towards those everyday moments of happiness and satisfaction. To linger in them, savor them, allowing them to touch you and soak into the fabric of who you are. When you allow yourself to linger in these everyday moments of happiness and satisfaction, you not only experience happiness in that moment, but you’re also strengthening the neuropathways in your mind, which leads to greater happiness and well-being.

This is not as easy as it sounds thought. Especially when we add busyness, stress, anxiety or  a sense of overwhelm of everyday modern life. We may find ourselves going through our day seeing life as a whole lot of little challenges to be overcome, mishaps to be avoided, fires to be put out, rather than as a series of opportunities for happiness, fulfillment, connection, meaning, and satisfaction. Modern day life coupled with our negativity bias means we move through our days allowing our negative experiences to really stick while those positive experiences slide off without having the opportunity to become absorbed into our awareness. 

Let’s take a moment to think about this.  Can you think back to a time when you let a small inconvenience taint your day or really get to you? Such as bad traffic, a slow driver, a chaotic morning, or an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague or friend. Or maybe you can think back to a time at work when you received some overall positive feedback about your performance with just one suggestion for improvement. Instead of seeing this for what it really was you only focused on the suggestion for improvement, taking it as a personal criticism or even as insult. Or perhaps you enjoyed a lovely weekend with family and friends but let one slightly critical comment made by a friend or relative really sink in and take over the overall feeling of happiness and connection that was actually present during this time together.  Or what about all the small acts of kindness that you receive each day that go by largely unnoticed such as  when you partner brings you a coffee or when the person serving you at the restaurant serves you with extra attention.  Or what about when a colleague holds the door for you, when a stranger smiles at you in the street, or when another driver lets you in.  What about all the good decisions you make, the movements in your day that go by without a hitch, the times when life just runs smoothly.  These are the moments that we let slide right off without being absorbed into our awareness, or into our minds and hearts.  Yet these are the everyday opportunities that hold the seeds of our happiness and fulfillment. 

How can you turn ordinary everyday moments into an opportunity for happiness?

According to Neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson “every time you take in the good you build a little bit of neurostructure… doing this a few times a day will gradually change your brain and how you feel and act in far reaching ways.” Firstly, we need to wake up from the modern day trance of busyness and move from our minds into our bodies, hearts, and the present moment and turn our attention to the moments of good that are right in front of us.  From here we become more open and receptive to the everyday opportunities for happiness that exist for each of us throughout our days. 

“Every time you take in the good you build a little bit of neurostructure… doing this a few times a day will gradually change your brain and how you feel and act in far reaching ways.”

Dr. Rick Hanson

These moments will look and feel different to each of us.  Then we must linger in these moments of happiness using our breath and attention to help transform these experiences from passing states into enduring traits. Recent studies in neuroscience suggest that in order create these new neuropathways we need to stay with these experiences for at least 15-20 seconds or about  4 to 5 breaths.  Amazingly, we can also build this neuropathway by focusing our attention on past or present experiences of happiness and fulfillment. By taking the time to recall a happy experience, allowing it to land in your body, mind and heart, you are helping to strengthen these pathways. 

Meditation is a powerful way to strengthen our neuropathways as the very act of meditation allows for a focused awareness, for a natural presence, a slowing down.  During meditations, spend time recalling past experiences as well as enjoying present moments experiences of happiness.  Meditation allows us to experience things in our minds, bodies, and hearts. 

Now, it’s your turn

What happened this week that was good? Describe something that you are excited about. Tell us what makes you happy. What’s going well? What are you grateful for? Share in the comments.

Photo Source: Pinterest

3 thoughts on “Cultivating Happiness: Understanding your Negativity Bias”

  1. The Good. I survived the week- working full time at a new job while being a present single mom at home.
    I’m Excited for my husband to get home!
    Going Well-my business
    Grateful for- Sue Wheeler;)

    Liked by 1 person

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