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

Meditation, Mindfulness, Self-Awareness

Just Breathe!

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unties your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to hold of your mind again.”

Thich Nhut Hanh

Words like mindfulness and meditation are rapidly becoming everyday terms in modern Western society. Are you like me and just getting on the meditation bandwagon? Or maybe you’ve been practicing meditation for a while. According to a Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, within the past 5 years meditation has become one of the fastest growing trends in the US. So, why is mindfulness meditation becoming so popular?

It’s safe to say that in this fast paced, information outcomes driven world that most of us live in, we are probably feeling out of balance, leaning a bit too heavily towards doing. While finding a healthy balance between doing and being will look and feel differently for each of us, be curious about this balance and how it’s effecting your personal levels of happiness and well-being.   A growing body of research in the field of mindfulness meditation is proving to have significant benefits for our mental, emotional, and physical health. Mindfulness exercises can improve our mood and increase optimism, boost our confidence, enhance our emotional intelligence and improve our relationships with other people. Sign me up!

With the hectic pace and demands of modern life, many people feel stressed and over-worked. It often feels like there is just not enough time in the day to get everything done. Our stress and tiredness make us unhappy, impatient and frustrated. When the balance shifts from too much doing and not enough being we encounter problems such as stress, anxiety and overwhelm. Our current culture of fast paced busyness and culture of doing is affecting our health. Yet, we’re often so busy we think there is no time to stop and meditate! But meditating will actually give you more time by relaxing your mind, making your mind calmer and more focused. A simple five to ten minute breathing meditation as explained below can help you to overcome your stress and find some inner peace and balance.

Meditation can also help us understand our own mind. We can learn how to transform our mind from negative to positive, from disturbed to peaceful, from unhappy to happy. Overcoming negative minds and cultivating constructive thoughts is the purpose of the transforming meditations. But, very simply and at the core of all meditation is learning how to focus on the breathe.

“Let your breath untie the knots in your body and mind.”

Marie-Francoise Mariette

A Simple Breathing Meditation

The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This breathing meditation is an invitation into the world of being. By practicing this simple breathing meditation and taking the time to shape your breath, you will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, or relaxation response.   You can do this any time in the day or night. In this breathing meditation, the exhale is longer than the inhale.  We allow the exhale to leave our body slowly. We also pause a moment at the end of the inhale, and the end of the exhale

If your mind wanders that’s ok. Remember, our eyes are designed to see, our minds are designed to think.  Thinking in meditation is perfectly natural.  If you notice yourself thinking during your meditation, don’t’ worry, simply notice, perhaps even smile, offer your thoughts what they need in a gentle way, then return to the gentle flow of your breath.  No need to push your thoughts away, just notice, be curious, be open.  Notice your breaths natural ebb and flow.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose a quiet place to meditate and settle into a comfortable position. You can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If you wish, you can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep your back straight to prevent your mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy (strong back, soft front).
  2. With eyes closed, or partially closed, gently guide your awareness to your breathing. Breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control your breath, and try to become aware of the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils. This sensation is your object of meditation. Be curious of your breath right now. What words would you use to describe your breath? Does it feel deep, shallow, smooth, warm, cool?
  3. Then, begin the 4 part breathing cycle, as follows:
    1. inhale through your nostrils (count to 3), then pause (1 count) at the top of the inhale; exhale through your mouth (count to 5), then pause (1 count) at the bottom.  If you’re able, try and smooth out the edges of your breath.
  4. Repeat this breathing cycle 5 times.
  5. Then continue to breath naturally.  Enjoy this feeling of relaxment, peace, and contentment. Rest in this presence, of being.
  6. Take a moment to notice the quality of your mind, of your thoughts .  Perhaps you are noticing that has a quietness has spread across your mind, or your thoughts seem more far away, smaller, or more gentle.  This is the power and beauty of presence or being
  7. Gently start moving your fingers, toes, and open eyes to the space you are in. 

Now You!

Did you give it a try? How did it make you feel?

Do YOU have a regular meditation practice? Do you use breathing meditations when you are stressed or feel overwhelmed ?

How do you shift from doing to being? Share in the comments.

 Photo source: Susan Wheeler (sunset on Rathtrevor Beach, BC)