Have you ever noticed that you tend to focus on the negative? That happiness and good things seem to elude you or slide by very quickly?
There’s a good reason why our minds focus on the negative, reasons that go back a long way. Like, millions of years. You see, it’s biologically and evolutionally built in to us.
We are programmed for survival and to avoid the things that can hurt or annihilate us. Sure, stopping to smell the roses feels really sweet. But there’s an ancient part of our brain – the amygdala that helps us detect and respond to threats - that’s always telling us to watch our backs.
When our ancestors combed the forest floor for food, they had to be on alert for dangers in the wild. Thus, we are predisposed to focus more on the negative than the positive. The stuff that feels good doesn’t contribute as much to our survival as being on the lookout for what might kill us. Dr. Rick Hansen, a psychologist who has written about the neuroscience of happiness, calls this the brain’s “negativity bias.”
Granted, we aren’t dodging saber-tooth tigers these days, but the same mechanism comes into play. Instead of watching out for tigers, we must look out for the boss, a friend’s betrayal or a dip in our credit score. The list of threats goes on and on. And while these circumstances aren’t usually life threatening, they often feel that way to our modern ego.
Psychologically speaking, we encounter experiences in duality. That is, our ego tells us that we like them or don’t like them. So, we end up chasing the experiences that feel good and avoiding those that don’t. This is also driven by the ancient brain’s emphasis on survival. Pain tells us what to avoid because it can hurt or kill us.
However, the ego takes it to the extreme. We not only try to avoid unpleasant experiences, we steer clear of bad stuff that MIGHT happen. We become consumed with all the unpleasant things we perceive to be happening to us. It’s funny: We may have had 10 wonderful things happen to us in a day, but we focus on the two not-so-pleasant ones. The unpleasant will override the pleasant every time.
In yoga terms, this is called Karma: This is where our beliefs, conscious and unconscious, influence how we view events and the world.
Thankfully, there is a way out. Modern science has discovered that the brain has neuroplasticity, that it can regenerate new cells and reroute our neuropathways, especially in response to learning and trauma. Not long ago, the consensus was that the brain developed in early childhood and remained that way for life. Now there is proof we can rewire our brains and our habits with techniques like Yoga Nidra, Yoga Therapy, breathwork, meditation and mindfulness.
So, how do we begin to break our deeply ingrained pattern of focusing on the negative?
Here are some tips:
When you’re in a difficult situation, remind yourself that it’s probably not going to kill you. Breathe and become aware of the unpleasant sensations in your body. Perhaps it feels a like a sinking feeling, or a tightening in your gut. You may notice that you’re holding your breath. Relax, observe, feel it fully and remind yourself that you are safe.
At the end of the day, especially the difficult ones, take a few minutes to write down the things you enjoyed or that caused you to be grateful. You may have to wrack your brain, but there’s almost always a positive reframe in there somewhere. Even if it’s that you’re alive and could feel the experience.
Over time, this practice will become easier and easier. You’ll start to notice the good stuff more, whether it’s the pleasantness of a cool breeze on your face on a beautiful day or the smile of a passing stranger. And the bad stuff won’t seem so overwhelming. Life will feel less assaulting.
We begin to rewire our brains when we realize positive things are happening to us all the time.
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